Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Word Choices Determine Whether A Story Soars or Bores

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

When I lead workshops–whether the focus is Corporate Storytelling, media relations, or business writing–one of the key components is a segment on developing–and especially, editing–the participants’ core stories. Just as story construction can make or break a good tale, so can word choices. They determine whether your story soars, bringing the audience along for a spectacular ride, or bores, losing the audience to the multitude of distractions surrounding us all 24/7 (or even worse, putting some to sleep).

Here are a few tips from a colleague in South Africa, Graham Williams, that I particulary endorse. He included these in an article about word choices in a recent issue of his e-zine, The Halo and the Noose.

1. If there’s a choice between a long word and a short one, use the short one.
2. If a word isn’t necessary to convey the message, cut it out.
3. Whenever possible, use the active form of a verb instead of passive.
4. Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word or jargon if there’s an everyday term that will work.
5. Ignore any of these rules if following it complicates your story or makes it sound awkward.

I especially love the story Williams shared to illustrate his points. It’s from the book, Halo and Noose:The Language of Work, the Language of Story, written with Dorian Haarhoff. As Williams explains, We refer to a cartoon where Hagar and Lucky Eddie are exchanging ideas. One says to the other, “I can’t stand people who use big words. They are pretentious.” The other asks what pretentious means.

What simple, everyday word(s) would you use to simplify the first character’s statement?

Writing Essays and Stories Requires Strategic Thought

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Jeff Bezos

“When Jeff holds meetings at Amazon, he asks people not to use PowerPoints but to write an essay about their product or program or what the meeting is to be about,” says Don Graham, chief executive of The Washington Post Co., who recently sold The Washington Post newspaper and two sister publications to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.

 In an interview in the Post by writer Ezra Klein, Graham continues that, after people at Amazon take time to read their essays, the meeting begins. Bezos’ point in requiring written essays is, as Graham explalins, “if you write at length, you have to think first, and…the quality of thought…to write at length is greater than the quality of thought to put a PowerPoint together.” I totally agree that you can’t write a cogent essay or a compelling story without giving it a lot of thought first–and throughout the process of completing the piece.

Bezos’ view reminds me of a meeting I had years ago with Jay Rockey, the revered “father of public relations” in Seattle and national leader in the profession. He said my work demonstrated that my top talents were writing and promotion.  After thanking him, I said I’d hoped he would comment on the strategic thinking that went into my work, which to me was a key differentiator.

Jay said, “Good writing requires strategic thinking.” That made sense to me–and I’ve never forgotten the lesson. Likewise, Bezos’ understanding of the writing process makes me eager to see what he’ll do with the The Washington Post–and what other newspaper leaders will learn from him as they search for ways to adapt and ensure their survival.

CEO Requires Good Grammar

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

At first glance, one CEO’s hiring requirement–excellent grammar, regardless of the job–may seem a bit extreme. But Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, the largest online repair community, and founder of Dozuki, a technical documentation company, makes a good case for his stance.

As one whose ears scream “Ouch!” when I hear or read all-too-common grammatical errors, I understand and sympathize with Wiens’ irritation at improper use of the English language. And after reading his rationale (for starters, he says people who regularly make grammar mistakes (and I would add spelling errors) “look stupid”), I have to agree with the points he makes.

In Wiens’ article on the HBR Blog Network, his reasons for the grammar-centric policy include the following:

  1. those who “write for a living” need to be grammar experts
  2. good grammar establishes credibility, especially in an age centered on online communications
  3. people who don’t pay attention to the details of grammar don’t pay attention to the details of their jobs, either–regardless of their specific responsibilities

He sums up his perspective by saying, “In fact, when it comes to my whole business, details are everything…. All applicants say they’re detail-oriented; I just make my employees prove it.”