Tag Archives: story

When you have something shocking to say

The news reports buckled my knees. According to a Pennsylvania grand jury, hundreds of Roman Catholic priests across the state sexually abused more than 1,000 children over a 70-year period.

handwritten letter about a case of child abuse

Image source: Josh Bernoff

The details are shocking and sickening. It’s hard to imagine the scope of the damage done.

Imagine having to write about that story. How do you do it? How do you keep from veering into lurid sensationalism on the one hand and cold, dispassionate, recitation on the other?

The anonymous person who wrote the grand jury’s report handled it brilliantly.

In his excellent analysis, Josh Bernoff calls the report “an amazing document, a model for clarity of description in an emotionally charged environment.”

Josh mixes excerpts from the report with his comments. Here, I’ve boldfaced some of Josh’s comments and added mine in response.

I hope you’ll add your comments as well. Continue reading

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Two ideas a month?

Today I learned that, in the view of one pundit on Kinja, all newspaper columnists stink at their jobs. First, because they’re trained to report and not persuade. Second, because no one can come up with a fresh, original idea more than twice in a month. Maybe three times in a good month. Yet the columnist is expected to produce two columns a week.

Waterfall at the Japanese Garden in Portland

Google “image idea” and you get a lot of light bulbs. So instead, here’s a photo of Portland’s Japanese Garden — a good place to get fresh ideas.

The article offered a solution to idea-lorn columnists: use the same ideas again and again. After all, no one except your closest friends reads every column you write. So who’s going to know?

I’m highly suspicious of the finding (that all columnists stink), the explanation (two ideas a month), and the advice (recycle your ideas). Yet I’m prompted to ask, would that apply to bloggers too?

If the likes of George Will, Thomas Friedman, and Dana Milbank are good for only two, maybe three, fresh ideas a month, then surely a blogger like me — even though I try
to publish at least one original post each week — can’t hope to do better.

That would take the pressure off, wouldn’t it? When I struggle to find new ideas, I can just warm up some leftovers, as it were, and dress up an old post as something new. You, dear reader, won’t even notice.

(Insert eyeroll emoji.) If only that were true.

I don’t think columnists are that hard up for new ideas. Bloggers either. Reading Tom Johnson’s blog, for example, I suspect that he has at least two fresh ideas every day before breakfast.

I agree with the pundit about one thing, though: ideas are sometimes hard to come by. But we can still train ourselves to increase the likelihood of having fresh ideas. How? Try these techniques.

Seek other points of view

You’re used to seeing things as you see them. What would they look like from another vantage point? What if you could see them in a larger context?

What would you learn? Would your feelings or your opinions change?

There. Now you have fresh ideas to write about.

To get a different vantage point, maybe you just need to go someplace new, like the Japanese Garden. I like to follow people on social media who aren’t from my family, who aren’t from my home town, who don’t share my religious and political views.

I’m not saying you have to change your mind about anything (although that could be a side benefit). But you’ll get fresh ideas.

Read something new

If I were in my 20s or 30s I might say do something you’ve never done before. And, yes, that’s a good way to get fresh ideas. But when you reach a certain age you already know whether you’re willing to jump out of an airplane (I’m not) or take a trip around the world (love to, but can’t afford it).

I can read, though, and so can you. Those folks on social media who don’t share your comfort zone? They can point you to articles and books that’ll spark fresh ideas. Be careful what you click on, of course. But it’s possible to broaden your horizons without getting mired in internet quicksand.

Read books and articles about topics that are new to you. One of the best history books I ever read was Steven Pressfield’s The Lion’s Gate, about the 1967 Six Day War — a subject about which I’d known virtually nothing.

I also recommend anything by John McPhee for new insights about culture, technology, and environmentalism.

Tell a story

You probably know that I believe in storytelling in all kinds of writing — including business and technical writing.

If you want fresh ideas, start telling a story. You might not know how the story will end. You probably don’t know what insights you’ll draw from it. Start telling the story and see where it takes you.

Fellow technical writer Neal Kaplan recently broke a blogging silence with an appealing story about taking a hike and then taking it again. I think it’s fair to say that the experience rejuvenated his creative thinking process. So be like Neal: go ahead and tell your story.

What are your techniques for increasing the flow of fresh ideas?

Create your story — and choose the right ingredients

Seth Godin took me to school. Oh, I’m sure he doesn’t realize it. But his April 11 blog post sounded like a direct rejoinder to my earlier piece: Just the right choice of words.

Here’s what Seth had to say:

If you watch a well-directed film with the sound turned off, you’ll get a lot out of it….

There are a few places where all that matters is the words. Where the force of logic is sufficient to change the moment.

The rest of the time, which is almost all the time, the real issues are trust, status, culture, pheromones, peer pressure, urgency and the energy in the room.

In fact, Seth’s post echoes the response Mark Baker wrote to my piece:

It isn’t the choice of individual words. It is the juxtaposition of words that achieves the effect. The art is not in the selection but in the arrangement, not in the vocabulary but in the story.

Both Seth and Mark know their stuff. So, did they take me to school? Do I feel chastised? Ready to write a retraction?

Um, well….No. Continue reading

What’s your leadership story?

monster.png

Monsters are part of Harry Potter’s world. Some leaders would like us to think they’re part of our world too. (Image credit below)

In the run-up to last June’s Brexit referendum, J.K. Rowling wrote a brilliant piece about storytelling:

“I’m not an expert on much, but I do know how to create a monster,” she began, going on to say that all political campaigns tell stories and that one side in the referendum — the Leave side — had worked especially hard to create monsters, or villains.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, writing a day after the vote was taken, explained the outcome by saying the populist Leave side had told its story better than the political center — the Remain side — had:

“The political center has lost its power to persuade and its essential means of connection to the people it seeks to represent.”

He didn’t say that Leave had a better story. He said they told it better.

In politics the spoils often go to the best storyteller.

I’ve found that in leadership in general, the best storytellers make the most effective leaders.

Beginning, middle, and end

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. For many leaders, including politicians, the beginning and the middle are simply a recap of the listeners’ current circumstances.

The end, in politics, is often about the bad things that will ensue if you vote for the other side. (Enter the monsters.) In true leadership, the end is about the good things that will happen if you follow me, or if we work together.

An emotional connection

A story makes an emotional connection with the listeners. Too often in today’s politics that connection is rooted in fear. In leadership the best connections are rooted in shared hopes and in a sense of cohesion, of belonging. We’re in this together, and together we’ll succeed.

Linking technical writing and leadership

Several of us, notably Mark Baker, have pointed out that storytelling is essential to technical writing as well. We guide our readers from a beginning point through a set of steps (the middle) to the desired outcome (end).

We try to connect emotionally with our readers: gaining their confidence, reassuring them as they move through the steps, and congratulating them when they finish.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does, as long as we remember that we’re storytellers and that our calling is to help people meet their goals.

What do you think? If you’re a technical writer who became a leader, did you find that your skill at the one helped you succeed in the other?

What’s your leadership story?

Update, 30 June 2016: My colleague Ray Gallon has broken down the “Leave” story in detailed and illuminating fashion. Highly recommended: The Morning After: Brexit of Champions.

Image credit: Bob McCabe, Jody Revenson, Moira Squier – Harry Potter Page to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey 

Tell your story, respect your reader

Look at these two maps. They’re based on the same data: population gain or loss by county. But they tell vastly different stories.

In the first map, the graphic artist started with the two extreme values in the data set (-6.3% and +28.7%) and divided the color scale into 5 equal pieces. As a result, all of the counties losing population are lumped together with counties that had no change or that posted slight gains.

usmap1

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

The map tells us that a lot of counties lost population or held steady, several counties added population, and exactly two (one in the top middle and one near the bottom middle) added a lot of population. Frankly, it’s not much of a story.

Now look at what the Washington Post‘s Christopher Ingraham did with the same data. Ingraham changed the color scheme: blue counties gained population and red counties lost. The color intensity changes for counties that gained or lost more than 1% or 2%.

usmap2.png

Source: Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post

Now you can see a story. Continue reading

Living and Learning

I firmly believe that if you’re not learning, you’re not living. With that in mind, let’s look at some things I learned in 2015:

Robot reading a book

That new technologies can tell stories — and what that might imply for the future

How not to enhance a brand — whether it’s your company’s or your personal brand

Sound advice on the art of estimating projects for technical communication (I especially recommend the two articles that are linked in the postscript)

The importance of connotations: of using words in the way your reader understands them, not in the way you think your reader should understand them (or as Mark Baker might phrase it, writing in a way that makes use of the stories you share in common with your reader)Advertisement in Swedish, with the English expression "No way!" prominently displayed

An amusing example of how languages evolve and interact with each other

The need for patience, and resisting the impulse to jump in and do it now

Pluto as seen by New HorizonsTwo essential skills for every nonfiction writer: knowing what to take out, and letting readers experience the story for themselves

Making mistakes, and learning from them

 

My most-read article this year, by far, posed the question What should a Technical Communication course teach? The responses to that article proved the need for a profession-wide conversation on this topic, but (alas) I don’t think the conversation has gotten off the ground. Yet.

Perhaps that’ll change in 2016 — a year in which I look forward to lots more living and lots more learning.

What was the coolest thing you learned in 2015? The most surprising thing?