Posts Tagged ‘writers’

Think back to your days in college or high school. You’re sitting in a lecture hall or classroom. The speaker is droning on and on using confusing vocabulary. Your mind drifts. You know you should be paying attention but you can’t.

Remember what that was like?

Then hold that experience in mind next time you write. Especially when you sit down to write a book. Because you can’t mandate that your readers will, like dutiful students, force their way through to the end like they had to in those interminably dull college lectures. They’ll shut your book and be done with it.

How do you avoid what I call “textbook creep” – the tendency of new authors, especially, to write incredibly worthy but dull prose?

For a start, you could study a book like Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization (Pearson Education Inc., 2011).

A quick bit of “back story,” first. This was not a book I had intended to review. I bought it only because I was developing a program that covered the metrics of strategic communications and thought it would be especially interesting to my participants to learn about how to measure social media effectiveness.

Thinking that this was going to be a painful but necessary exercise on my part, I dove in to the book – and was pleasantly surprised.

What does author Olivier Blanchard do that so many folks, writing these kinds of instructive books, don’t? Three things.

Before I tell you what they are, however, look at these examples from Chapter One:

“Building a social media program for an organization is hard. I won’t try to convince you otherwise.”

“What do people do on social media all day?… At its core, what people do on the social web is communicate and interact.”

“Now that we have touched upon what a social media program is, let’s discuss what a social media program does.

In the first example, I feel like Blanchard is talking to me — human being to human being. Not expert to novice or lecturer to student. That endeared me to him straight away (remember Know, Like, and Trust from Thought Readership #2?).

A line like “I won’t try to convince you otherwise,” is very conversational. When you read that you already get a sense of Blanchard as a down-to-earth guy who isn’t going to try and pull the wool over your eyes.

In the second example, the author anticipates the kind of questions that his readers will be asking as they read the book. I mean, what do people do on social media all day, for crying out loud? Again, this is a conversational sentence that also conveys that Blanchard is having a two-way dialog with his readers, not offering a soliloquy.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why I chose the word “soliloquy” and not “monologue,” it’s because a monologue is where one person dominates or monopolizes the conversation, and a soliloquy is where they are talking solely to themselves.

Neither are good ways to write a compelling book. Never forget that there is a person reading your words that might not agree with you or have questions of their own. If you can anticipate and address these, as Blanchard does skillfully throughout Social Media ROI, then you’ll score major Brownie points with them.

Thirdly, like all good presenters of information, Blanchard throws in lines that move us deftly from one set of information to the next. Again, that third example above is very conversational and natural – the kind of thing you would say if the person you are writing for were sitting down with you.

So how do you develop a more conversational tone in your writing, if this is something that doesn’t come naturally? One tip that was useful to a client of mine – let’s call her Brenda – was to speak and record.

It was the oddest thing. When I’d ask Brenda a question about her subject matter expertise during our sessions, she was incredibly articulate and natural. But ask her to write something by herself and it was a whole other ball game. Her prose was stiff, full of jargon, and read like it was coming from a textbook.

What we ended up doing most of the time was for me to ask her questions that I believed her readers would want answered and to record her responses. Now that Brenda is working on her second book, she’s doing this for herself.   

Even if you’re not planning to write a book, bear in mind how tortuous it is when “experts” start pontificating about their material, almost forgetting that there is a human being on the other side of the interaction. You don’t want your book (or any business communication) to have the same reputation as the Medicare legislation – over-written gobbledegook – do you?

Make sure your book is as “user-friendly” as Olivier Blanchard’s Social Media ROI. Otherwise, guess what? You’re likely to find you don’t have any users!

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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Thought Readership #5: Telling Tales

by Liz Alexander on April 16, 2012

If you’ve ever attended one of the Dale Carnegie introductory seminars you’ll be familiar with this “trick.”

A facilitator shows participants a list of 20 items – say, a pair of shoes, lampshade, ice cream etc. – and claims that in ten minutes or less they can teach anyone how to recite that list from memory, in the correct order.

And they do. When every participant is let in on the “secret” they discover that the way to instantly recall any number of otherwise disconnected items is to weave them into a story.

We’re all born with the ability to tell stories; it’s how we learn because the brain is an associative device. Storytelling is an essential skill for the novelist, but it’s also a powerful non-fiction tool.

Many writers of case studies could benefit from becoming more familiar with storytelling concepts; so could business book authors. There are three concepts in particular that are very useful in helping make your work more compelling.

ThirdRiver consultants, Ken Jennings and Heather Hyde, exemplify all of them in their business fable The Greater Goal: Connecting Purpose and Performance (Berrett-Koehler, 2012).

First, think of any classic “hero’s journey” movie. To capture the viewer’s attention, something happens fairly quickly that rocks the hero’s ordinary world and sets in motion the character transformation we see at the end. (That’s how you can identify the hero; it’s the person who changes the most.)

For example, in Gladiator, the catalytic event is the murder of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In Star Wars, it’s finding Princess Leia’s message. In The Descendants, it’s the wife’s coma.

In The Greater Goal, the hero Alex Beckley is in a near-fatal car accident. This major, dramatic event helps to completely change Alex’s world, and it happens quickly – on page eight!

When we first meet Alex he’s a failing company president with a laundry list of personal and professional issues that he doesn’t know how to overcome. Cue essential storytelling concept #2.

In addition to moving the story along with a quick, dramatic wake-up call, every hero benefits from a mentor (think Harry Potter and Dumbledore). In Alex’s case, his mentor comes in the form of wise consultant Quinn McDougall.

Why does The Greater Goal work so well, not just as a business fable? Because it immediately gets right to the point. Alex faces a raft of challenges most of us can relate to: poor performance and low morale stemming from an obsession with results; job insecurity; no sense of work-life balance; the notion that what he’s always done isn’t working, but he doesn’t know how to change.

By page 13 Alex does what every hero must do before transformation can take place, he asks for help. Help in the form of mentor Quinn McDougall allows the authors to show the difference that comes from embracing five key practices for leading differently: Commit to the greater goal; Construct shared goals; Cascade greater goal coaching; Reinforce alignment; and Build on success.

Yes, there’s a happy ending (oops…should have said “spoiler alert” but you expected that didn’t you?), but what is handled especially skillfully in The Greater Goal is something often missing in business books and business writing generally – tension (storytelling concept #3). Like all good stories where you know the hero prevails, we don’t want that to be immediately apparent. Which is why it was wise for Jennings and Hyde to include naysayer Nate in their story.

Even if you’re not planning to write a business fable, any business book will benefit by:

  • Getting quickly to the challenge (i.e., don’t start out with a lot of “backstory”).
  • Ensuring there’s a build up of tension in the narrative.

The author taking the role of mentor (because if you’re playing the hero you’ve missed the point).

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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Flexible Focus #70: The Carp of Creativity

by William Reed on September 22, 2011

If you have ever been in Japan in early May then you will remember how the landscape is covered with carp streamer kites (koinobori), suspended on high poles and streaming in the wind. These are to celebrate Children’s Day (Boy’s Day) on May 5th, and are flown in hopes that boys will grow up strong and healthy. This national holiday follows the Girl’s Day Japanese Doll Festival on March 3rd. The symbolism of the koinobori is based on the legend that the carp swims against the stream, climbs a waterfall, and becomes a dragon. It is a powerful picture of the power of swimming against the stream, the very opposite of going with the flow.

Author Steven Pressfield wrote a book called The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which describes a process by which writers, artists, musicians, and anyone engaged in a creative endeavor can overcome the internal and external resistance which comes of swimming upstream to create something new. In some ways, the stream acts and filters out all of those who lack the resolve to press through and create something new. After all, it is much easier to simply allow yourself to be swept along with whatever else goes downstream. As Pressfield says, it takes a special mindset to overcome resistance and achieve the unlived life within.

You need something other than sheer will power to help you navigate against the stream. You need fins and a strong tail to weave your way against the current and overcome gravity. When it comes to publishing and presenting, the Mandala Chart can give you an added advantage in this process. There are 8 key words that can help you see it through.

  • Passion. This is the driving force, the tail of the carp. Without passion your project hasn’t any hope of meeting or overcoming resistance. People without passion are mentally and physically set adrift in the stream, and subject to its whimsical nature. However, if you know what you want and are driven to achieve it, you have what is called a “fighting chance”. If you don’t yet know what you want, look deeper to see what drives you.
  • Perspective. This is the eye of the carp, which provides a sense of direction and helps stay the course. Any creative person must have a vision, a point of view, a perspective. The creative task of the artists is to give shape to what he or she has seen, and thereby transport others to it. The witnessing precedes the rendering. If you lack a clear perspective, you can deepen what you have by exploring the perspectives which other artists have rendered, and then search for your own.
  • Preparation. These are the muscle fibers of the carp which strengthen from use. It is the daily search and struggle which builds creative staying power. Because creativity rarely proceeds in straight lines, it is the muscular zig zag which finesses the current and allows the carp to swim against it. It is like this in the creative process, which is constantly in search of ways to weave its way back to the source. If you lack ideas and inspiration, you can more easily find it by keeping a daily log of your ideas of insights, which will develop your creative muscles and keep your thoughts in flow.
  • Pressure. This the current of resistance against which creative people must swim to create anything new. It comes in all kinds of forms physical and mental, and is the undoing of all who give into its subtle force. The current is actually not strong enough to stop you, if you manage to master the creative process. But if you yield to it and surrender your creative spirit, it can cause you to procrastinate, compromise, or even give up. If you feel you are weakening to the pressure, think of the resistance as your ally and don’t make it harder than it needs to be. Think of it instead as the rope ladder which will help you to climb higher.
  • Platform. This is the riverbed, which supports the stream and provides all kinds of interesting shapes and variations in the current. It is in these that you can find opportunities to express your ideas and develop your creativity. It is also the media through which you publish and present. Today there are many options and formats for a personal platform, either in print or online. You may start with a blog or Facebook account, or you may wish to create works in tangible form that you can share with others. A platform is a place where people can find you, experience and enjoy your work, as well as comment on it. Using such platforms to talk about what you had for lunch will only interest a very small audience. Why not use it as a means of practicing and improving the way you express ideas, the way you capture them in titles, the way you express them in visual or auditory form?
  • Productivity. These are your writing tools and techniques, the fins of the carp that steer and shape your path. Every artist, every writer, every musician, and every creative person has discovered ways to be productive, to give more fidelity to their message, to express the finer nuances. If you follow or befriend a creative person, you will find that they are often more than happy to share their secrets, as others have done for them. To be productive is to produce, to continuously create and give shape to your ideas and insights. It is an essential part of the process, and that which gives you momentum for the big leaps ahead.
  • Presentation. This is the carp climbing the waterfall, the thrilling leap that transcends the limits thought impossible. It is the goal of swimming upstream, and represents the performance, the big stage, the formation that precedes the transformation. It is not a single event, because truly creative people continue this process as long as they live, and leave behind a creative legacy that in some cases is treasured for generations to come. Not everyone can be a Picasso, but each person can achieve something of creative value, if you overcome resistance and bring to life that which is inside struggling to come out.
  • Payoff. The character for Carp 鯉 consists of two radicals, that of fish 魚 and that meaning home or place of origin 里. In a sense the payoff for the Carp is returning to its original form, freedom achieved after persistent creative efforts to overcome resistance, to climb the waterfall, and to transform into a Dragon. For many artists, this is enough, although they may and should also be able to earn a living, gain recognition, and help spark the creative spirit in others through their work.

As a reminder of the elements of the creative process, you can download here a Mandala Chart entitled The Carp of Creativity. Whatever your media or message, a wonderful way to ensure your creative growth is to overcome resistance and find ways to publish and present your ideas and insights. When you awaken your creative spirit, you will find all kinds of resources and resourceful people come out to support you on your path. In time the resistance you felt in front of you seems to be replaced by a counter current pushing from behind which drives you forward and keeps you in creative flow.

William ReedWilliam Reed specializes in applying practical wisdom from Japanese and Asian culture to solving the problems of modern business and living. He is the author of the Flexible Focus column on Active Garage, the syndicated column Creative Career Path and the book A Zoom Lens for Your life. William is also a Representative Director and Co-Founder of EMC QUEST Corporation, which provides Coaching for Communication and Change, World Class Speaking™, and Accelerated Action with GOALSCAPE™.
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