For your Easter consumption (alongside the chocolate), a short piece on the sweet survival of post-blaze life in Notre-Dame de Paris: https://www.linkedin.com/…/urn:li:activity:6525292414528294…
All posts by Scott Keyser
Yesterday I had a NeuroKinetic Therapy™ (NKT) session with a therapist called Sue (for a sports-related knee injury). NKT addresses musculoskeletal problems by getting the whole body working and moving in balance and harmony.
I always come out of Sue’s sessions feeling and moving better than when I went in; I literally skip home. That got me thinking about fluidity, fluency and flow, both physical and mental. When we see somebody walking, running or dancing — activities demanding physical co-ordination — we can see at a glance whether they’re moving well, with grace, elegance and ease, or whether they’re moving badly or with difficulty.
It’s the same with writing.
Within a few moments we know if we’re in the hands of an artist or an amateur. If it’s well written, our eyes flow across the lines and down the page, assimilating the meaning of the well-chosen words and merging with the rhythm set by the writer. Fluency and flow make it easier to decode and process the words, influencing our perception not only of the message, but also of the messenger. Studies show that fluency in processing text raises our perception of the author’s intelligence.
On the other hand, if the writing is clunky, clumsy and hard to process — all too common in B2B writing — the reader won’t hang around for long. Most business readers are unforgiving, abandoning this type of writing sooner than you can say ‘plain English’. Losing your reader = communications failure.
And it’s not just about the language.
A 2005 study conducted by Daniel Oppenheimer among Stanford University graduates found that visual disfluency caused by poor choice of font or typographic style lowered their perception of the author’s intelligence. So the content of your writing is just one of a kaleidoscope of elements — including font, point size, leading (line spacing), page grid, line length and graphics — that need to function in concert to move the reader both intellectually and emotionally.
This doesn’t happen by chance. Though writing well is neither an innate gift nor a Ninja-style black art, but a learnable skill…it still has to be learnt. The craft has to be mastered.
As I skipped home from my therapy session thinking about the connection between writing and movement, I recalled the words of one of the greatest writers ever to grace the English language:
“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
The week before Xmas my wife and I saw Ian Anderson, rock flautist of Jethro Tull fame, perform a concert in Hereford Cathedral, to raise money for the Cathedral’s Perpetual Trust. Alongside the unlikely Lloyd Grossman, gastronome and musician, Anderson cavorted beneath the high altar like a sprite, the red, gold and violet lights glinting on his silver flute (and his bald head).
The next morning — before tackling the drive back to London — I visited the Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi and adjoining library. A national treasure inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, the 1300 Mappa Mundi (Latin for ‘map of the world’) is the largest surviving medieval map of the world.
Featuring 420 cities and towns, biblical events, plants, animals, birds and mythological creatures (including ‘blemmyes’, headless men with faces on their chest), it shows how 13th-century scholars interpreted the world spiritually and geographically.
I then crossed the threshold into the adjoining library…and entered yet another world. Awe-struck, I contemplated row upon row of ancient manuscripts in open, wooden cabinets, with every volume listed on fading sheets at the end of each row. The sheets were a roll call of seminal writing, including 16th century editions of Tertullian and 14th century editions of Augustine’s AD 400 De Trinitate (On the Trinity). What struck me, though, was the sight of iron chains hanging from each book.
The famous Chained Library.
The books it houses — formative of our civilisation, culture and ideas — are of such rare and exquisite beauty that, from birth, they have been tethered to the wooden shelves on which they sit. The chains are attached to the front of the book, not the spine, allowing the reader to simply take it off the shelf and open it, without having to turn it around from spine to front. This stops the chains twisting and tangling, and damaging the book.
I found this ironic.
That we can free ourselves through the knowledge and wisdom contained in books, yet here they’re shackled. Of course I understood why, but I was intrigued by this visual irony.
And that got me thinking about books in general.
Where would we be without them? Without books, human civilisation would be very different, if it could exist at all. They help us to map our own world and travel in other people’s. Imagine a school or university without books. How would we educate ourselves, pass human wisdom from one generation to the next? Granted, online learning is available to all, but the source material still needs to be written. A 2014 study into the correlation between exposure to books and academic achievement in 42 nations found that the number of books in the family home exerts a strong influence on a child’s academic performance and, ultimately, their life chances. (I recall staying in a trailer home in California where, scarily, the only written literature was the TV guide.)
As Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, says in his wonderful book, A History of the World in 100 Objects, ‘Of all mankind’s great advances, the development of writing is surely the giant: it could be argued that it has had more impact on the evolution of human society than any other single invention.’
Having written something, however, how do we share it with the world? That’s where Herr Gutenberg comes in.
Johannes Gutenberg was a 15th century German blacksmith and goldsmith who introduced printing to Europe with the printing press, inspired by the traditional wine press. His invention of mechanical movable type started the Printing Revolution in Europe and is considered a milestone of the second millennium, ushering in the modern period. It played a huge role in the development of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution, laying the basis for our modern, knowledge-based economy.
(As an aside, movable type was first invented in the Far East, as was paper. In around 1450, completely independently, Gutenberg invented movable type in Europe. This is a fascinating example of what scientists call ‘multiple discovery’ — where two or more people in different parts of the world hit upon the same idea at the same time, eg calculus, oxygen, black holes and the theory of evolution, to name a few.)
Gutenberg’s technology accelerated mass printing to warp-speed. An estimated 8m books were printed between 1450 and 1500 — more than all the scribes of Europe had produced in the previous 1200 years.
Fast forward to the 21stcentury, and more books have been published in the last 50 years than in the previous 500, a trend that looks set to continue.
And in the UK — despite chaining some of them up — we love our books. The UK publishes more books per capita than any other country, releasing more than 20 new titles every hour.
How far we’ve come, yet the basic technology of the book hasn’t changed a jot: think black words in straight lines on white paper bound inside a jacket of either leather or card. Sometimes there’s magic in the simplest, most humble ideas.
Books are a form of time (tome?) travel: they allow us to hear an author’s voice across the vastness of time, space, culture and language, shrinking the millennia between the birth of an idea and our consumption of it and eternalising thoughts from humans long-dead.
If that’s not Magick, frankly, I don’t know what is.
© Scott Keyser 2019
Just got off the ‘phone from a client called Andrew, who runs a small (but ambitious) life sciences consultancy helping strategic functions in large pharma co’s add more value to the business. It was a ‘it’s-been-a-while-how-are-you-just-calling-to-check-in’ call. In the summer I worked with Andrew and his team on their ‘value proposition’ (VP), their offer of value to their market.
Despite some heavyweight experience and a track record in the sector, their ‘overview’ slide deck to attract potential clients hadn’t been getting traction. They knew they needed a more compelling proposition to scale the business.
In a half-day workshop I challenged every word of the slide deck and we stripped their offer back to the basics:
- Who’s your ideal client and why?
- What’s their major headache/challenge/problem?
- What would the benefits be to them of removing that headache?
- What qualifies you to be able to help them?
- What’s unique/special about you/your approach?
As a result of their new-found clarity on what they offer the market, Andrew’s refined their ‘parent’ VP to produce a family of ‘child’ VPs for each specific business function in their clients’ organisations, reflecting the varying needs of each function. It’s also unlocked for him a whole new revenue stream that could be his path to hypergrowth.
He and his team are now super-clear about the value they offer to whom, how and why. Clarity brings higher levels of certainty, market engagement and, ultimately, business.
Confidence is another by-product of clarity. A joy in the VP workshop was seeing them uncover confidence — to approach new markets and give their clients confidence in their analysis-led decisions — as a core value and potential differentiator from the competition. They’re now building on this in their branding and marketing.
And all in one day’s work, with a client who had the courage to commit to nailing their value proposition.
I turn 60 next year. Surveying my 38 years’ experience in B2B comms in one form or another, in my view the single biggest challenge facing UK SMEs — the engine room of the economy — is expressing their offer of value to their market in a clear, concise and compelling way. Think of it as sequencing your business DNA.
Contact me if you’d like to know more.
As the sun sets on World Mental Health Day 2018 — though the issue is timeless and universal — I’m minded to talk about what I know best: writing.
Many words have been written about the power of writing to heal trauma, deal with emotional pain or just clarify our thoughts.
“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
Writing nails what we’re thinking, pinning our butterfly thoughts onto the green baize of the display case, so we can examine them more closely, from different angles, at different times and in different lights. It makes the emotion legible. This emotional legibility can externalise painful experiences, drawing some of the heat of the trauma and loosening its grip on our psyche. Observation without overwhelm.
This process of externalisation — of bringing what’s deep inside us out into the world, or just into our living room — is what we do when we ‘express’ ourselves (from the Latin, meaning to ‘push out’). We verbalise our thoughts in impermanent speech, then into semi-permanent writing (we can shred it afterwards if we want), and finally to the permanent record of publication, eg as a book or a blog, when we share it with the world. And as we push the experience out, we also push it away, ie we get distance on it. While not denying it, we separate ourselves from it to see it more clearly.
There’s something powerful about re-shaping random, chaotic thoughts into black marks on white paper. It’s like reversing cinema history: turning the noisy, technicolour drama inside our heads into a silent black and white movie on the page.
Many accounts of trauma talk about fragmentation — of sensations, feelings and memories shattered. When we write honestly and courageously about what’s happened to us, the process of turning that experience into everyday language can help us re-integrate it, ie to make it — and us — whole again. To piece it back together so it makes sense, and we can give it meaning in our lives.
Once accepted and internalised, the trauma can become meaningful, even positive. I know of someone whose traumatic experience — where she feared being killed — has re-framed her whole self-perception and life view. After loving therapy, which included much writing, she now sees herself as a survivor, with a deep appreciation of life.
Like Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the highly decorated US fighter pilot held by the North Vietnamese as a POW for seven and a half years. Tortured 15 times, held in solitary confinement for over four years, in leg irons for two, he transformed his perception of his trauma:
“I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
I’m reminded of how the body heals itself. It forms a scab over a cut or graze as outer protection, allowing the deeper healing to take place. Writing can be the scab.
If you’re struggling with any painful experience and want to write about it, here are some tips:
- Write by hand. The connection between brain, hand and words is stronger than simply punching plastic keys on a keyboard. (A neurological map of the human body shows that our hands are connected to more neurons than almost any other body part.) So write long-hand with your favourite pen or HB pencil (I know: I need to get out more), rather than type your thoughts on a computer.
- Don’t over-think it: write spontaneously. Your aim is to get into flow, to allow your thoughts and words to flow out of you onto the page. Judging the ‘quality’ of your writing — especially if you’re hard on yourself — kills fluency. Therapeutic writing is for your eyes only, not anyone else’s. If it helps you, it’s working. And if self-censure comes up for you as an issue, write about it there and then.
- Write in a quiet place and time. It makes sense to explore your innermost thoughts and feelings in a place and at a time of day when you can be quiet, relaxed and thoughtful. On the tube on the way to work or during a spinning class is probably not a good idea. Many people write their ‘morning pages’ the moment they wake up.
- Read it out loud. Vocalising what you’ve written in the safety of your own home can be a powerful way either of ‘exorcising’ what they represent, or simply facing them. R.O.L. helps us feel the resonance and power of our words in a way that we may not feel when we hear them in our head.
Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helps professional services firms transform their writing culture. He’s also on a mission to improve the life chances of the young and the disadvantaged by showing them how to write with impact.
Scott’s message to the world is that writing is neither a gift nor a black art, but a learnable skill. It’s a life skill that’s not the preserve of the few, but the birthright of all.
You can reach Scott at email@example.com.
Yesterday I ran a rhetorica® writing workshop for the comms team of a British property business that has a presence in 60 cities and ten countries around the world. The delegates gave the day an overall rating of 5 out of 5, ie ‘Excellent’, or 100% satisfaction, with some flattering comments on the evaluation forms.
What resonated with them to give the day that accolade?
It’s because we emphasised story telling. Not only how to tell a compelling story, but also how to unearth stories in the business — like ear-wigging canteen conversations where someone mentions what they’ve done in their day job that to them is prosaic, but to a writer is gold dust. We don’t tell enough stories in business, which is why most business writing is dull. Yet what better way is there to inform, evoke, entertain and persuade, all at once? From camp-fire to dinner table, humans are hard-wired to respond to good stories well told. We neglect them at our peril.
In yesterday’s workshop I referred to chapter 9 of my book (rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques), ‘Tell Your Reader A Story’. In it I refer to the four elements of any story:
1) Protagonist (from ancient Greek theatre meaning ‘first actor’) or hero;
2) Predicament or challenge (that tests the hero and creates the drama);
3) Narrative, ie the plot, context and setting;
4) Resolution, ie how the hero overcomes their challenge, revealing their strengths and weaknesses.
From Gilgamesh — written on clay tablets in Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC — to the latest TV soap, business case study or pitch, all good stories embody these four elements.
At the end of the workshop — despite some initial resistance from them — I gave the delegates a broad brief: to find and write a story about something of interest in their business. And they had less than an hour to do it.
What came back was remarkable: a fairy story about a refurbished church that blended magic with realism; a description of a hilarious but high-risk April Fool’s Day prank played on the CEO and chairman; a content-rich piece on the challenges of place-making with garden villages; a historical take on the business coming of age in terms of its culture, style and place in the world.
Where the writing samples they’d sent me before the workshop had been dry and lifeless, these stories leapt off the page — vivid, vibrant, confident, authentic and powerful. In one day, in a small way, I’d helped them find their voice.
‘Cos that’s what I do: I help organisations, teams and individuals find their writing voice.
Let me know if you’d like the same for you or your team: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This autumn I’m launching an online programme, in which the best of my rhetorica® writing techniques will be available to clients for a limited period. The content will take the form of video and/or slide show modules, each no longer than nine minutes. This is nano-byte learning for busy professionals.
I’ll be offering it as a complement to my live workshops, when staff can’t attend due to their location and/or client commitments — when well-intentioned fee-earners are pulled away on a client matter at the last minute. The programme will include a ‘pathfinder’ service, where I recommend which modules to study in which order, based on my analysis of the client’s writing needs. There will also be a series of live calls to help clients apply and embed the new writing behaviours.
I’m giving all my clients the ‘heads-up’ on this before anyone else, with the opportunity to benefit from pre-launch prices. Pls contact me if you’d like to know more.
We can re-discover our mojo through the written word.
Words express ideas, which can arouse us emotionally, intellectually, spiritually — or leave us cold. If ideas have different levels of energy, so do words.
Generally, formal ‘high register’ words — derived from Latin and Greek — have less energy than shorter, mid-register, plain English words which come originally from the Germanic languages (I’m talking roughly 1500 years ago), eg ‘end’ vs ‘terminate’, ‘buy’ vs ‘purchase’, ‘ask’ vs ‘request’.
This came alive for me the other day.
I was running a writing clinic for some lawyers. One of them had written a turgid blog post on a legal development, full of high falutin’ phrases and verbose expressions. She could barely read it. So I asked her to ‘translate’ it into plain English.
What a contrast! Suddenly the imagery was concrete, vibrant and interesting; the turns of phrase were original and varied; there was even some levity in there. She’d found her voice. The piece was transformed. But so was she.
Her whole demeanour had changed. As she skipped out of the room, her face and body beamed with energy, confidence and joy.
This is why I do the work I do.
The only thing in life that’s rocket science…is rocket science. So writing well is not rocket science.
I posted a video yesterday of me riding bumpily to my next meeting in a bicycle taxi on a sweltering afternoon in London. I was on a high: I’d just helped some lawyers transform their writing in one of my rhetorica® workshops. Not only did their writing improve, but their whole demeanour, energy and body language changed. One of them said they’d re-discovered their mojo through the energy of the words they’d used.
Here are the five things one of the delegates and I did to take what was already an adequate piece of legal advice to an excellent one:
1. Added sub-headings to emphasise the structure, eg showing the reader that the answer to their question was right at the front, not buried in the middle or relegated to the end.
2. Introduced the memo stating that what followed was their legal opinion. This obviated the need to repeat the phrase ‘In our view’ a zillion times.
3. Omitted other needless words and phrases, eg ‘For the avoidance of doubt': if your writing is clear, this is redundant! eg replaced ‘It is usually the case that…’ with ‘Usually…’
4. Made the language less formal and more ‘human’, eg rather than say ‘elected to sue them’, said ‘chose to sue them'; replaced ‘Furthermore’ with ‘And’ or ‘What’s more’ (you CAN start a sentence with And, by the way, despite what you had drummed into you at school).
5. Removed hackneyed sign-offs, like ‘Please get back to me if you require any further information’ — as if a client wouldn’t do that if they wanted clarification! Cliche’d greetings and sign-offs indicate a lazy and/or unconfident writer.
Like I said — writing is not rocket science. Nor is it a black art or an innate gift. It’s a learnable skill.