“Lordy!” — get sticky with colloquialisms

Lordy
“Lordy,” indeed.

I didn’t have time to watch Jim Comey’s testimony live yesterday: I had to prep for the writing class I lead on Thursdays. And after that, I had to dive back into The Project That Ate My Week™, whose deadline looms tomorrow. (I’ll make it; I always do.)

But I have caught snippets of the coverage, read bits of news articles here and there. And one word sticks out for me—and apparently for many other people too:

“Lordy”

It’s certainly not the most important thing the former FBI Director said. It won’t be a central feature of the future analyses written about this key turning point in American history. If there’s a future in which to write histories.

But it may just be the “stickiest”—most memorable—sentence to emerge from his testimony:

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

Why “Lordy” matters

Think about all the ways Comey could have phrased that response:

“I certainly hope there are tapes.”

“I would welcome the release of those tapes, should they exist.”

Those are plausible examples of bureaucrat-ese. And boring as hell. Or as we can imagine Comey might say, “as heck.”

But “Lordy” takes the information out of the hearing room and puts it out in the real world. I was going to say “on the street” but that street would be somewhere in Mayberry. And that’s part of what makes it sticky. It’s somehow not of our world, so our brains hang onto it a little longer than they would a more familiar word. We turn it over, examine it from all angles. And in examining the unfamiliar word, we also hang onto the rest of the sentence: “I hope there are tapes.”

Of course, Comey was talking about the tapes that Tr*mp claimed to have of their private conversations. But when we get to thinking about those tapes, we can’t help but be reminded of those other tapes, the more salacious tapes the Russians are rumored to have. The more we think about tapes in connection with that man in the White House, the worse it is for him. And “Lordy”—lordy, lordy, we can’t let go of that word. And the tapes that follow it.

Straight from the heart

“Lordy” did not come from a lawyer or a communications consultant. It’s a colloquialism—informal language; it’s just the way people talk. Straight from the heart.

If you want people to listen to you, a communications consultant can help. But if you want people to remember you, speak straight from the heart. (And—shhh!—a great communications consultant can help there too.)

A well-placed colloquialism can have a lasting impact.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

How can I find my voice? — Frequent Questions

Q: How can I find my voice?
A: What was it wearing when you saw it last?

Truly, one of the most frequent of the frequent questions new writers ask me is some variation of “How do I find my voice?”

I understand: No one wants to be derivative. No one with a brain, anyway. We all want to be uniquely creative, to string together the 26 letters of our alphabet in new and exciting ways. Good luck with that!

Hey, we writers should count our blessings: musical composers have even fewer building blocks to work with—only 12 tones in the chromatic scale. Try arranging a dozen notes in a completely original way. It’s maddening.

How do you find your voice?

find your voice by reading
Billy Collins, photo by PEN American Center, CC BY 2.0

Since it’s “your voice” everyone says you need to find, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s somewhere inside you, just waiting to get out. But poet Billy Collins, speaking at a White House conference on poetry, told his young audience:

“It is not lying within you. It is lying in other people’s poetry. It is lying on the shelves of the library. To find your voice, you need to read deeply.”

I hardly need to add that this White House conference took place during the previous administration. And the link to it in Austin Kleon’s discussion of the writer’s voice leads nowhere. (Really? The Trumpsters had to take down all of Obama’s links?)

Collins talks about reading poetry, but writers need to read everything. Read lots of the kinds of things you want to write (or think you want to write) and then heaping tablespoons of everything else. Everything. Here’s Collins again:

“And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous. Professors of writing call this ‘literary influence.’ It’s jealousy. And it’s with every art, whether you play the saxophone, or do charcoal drawings. You’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous.

Read widely. Find poets that make you envious. And then copy them. Try to get like them….

[S]ay, ‘Okay, I didn’t write that poem, let me write a poem like that, that’s sort of my version of that.’ And that’s basically the way you grow…”

Read a lot. Write a lot. Then do lots more of each. Eventually, your writing will stop sounding like other people’s and start sounding like yours. And then, the magic:

“After you find your voice, you realize there’s really only one person to imitate, and that’s yourself.”


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

In praise of imperfection: “The things that are wrong make it art”

Imperfection?
photo from Taylor Hill’s Instagram account

I don’t know who Taylor Hill is. The April 2017 issue of  InStyle magazine tells me she’s a “megamodel”—so even more super-er than a supermodel, I guess. As I said, no idea. But she displays a mega-impressive understanding of imperfection, courtesy of her high school art teacher who told her:

“Don’t try to perfect things. The things that are wrong are what make it art.”

Now, Hill trots out this piece of wisdom in reference to the art of makeup application—she megamodels for Lancôme’s makeup line—but I think it applies to any creative endeavor.

I preach the virtues of imperfection. But do I practice them?

I need to interrupt this ode to imperfection to note that I spent a couple of hours last night ripping out several very long rows of the afghan I’m knitting because I spotted one stitch out of place. But it would have ruined the pattern! And every time I looked at the finished product, that’s the only thing I’d see.

If I truly embraced imperfection, I’d be able to enjoy the tens of thousands of stitches that are in the right places. Or in Taylor Hill’s milieu, I’d still feel gorgeous even if the ends of my eyeliner don’t wing up at exactly the same angle. But to judge from the photos in InStyle, which I cannot link to, anyone who looks at Taylor Hill and sees only mismatched eyeliner needs some serious therapy.

Now, I do actually care about my eyeliner, when I wear it. But I happily release blog post after blog post into the world, knowing full well that some of them are much w*rse—let’s just say less well-written—than others. See for yourself: scroll down.

What’s the difference? Why do I care about an imperfection in the knitting project hardly anyone will see but I’m perfectly nonchalant about imperfections in my blog that the entire internet may see?

Two things:

  1. I’m committed to ship.
  2. Perfection doesn’t exist.

Imperfection and commitment

No matter how much I want to fuss with my makeup, I know that at some point I’m going to have to walk out the door. Because if I’m putting on makeup in the first place that means I have someplace to go. So I’d better get there.

I’ve committed to publishing a blog post every day. I could wrangle with it until 11:59 p.m., but chances are 12+ hours of fussing wouldn’t measurably improve the draft. And, anyway, I have other things to do, a life to lead—which may or may not involve knitting and makeup (though usually it’s one or the other).

So I recognize that it’s imperfect, and I bless and release it. I ship.

I don’t know if you count my blog as “art.” Maybe some days.

But I do know it’s the best my imperfect self can do on any given day. And that’s good enough for me.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

The 10 Writing Commandments of Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, writer
Elmore Leonard – Flickr, Creative Commons license

Writing about editing the other day, I was fishing around for that great Elmore Leonard quote—you know:

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

And I discovered it’s part of an entire article he wrote about writing in The New York Times. It’s his 10 Commandments of writing, and—spoiler alert—he calls this the “most important rule.” And so it is.

But many of the others are well worth your attention—even if you don’t write highly stylized mystery novels.

“1. Never open a book with weather.”

Now, most of my people don’t write books. But this rule works as well for speakers and writers of nonfiction as it does for novelists.

“If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.”

Yes, even in a business context “the reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for”—if not people, then at least story. Some human connection. Give it to them as quickly as possible. In fact, start with it, weather be damned.

“2. Avoid prologues.”

Leonard warns against prologues because:

“They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.”

Many speeches contain prologues—the endless lists of people to thank, throat-clearing about insignificant stuff: “Thanks for coming out in this rain, folks.” (See rule #1.) Get to the point.

Watch yourself some TED Talks. No prologue there. The speaker dives right into the story, and you’re riveted. Don’t you want your audience to be riveted too? Do that: dive in.

“5. Keep your exclamation points under control.”

“You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

Especially in business writing, there’s really no place for that level of excitement.

But my favorite piece of advice—seriously, I love this so much I may have to embroider it on a pillow:

“10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Right? But how do you know what part that is?

Well, what parts do you skip? For me, it’s lists. Sometimes writers try to disguise a list as a paragraph. Lazy, lazy writing. If it’s so important for me to know about each of these things, then tell me why. Don’t just list a bunch of brands, for instance, and expect me to be impressed. What did you do for each of those brands? How did you leave their companies different than you found them?

Of course, Leonard is thinking about fiction:

“Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”

“I’ll bet you don’t skip the dialogue.”

Business writers don’t often deal with dialogue. But we do tell stories. Or we should. You don’t skip the stories. You pay attention—always—when there’s an emotional connection between you and the material. So do that. Always.

And if it sounds like writing, rewrite.


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Metaphor: guiding your audience’s attention

“If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” — Joseph Campbell

I ran across that Joseph Campbell quotation in Robert Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion.

Cialdini argues that “the main function of language is not to express or describe but to influence.” And he’s assembled an impressive array of scientific research to back up that contention.

Influence runs on a spectrum from benign to coercive. We can influence by sending subliminal messages, that the audience barely perceives. By offering advice, one friend to another. By instructing, when an authority figure weighs in with expertise. We can also influence as Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather did, by “mak[ing] him an offer he can’t refuse.”

We’re seeing a lot of that kind of influence these days. Generally we call it “bullying.” But how—short of placing a severed horse’s head in someone’s bed—do we make that influence more memorable? Enter our friend the metaphor.

Metaphor, serving writers for over 2,350 years

In 335 BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle codified much of what was then known about literary theory in his book Poetics. Aristotle defined metaphor as “giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” In another work (Rhetoric, for anyone out there as nerdy as me), he explained, “Metaphor most brings about learning.”

So if you want to “bring about learning,” use a metaphor. But—I hear you say—I’m not teaching anything. I’m just talking about my business [or whatever your subject is].

Ah, but if you engage the minds of the people in your audience, they’re more likely to remember what you say. And Cialdini believes you’re more likely to get them on your side.

Metaphor gives your readers of listeners a little puzzle to think about. Cialdini uses the example of a long-distance runner “hitting the wall.” Our brains take in those words literally, and then quickly recognize the metaphor. Walls block forward progress. Right! The runner felt unable to continue. On subsequent hearings, we’ll recognize the figure of speech more quickly. But it still produces a millisecond of “Wait, what?” in our brains.

When you open your writing with a metaphor, you engage your audience in a way that a straight recitation of facts can never do. Extra points if it’s a metaphorical story.

Metaphor in modern writing

Writers for The New Yorker specialize in using metaphors and stories to hook a reader. I once read an entire article about manufacturing toe shoes for ballerinas. I have zero interest in ballet or shoe manufacturing, but the writer was just that good. I blogged about another masterful New Yorker article a few years ago. Writer Adam Gopnik grabbed me by the lapel with a story about the Beatles and then segued into an article about geopolitics.

In both cases, I learned something. That Aristotle guy was a smart cookie.

Rhetorical techniques & monkeys

I read this piece from CNN about rhetorical techniques a couple of weeks ago and I immediately slapped it in my file for blog posts. But it’s a hard subject for me to focus on, so I haven’t written about it. Now I’m on a cleaning jag—decluttering my closets, my storage space, and—yes—even my browser tabs. So here we go.

If you clicked on the link, by now you know that the article in question deals with how the current GOP nominee “uses” rhetorical techniques.

Now, I don’t pretend that he uses rhetoric as deliberately as, say, he uses women. But enough monkeys given enough typewriteeven a monkey at a typewriter can stumble on rhetorical techniquesrs will eventually reproduce Shakespeare. And occasionally this yellow-haired beast strings together an idea that an ancient Greek philosopher might recognize. Although if said philosopher were alive to witness the circus that passes for politics in this election cycle, he would promptly kill himself. And curse the forces that reanimated him, lest they do it again.

So when Trump says something like, “I could talk about X, but I’m not going to,” he is employing a rhetorical device. CNN identifies it as:

“‘paralipsis’ (‘to leave to the side’), a tool employed by the great Roman debater Cicero and Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift that allows a speaker to effectively say two things at once.”

A brief lesson in rhetorical techniques

CNN found a linguist, Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, “an expert on political discourse at Texas A&M University,” to analyze Trump’s rhetorical flourishes. Here’s some of what she said:

“‘Donald Trump uses paralipsis, repeatedly, and he does it in combination with another rhetorical figure, which is called argumentum ad baculum — or threats of force….I’ve never seen anyone in public life use paralipsis the way he does,’ Mercieca said. ‘It’s a clearly demagogic move. It allows him to recirculate information without being held accountable for it.'”

Last March, The Washington Post published an op-ed Mercieca wrote about this very issue. She observes that his retweets represent a more modern form of paralipsis. When George Stephanopolous pressed him about having said Ted Cruz wasn’t fit to be president [oh! how young and foolish we were back then]…

“Trump dismissed Stephanopoulos’s question with ‘it was a retweet’ — as if to say that retweeting someone else’s claim meant that he wasn’t responsible for the content.”

Or, as Mercieca puts it,

It’s a response that can be reduced to I’m not saying it, I’m just saying it.

Look, I don’t want to give rhetoric a bad name here. Ethical speakers communicate honestly. And they use rhetorical devices that allow them to amplify that honesty. But, like most things, rhetoric can be used for good…or for—well, I’m not saying “evil,” but…


Use your words courageously. Join me for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate: Write Right to Lead”—Saturday October 29th at 12 noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific.