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…
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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.
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.
A strange thing happened today.
Out of the blue
A ladder of light came down from Heaven
And with it a firefighter from 9/11.
The new day was dawning
— sunlight glinting on his helmet and boots, fresh with Heaven’s dew —
Just as it did that perfect, Eden morning.
His face was old but his eyes sparkled, like a new sun.
He brought us news.
“Down by the Hudson did I weep
At the slurry wall that stops the river’s seep,
My pain as wide as it was deep.
At our twin temples we fed Mammon, fast and loud
Capitalism unfettered, unshackled, unbowed.
Everything made by man that had been made,
Vaulting ambition, two soaring towers of trade.
Suddenly, from that perfect sky, silver birds flew into our temples
And threw them to the ground.
A wound so deep, so profound
That our nation shook.
Terror clamped our hearts, like a mortal mist
As the towers sheared off from the Manhattan schist.
All in Ladder 3 were killed,
Our bodies crushed, our hearts stilled.
We were crushed, reduced, pulverised
Scattered, splintered, a.t.o.m.i.s.e.d.
Jumpers shattering on the sidewalk — that terrible sound —
Rang like a rattle through my soul.
A gentle cloak of dust covered all
Like grey snow or Belsen ash, a ghostly pall.
That was then.
Time has marched on, for you at least.
Now there are twin pools to collect your tears
Cascading, trident-shaped, down sixteen years
Runnelling your sorrow and your fears
Into the marbled earth.
And I am free.
Now I dance among the spheres and stars:
Electrons, protons, Jupiter and Mars.
Here, now and forever, time and space don’t exist.
Despite the awful human cost
Nothing is wasted, nothing is lost.
We are all energy re-configured.
I am light among the atoms
I ride the particles and waves,
I plumb the depths and fathoms
I feel the music of the staves.
And know this.
We all are loved.
Even the pilots of the silver birds
Who twisted the message, the love unheard.
We all are loved, make no mistake.
We choose to love; we choose to hate.
Beyond the lives and loves undone
The daily round of work and play
The weft and warp of life unspun
The passage of clouds on a summer’s day.
Beyond all that grows under the moon and sun
Beyond the binary of all or none
Beyond what’s ended or begun —
We are all one.”
And so be it.
People often ask me to summarise my top tips for improving their writing. What are the shortcuts that can transform it fast?
I tried to keep it to five, but in the end identified seven that take writing to the next level.
Here are the top 7 writing tips from my book rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques:
To read the book in full, you can purchase it from Amazon here.
I hope you found my tips useful. I also came across an article, Technical Writing Tools: The Ultimate Choice of 83 Experts by Ferry Vermeulen, which shares the technical writing tools that are favoured most by 80 experts. Give it a read.
As the world holds a post-mortem on Trump’s post-truth victory, I’d like to put the word ‘rhetoric’ on the slab. Not because it’s dead, but because it needs reviving.
Bandied about by politicians and pundits both sides of The Pond, it’s become a dirty word, implying exaggerated, hyperbolic language of half-truths designed to manipulate people.
That is one definition of ‘rhetoric’.
The flip-side is ‘the art of using speech or writing to persuade or influence’ (Collins English Dictionary). While both definitions overlap, of course, this second one is often misunderstood, so I’m going to shed some light on it.
When we step into the garden of rhetoric, what do we see?
We see tall trees, and tiny flowers.
The trees are the planks of this vast subject, ie the art of arguing, proving, inventing, memorising and delivery. The flowers are what we call the figures of speech.
These are literary devices created by the Ancient Greeks, added to by the Romans (and plundered mercilessly by Shakespeare) that influence listeners and readers. They have a dramatic effect; they work.
These devices range from the familiar alliteration, assonance, hyperbole and rhetorical question to the more obscure epizeuxis, catachresis and polyptoton, taking in tricolon, anaphora and anadiplosis on the way — to name a few.
Now, in case you think I’m showing off, this is what the Greeks and Romans called these devices. To use a phrase invented by Shakespeare, don’t dismiss them with ‘It’s Greek to me’, because they surround us every day; we just don’t know them well enough to recognise them. They’re in political speeches (Obama was a master of rhetoric; the jury’s out on Trump); they’re in the ads we read in the underground as we go to work; they’re in the leader articles of The Economist. (That’s a tricolon — grouping things in threes — by the way.)
They work because they’re invisible; they sneak in under the radar of our intellect, because they instinctively resonate with us. In the case of the tricolon, for instance, lists of three have been used in the earliest human communications, as they relate to how we process information. We recognise and respond to patterns, and three is the smallest number of elements needed for a pattern. So ‘blood, sweat and tears’ has entered the lexicon, as well as Julius Caesar’s ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. Maybe divinity’s at work here, too, at least in western civilisation: the Holy Trinity has been a pillar of Christian belief for millennia.
As for alliteration — repeating consonant sounds — you’ll recognise that from poetry and Shakespeare (‘Full fathom five thy father lies’, from Ariel’s song in The Tempest). But alliteration abounds (there I go again) in ads and everyday language, too.
Instead of saying ‘death-avoiding’, ‘death-defying’ sounds better. Instead of ‘furniture made to look old’, we say ‘shabby chic’. Rather than ‘cowardly’, we might say ‘lily-livered’. And so on. Alliteration wires words and concepts together, because the patterns of consonant repetition sound better on the ear.
A final example is anaphora — starting each sentence with the same words.
When Winston Churchill spoke to Parliament in June 1940 about defiance in defeat, he said:
We shall fight on the beaches
We shall fight on the landing grounds
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets…
And Martin Luther King nailed anaphora in his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech in August 1963. Delivered to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the speech ends on a peroration (another rhetorical figure), launching each new point with ‘I have a dream’. This is the 21-gun salute, the climax, where King cranks things up, tears down injustice with his words and moves us with his vision of a just and equal society.
So, good writing is not the preserve of rare geniuses. We can write well by using the devices that have been around for 2,500 years. That’s why in my recent book I say that ‘writing well is neither a black art nor an innate gift, but a learnable skill.’
We are living in crazily uncertain times. Things change at warp speed. Markets are unstable, the future unpredictable.
Entrepreneurial minds will see opportunity in this turbulence, while others will hunker down.
It’s never been more important for business owners and corporate team leaders to stand out in their marketplace, to exploit those opportunities. But I see too many SMEs and corporate leaders who haven’t nailed the main plank of their marketing communications — their elevator pitch.
When asked ‘What do you do?’ at an event or a meeting, they gabble something forgettable on the spur of the moment. These days, that’s just not good enough.
Work with me to craft and hone a compelling 20-second sound bite and 60-second elevator pitch — in one day (plus a bit of pre-work). Email me (email@example.com) if you want to know more.