All posts by Scott Keyser

Has remote working changed business writing skills?

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business writing skills scott keyser

A couple of weeks ago I delivered a Lunch ‘n Learn session about business writing skills at a property client. The session was called — perhaps prematurely — ‘How to write Human in a post-COVID world’. (The attendees still gave it a satisfaction rating of 96%.) One of the things I asserted was that b2b communications have changed as a result of the pandemic, with people being forced to work from home. Seems to me that the line between ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ has blurred, which is a good thing if we want to improve our writing skills.

What do you think?

Business writing, unfiltered

A couple of years ago I was speaking to Laura, a client who was creating a training course in proposals best practice. In the opening section of the course she mocks the honking proposal cliché where the bidder thanks the client profusely in the covering letter for giving them the opportunity to bid. She refers to this as ‘the grovelling opening’.

This really made me laugh, because it’s exactly what bidders do: ‘We are ever so grateful for the opportunity to bid for this esteemed piece of work…’ or some such rubbish. (Clients don’t care how you feel or how pathetically grateful you are for being allowed to sweat blood to respond to their onerous tender. They just want you to get to the point.)

But my client — having lambasted ‘the grovelling opening’ — then blew it by saying she’d probably have to get it ‘professionalised’ by my manager.

In the nicest possible way, I hit the roof.

The left-field opener that Laura was considering in her training course is exactly what I mean by ‘personality’ in written comms. It’s that slightly cheeky, light-hearted, real, human tone that gives business writing its flair. Calling out that honking great cliché — rather than towing the party line — would have made her training course stand out.

The remote-working effect

And that’s got me thinking about the Lunch ‘n Learn session I delivered for the property client. For the past 18 months, many of us have been working from home under lockdown. We’re all zooming or MS Teaming with colleagues and clients, trading sharp suits for tracksuits, T shirts or, in some cases, cleverly disguised pyjamas. I wonder if people are more forgiving of — maybe even reassured by — this enforced informality. Is remote working altering how we perceive each other and how we communicate?

Picture the scene: your baby wakes up and starts crying when you’re on a Zoom call. Or your dog’s barking in the middle of a Facebook Live (which has happened to me more than once!). Or your teenagers are fighting over the PlayStation. Or the washing machine is pinging because its cycle has finished.

In those circumstances, can you really, in all honesty and with a straight face, write things like ‘We are a partner-led, full-service law firm with 35 offices and 17,000 staff around the world, offering unrivalled best-in-breed advice on a wide range of multi-jurisdictional, pan-regulatory, anti-competition issues for our global clients’?

Can you really get away with that MBA-itis, business jargon or management-speak?

We’re now operating in a setting where the personal and the ‘professional’ have merged like never before, where the lines between the two are fuzzy. It was always a false distinction anyway. People actually realise that by bringing their whole personal selves to work — even if it’s at the kitchen table — everyone benefits.

Business writing skills are personal

I’m reminded of the mastermind I joined last year run by Penny and Thomas Power, which was called ‘Business is Personal’, because to me it is. If you don’t bring your whole person, your whole personality to your work, to your business, to your writing, your words won’t land. You won’t make that connection with the reader.

Remember that live BBC interview with the American Professor Robert Kelly, who was talking about South Korean politics?

If you recall, he’s answering the interviewer’s questions, with gravitas and erudition, when his four-year old daughter, Marian, sashays in unannounced and stands behind him. He’s trying to push her away while keeping a straight face. He’s clearly agonising over whether to ignore or acknowledge her while responding to the interviewer’s questions. Trouble is, now the door to his office is wide open. Suddenly his nine-month old son, James, trundles in in his baby stroller to join his big sister. He doesn’t want to miss out on the fun.

business writing skills scott keyser

Enter Character #4, stage left. The Professor’s Korean wife hurtles in to the office, crouched low to stay out of the camera shot but in full view of millions of viewers, grabs the kids and pulls them out of the office. But she’s left the door open so, with one arm lassoed around her kids, she hyper-extends the other arm to the door handle and pulls it shut. You can only imagine how many of the Professor’s synapses were firing as this farce unfolded.

The video went viral (more than 44 million views on YouTube to date). I’ve just watched it again: it makes me laugh every time. My point is that we accidentally got a hysterical insight into the Prof and his life. That he’s a regular, normal, loving, family guy, husband and father made people see him as just another human, as vulnerable as the rest of us. People fell in love with him. Now he’s famous…just not for South Korean politics.

How to improve business writing skills

What does all that mean for us as writers? How do we use that to improve our writing?

It’s about giving ourselves permission to be human, warts ‘n all. To get over the myth of ‘professionalism’, which forces many unintentional business writers to leave their personality at the door, or at the top of the page. World-class writing combines great content with personality. To do this takes courage.

Take heart. Your business writing skills will be transformed.

~~~

Scott is The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write. In other words, to help you improve your business writing skills.

Listen to the podcast episode 152 related to this topic, ‘Has working from home changed how we write?‘. Then subscribe to The Writing Guy podcast to learn more about business writing skills and how to improve your writing.

how to improve writing skills scott keyser

How to improve writing skills with Verbitis

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Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a friend called Vicky Ross, a talented coach, therapist and NLP Master Practitioner. We were talking about language, its fascinating patterns…and of course, that led me to thinking about how to improve writing skills.

Vicky helped me to better understand the idea of Nounitis. I’ve spoken about Nounitis in the past. It’s the overuse of nouns, particularly abstract ones.

To take you back to school with a quick reminder, a noun is a naming word, and the cure for Nounitis is Verbitis, or using more verbs than nouns. Verbs are words of action and doing.

Nounitis is rife in B2B communications. Someone might say “She has responsibility for the implementation of the project.” What the hell does that mean?

“Implementation” can mean so many different things. It’s a vague, abstract term.

I want to take you through a little exercise. I’m going to give you a series of words and I want you to observe how your brain computes those words. There will be three different types of words:

  • tangible, concrete, common nouns (things you could put in a wheelbarrow)
  • abstract nouns (adjectives or verbs that have turned into nouns)
  • verbs (action words)

Are you ready?

Learn how to improve writing skills:  an exercise

how to improve writing skills scott keyser

For each of the three types of words, I want you to observe what happens in your brain. Notice, too, how your body reacts.

First, the common nouns:

  • bed
  • chair
  • apple
  • pen
  • book
  • computer

Just observe how your brain deals with those.

Now for some abstract nouns:

  • freedom
  • democracy
  • liberty
  • consideration
  • implementation
  • responsibility

That’s the second list. Again, notice how you reacted to them.

And for the third list, verbs:

  • running
  • writing
  • speaking
  • jumping
  • walking

There you have three very different types of words.

What did you observe happening to your body when you read them?

When Vicky and I did this mini-exercise, I looked up to the right when she recited the abstract nouns. That’s how my body responded when trying to make sense of those words. The verbs seemed easier for me. I looked straight ahead or slightly to the left.

The point I’m making is that the common nouns are things we can see and touch. The abstract nouns are much harder to compute because they’re intellectual, abstract concepts and demand more processing power from the human brain. Since verbs are words of doing and action, they have movement attached to them.

Neither type of noun had movement. They were static. They didn’t go anywhere. There was no energy to them. In contrast, the verbs had energy — but you would expect that.

The benefits of Verbitis

There are two benefits when using more verbs than nouns. how to improve writing skills scott keyserFirst, they literally give your writing more energy. Second, verbs conjure mental images in our brains, with little or no effort.

With abstract nouns, the brain has to work to associate some kind of image from our own experiences. That’s why verbs, Verbitis and curing Nounitis are so important if we want to improve our writing skills.

There’s one more point: the relationship between movement/motion and emotion. Static, abstract nouns — for me, at least — have no emotion attached to them. There’s neither motion nor emotion. Whereas the verbs lend themselves to emotion.

For example, if I gave you the abstract phrase, “freedom from slavery,” (two abstract nouns, “freedom” and “slavery”) I can say that I agree with that concept. Like most decent people, I don’t agree with slavery or servitude. Contrast the impact of that with the sentence, “The plantation owner unchained the slave and freed him.” I’m using more words, but I’m also using two verbs (“unchained” and “freed”). Clearly, I’m creating a picture, depicting a scene.

You might say we’re losing brevity — and of course we are — but I know which type of writing I’d prefer to read.

How to improve writing skills for better results

Using verbs and simple language while leavening and scaling down the amount of abstract language you use is going to improve your writing.

I hope this was useful information and that it will lead you to new ideas on how to improve your writing skills. I know it’s spurred me to learn more about NLP and patterns of language — particularly ‘nominalisation’, or turning words into nouns.

If you’re interested in learning more about my Big Five writing techniques, including Verbitis, connect with me on LinkedIn and join us for my LinkedIn webinar on the Big Five, on the 28th of July 2021. 

Brand Builders TV Scott Keyser Persuasive Writing

Persuasive writing begins with the end

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Would you agree there’s too much information about persuasive writing out there? That when it’s time to learn something that will build your brand, it takes longer to sift through bad information than it does to actually learn the skill — especially if it’s about improving your writing?

That’s why I’m thrilled to be part of Brand Builders TV, where an impressive array of professionals, experts and proven entrepreneurs from the Brand Builders Club come together to freely share what they’ve learnt over their careers.

In the episode Nail the Nasty Nine Writing Issues, you’ll not only learn the names of the nine writing problems that stop us connecting with our readers. You’ll also get an up-close look at the first three.

#1 is about ‘We-‘ing all over the reader, which the article ‘Write to Persuade and Convert’ expands on. The second, about non-existent planning, is explained in the article ‘Powerful Written Communication’. And finally, here we are at article #3 in the series, which will teach you why it’s important to know where your written content will end — before you even begin.

The other six writing issues will be forthcoming, but for now, why not go back and read those first two articles? Then you’ll be sure to miss nothing on your journey to bringing more and more customers and clients onboard.

If you’re more of a digital learner, you can view the entire recorded Brand Builders TV episode here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdLSJrXQ2fU

Your writing is about to get a lot more persuasive.

Persuasive writing knows where it’s going

As writers, when we’re not clear about where we’re going or what we’re trying to achieve, we run the risk of producing something that rambles and meanders. It’s going to drive the reader mad! It’s more effective and efficient to know where we’re going. We must identify our destination.

Brand Builders TV Scott Keyser Persuasive Writing

Persuasive Writing does not have a vague message or objective

The training I deliver to people around the world has little to do with pretty words or mellifluous, musical cadences (we get into that at mastery level).

What I’m talking about here is the sheer mechanics of great writing, and part of that is being really clear about our destination. It’s less about prettiness, more about behaviour change. We’re seeking, through the written word, to change the reader’s behaviour. That’s why this issue is one of the Nasty Nine.

Facts. Feelings. Actions.

What can we do about vague writing? Nail, define and articulate our purpose or objective. For this, I use a three-letter acronym: F.F.A. — Facts. Feelings. Action.

Imagine a three-column table. The first is Facts, or what you want your reader to know. The second is what you want them to feel. The last one is the action you want them to take as a result of reading your words.

For the first column, there are probably a lot of things you want your reader to know. Generally, provided you know your subject, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Now jump over to the right-hand column, Action. Typically, in any communication, there’s one thing you want your reader to do. To instruct you, give you a mandate, engage you or hire you, agree to meet with you, give you some information, send you a document…that’s usually pretty straightforward.

But where persuasive writing gets interesting is in the middle column, Feelings. What emotions do you want to evoke in your reader to drive the action? These emotions might include, but are not limited to:

Fear

You might want to scare them about something…like being laid off,  losing market share, missing out on an opportunity, their program failing, catching Covid, missing out on promotion.

Greed

What do they want more of? What are they greedy for? Money, time, information, power, control, influence, reputation, social media engagement.

Motivation

Use your words to motivate them to take action, energise them to pursue a particular course of action.

Anger

Get your reader angry about injustices in the world, to raise awareness and galvanise action.

Excitement

Get their pulse racing by describing attractive results, outcomes and benefits.

Brand Builders TV Scott Keyser Persuasive Writing

When you do F.F.A. properly, you break the back of your document. You’re cooking with gas. What do you want your reader to know? What do you want them to feel? And what action do you want them to take as a result of that knowledge and emotion?

Emotion matters in persuasive writing

What’s the role of emotion in persuasion? Why does emotion matter in persuasive writing? The answer lies 2,500 years ago, in the 4th century B.C., when Aristotle nailed the topic of rhetoric. He identified three persuasive ‘appeals’: Logos (logic); Ethos (credibility, character, reputation); Pathos (passion, emotion). He said all three were equally important, meaning that if we leave emotion out of our writing, we’re missing out. Logic makes people think, but emotion makes them act.

What’s your objective?

I hope you’re feeling more confident about your ability to improve your writing skills. What will you do with this new knowledge?

If persuasive writing for bids, tenders, sales pages, blogs, webpages and articles is something you’d like to learn more about, then subscribe to the Brand Builders TV YouTube channel for more episodes. Or, go straight to my second video, Nail The Nasty Nine Writing Issues, Part Two, which expands on issues 4 to 6.

My time in the Brand Builders Club has not only helped me to build my brand as The Writing Guy. It’s given me invaluable feedback, accountability and networking opportunities. Why not join us? Your registration comes with no commitment, and no risk — just growth.

words of history scott keyser

Words of history prove that writing matters

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Today is the 15th of June. This morning, thinking about what I was going to do for today’s podcast, I was drawing a bit of a blank. Then I looked in my On This Day book, an almanac of world events and words of history. Of course, today is a very significant day in the history of the British Isles, particularly England and English history.

Let me give you a clue. I’m going to give you something to read in Latin. You can guess why on earth I’m giving you words of history in Latin, and then there will be a grand reveal.

Here is the opening clause of an important historical document (Hint! Hint!).

Johannes del gracia rex Anglie, dominus Hibernie, dux Normannie, Aquitannie et comes Andegavie, archiepiscopis, episcopis, abbatibus, comitibus, baronibus, justiciariis, forestariis, vicecomitibus, prepositis, ministris et omnibus ballivis et fidelibus suis salutem.

And here’s yet another clue, in the translation:

John, by the grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland and Duke of Normandy in Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and all his bailiffs and faithful subjects, greeting.

What do these words of history mean?

Any guesses to what this hugely significant document was?

It’s of course Magna Carta, signed on the banks of the River Thames near Windsor, in a meadow called Runnymede. It was there that King John I of England affixed his royal wax seal on 15 June, 1215. The document’s full name was Magna Carta Libertatum, mediaeval Latin for ‘Great Charter of Freedoms’. Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, drafted it.

words of history scott keyser the writing guyThe purpose of this document was to make peace between unpopular King John (often referred to as Wicked or Evil, Nasty King John) and a group of rebel barons. It promised the protection of church rights, to keep the church free. Barons were to be protected from illegal imprisonment. It would give them access to swift justice and put limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. Furthermore, it was to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. As history would later show, neither side actually stood behind their commitments. The charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons War (1216-1217). It was reissued by his young son, Henry III, in 1216 (although I understand it got watered down).

At the end of the First Barons War in 1217, it formed part of the Lambeth peace treaty. But as the fledgling English parliament passed new laws, Magna Carta lost a lot of its practical significance. Interestingly (and rather amusingly), it was never about the Barons being altruistic and selfless, wanting to protect the common man. It was really about looking out for themselves with baronial self-protection. I don’t think they gave two figs about the common man in the street or the villain in the fields!

Magna Carta: still significant

Magna Carta was described by Lord Denning (famous English lawyer and judge) as, ‘the greatest constitutional document of all time…the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’. Some elevated, 21-gun-salute language from the great man, there!

There are four copies of Magna Carta in existence: two in the British Library, one at Lincoln Castle and one at Salisbury Cathedral. I was there (or near there) the other day when I visited Stonehenge, which I’ve spoken about.

What’s the relevance in words of history for writers?

We’re no longer writing in Latin, unless we’re drafting a very archaic kind of constitutional law. Nonetheless, Magna Carta shows that in order to create and preserve freedoms, things need to be written down. The written word is a much more permanent record of what was agreed between two disputing parties than the spoken word. Yet, despite that, history has shown even that wasn’t enough to hold both parties to their commitments. However, it did serve as a model and an inspiration to other fledgling democracies  — notably the United States’ founding fathers and authors of the American Declaration of Independence.

Where would we be without the written word?

It’s likely that we would still be running around as hunter-gatherers, eating each other, beating each other up and killing each other. For me, the written word is probably man’s greatest invention. It’s the invention that has most promoted modern civilization. It has given us words of history, to remember, to learn from and to preserve for all time.

I am Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, and I’d like to thank you for joining me for yet another article about how to improve writing skills. If you’d like to take your writing to the next level of quality, impact and results, let’s jump on a call and have a chat. You can book your slot here: https://calendly.com/scottkeyser91/.

 

Where does the word ‘jargon’ come from?

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Rough and ready transcription of episode 148 of The Writing Guy podcast:

Hi there and welcome to episode 148 of The Writing Guy podcast. I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words.

The Writing Guy luxuriates in birdsong

On the weekend, as I mentioned on yesterday’s podcast 147, on Saturday, I had two or three delightful hours at Stonehenge. World Heritage Site, obviously, and a site of deep spiritual, historic and astrological significance. Very, very beautiful. It was a stunning day: if you were in the UK on the Saturday, 12th of June, it was beautiful…and very, very hot. It got so hot that I had to find the shade of a tree.

About 200 metres away from Stonehenge I just lay down in the grass in the shade of this tree, watching the clouds going by and listening to the birdsong. It was very, very beautiful and very relaxing. Not sure if this is giving you insight into how The Writing Guy spends his weekends! I certainly don’t do this every weekend. But even if I did, so what? it was just beautiful to have the time and leisure to be able to do that.

And so I lay there in the shade of this tree because it was really baking hot and I just became aware of this wonderful birdsong going on around me, which as I learned later is mainly skylarks. But there was a lot of activity: flies and bees buzzing around me, and particularly the bird song was, was very impressive and that got me thinking about the word ‘jargon’, because I read many years ago that ‘jargon’ is from Old French [in the podcast I mistakenly said ‘Old English’. Ed] meaning ‘birdsong’. At least according to the online etymology dictionary.

Jargonising your writing (ugh!) won’t make your words sound like birdsong

The word ‘jargon’ comes from the mid-14th century, meaning ‘unintelligible talk, gibberish, chattering or jabbering’, and it’s from the old French jargon. A chattering of birds. So you know, when you are using technical terms or kind of business jargon, you may think, ooh I’m being very artistic by using birdsong, but actually it’s more like unintelligible talk! Nonsense. Hot air.

And it was only from the 1650s that the word ‘jargon’ gained the additional meaning of words or language or phraseology peculiar to a sect, profession, discipline or subject, as in ‘technical jargon’, technical terms, ie ‘technical jargon’. And that’s fine as long as your reader is a member of that particular sect or profession and understands those terms (also known, by the way, as ‘terms of art’, ie a term that has a specialised meaning in a particular field or profession. So if you’re a lawyer than the word ‘tort’ would count as a term of art. Or if you’re in financial services you might use the phrase ‘collateralized debt obligation’. That will have a particular meaning for people in that professional industry. The temptation or the risk if you like is if you overuse that kind of language, it’s just going to de-humanise it and make it hard even for a technical reader who’s familiar with that terminology to read.

And just going back to ‘jargon’, I also read in the dictionary that Middle English has it as a verb, jargounen, to chatter, which is originally from the French.

The bottom line of jargon

So, yeah, what’s the bottom line from this? How did I get from listening to beautiful birdsong in Stonehenge to the origin of ‘jargon’? And what does that mean for us as writers?

I guess what that means is that if you are 100% sure that 100% of your readership belong to the same sect, discipline or specialised subject area, then you can safely use technical jargon. But in my experience that’s very rare to have 100% of your readership coming from the same industry, the same specialist industry. There may be occasions where there really is no substitute or no alternative to using a piece of technical jargon. But often, often there is. And I think we as writers need to — for the sake of the reader and readability — we need to strike that balance between using technical jargon and using what I would call plain English, which is simple, middle register, more conversational, more human sounding language.

There you go, that’s it for today. Hope that was useful and I will see you tomorrow for episode 149, Thanks for listening. Bye now.

 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Stonehenge-inspired words of worship (podcast transcript)

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Hi there and welcome to episode 147 of The Writing Guy podcast. I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words.

The wonder of Stonehenge

So yesterday I had a beautiful day. After dropping my daughter off at Bristol, where she’s coming to the end of her Masters there in Economics — having dropped her off on the way back to London, I swung via Stonehenge. And, if you can believe it, in all my 62 years on the planet, specifically in England, I’ve never been to Stonehenge before, and it was great because rather than paying the what I consider rather exorbitant 25 quid to get in, I just walked along the public footpath and that takes you within 100 metres, 75 metres of the stones, which was good enough for me.
And it’s really a truly inspiring place, apart from the weather yesterday, which was stunning. And it wasn’t that crowded either, an added bonus, and, you know, it’s an incredible monument and a World Heritage Site. It was built, they estimate, 4,500, 5000 years ago, 2500 BC, a site of deep spiritual, astrological and astronomical significance.

You probably know this, but the heel stone and the main Portal and the altar are aligned on both the mid-winter and the mid-summer solstices, and the mid-summer solstice is coming up in the next few days on the 21st of June. Can you imagine the sophistication and ingenuity and the calculations required to get that alignment right, year in year out, for millennia, is pretty phenomenal and I was in awe. I was awe-struck.

As you might expect of The Writing Guy, it got me thinking about language connected with Stonehenge and sites of spiritual significance. So, what is the origin of words like worship, reverence, veneration and adoration? Where do they come from.

The Writing Guy looks at ‘worship’

So just to look at worship, to begin with. According to the etymology online website that word comes from Old English word weorðscipe. Again, forgive my Old English pronunciation. It’s not what it was. If you’re an Old English scholar, please come and correct me. I’d be delighted to stand corrected by somebody who really knows their stuff. But yeah, so weorðscipe comes from West Saxon or Old English, it’s ‘the condition of being worthy’. Also meaning dignity, glory, distinction, honour or renown. The sense of paying reverence, revering a supernatural divine being, is first recorded in about 1300, as is the first use of it also meaning an honourable person, as in the Worshipful Company of Glovers, the Worshipful Mayor of London, comes from about the 13th, 14th century. So that’s worship. The condition of being worthy, of having value.

The Writing Guy looks at ‘adore’

And then I looked up adore, which I think I’m right in saying comes from aouren, to worship, pay divine honors to, bow down before, from Old French aorer and before that the Latin, adorare, which is composed of two root words: the prefix, ad-, meaning to or towards, and orare, to speak formally to or pray. So, that’s where we get the idea of when you pray to somebody or something you’re adoring it, because you are praying or speaking to it, in order to be granted some kind of desire or wish. And the meaning ‘to honour very highly’ is attested as coming from the 1590s and the additional meaning of ‘to be very fond of’ is a relatively recent addition from the 1880s.

The Writing Guy looks at ‘venerate’

And then venerate. So, this word comes from Latin veneratus, the past participle of venerare, to revere or worship, which in turn comes from veneris, the genitive form of venus; you can hear the root of the word venerate. Venus means beauty, love or desire, so you can see again, we venerate, we respect something that we love and we find beautiful. And then even further back in time we go back to the Proto Indo-European root, wen-, which means ‘to desire or strive for’. That’s where we get things like — this has to do with sexual pleasure as well — so that’s where we get words like venereal as in venereal disease; venery, which is an old word for hunting. I guess if you’re pursuing — in the same way you might pursue the object of your affection — you also pursue a stag or a deer, you know, your ‘quarry’. Venial, which I think means mercenary, you know you’re in love with money. Venom comes from that as well. Winsome, somebody who’s attractive and wish comes from wen- as well. It’s something that we desire, we wish for something. So that’s all related.

So there’s some musings. I hope they’re of some interest — spurred and stimulated and inspired by my stunning afternoon yesterday at Stonehenge. Thanks very much for listening. I hope that was interesting, and I’ll see you tomorrow for episode 148. I’ll see you then. Bye now.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

How to double your readability (episode 146 of ‘The Writing Guy’ podcast)

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Here’s a ROUGH TRANSCRIPTION of Episode 146 of The Writing Guy podcast (and here’s the link to the actual podcast):

Hi, I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write.

The other day, I spoke about a webinar that I ran for a client. Last Friday, actually. So a week ago today, where I’d sent them in advance, a very short paragraph and kind of gobbledygook corporate gobbledygook, and their mission should they have chosen to accept it was to turn that into, to rewrite that as plain English. Using simple, jargon-free language. And I think I mentioned that we managed to using the readability stats in Word, everybody, without exception managed to double their readability as measured by the Flesch reading ease score and I blogged about this the other day, and in one case, a lovely lady called Kelly, we managed to triple her readability which was stunning.

So what I’d like to do is just share with you her original version, not the original version of the exercise but her first version of the rewrite, read that out to you and share with you the readability that that scored. It won’t take very long to read. And then what I’ll do after that is share with you the ultimate version if you like. That got an amazing readability. So this, this was her sort of original rewrite which was you know, which was fine. But it was, you know, there are ways of improving and so it reads as follows.

Kelly had written: ‘We’re excited to create our new e-business strategy. And we’d like to get your ideas on how we can shape our new strategy.’ (So the, the original was she, she changed the tone of voice a little bit, quite rightly trying to make it more sort of inspirational and direct using ‘you’ and ‘your’, the second person singular, and then she goes on to write) ‘To help inspire you, our objective is online innovation, supporting profitability, customer acquisition and brand enhancement must continue to drive what we do. We must also set clear targets that are achievable, and demonstrate our capabilities’. Now, I like the beginning of that, where she’s using a contraction. ‘We’re excited to create our new business strategy and we’d like to get your ideas’. So that’s nice and human and conversational but then to my ear at least it sort of lapses into a bit of kind of management-speak with ‘online innovation customer acquisition and brand enhancement’. And then she talks about ‘demonstrating our capabilities’ which is not really plain English.

Now, when we score the readability on that, her average sentence length (ASL) was just within range at 19.6 words, but her average characters per word ran to 5.1 which is a little bit too high, which immediately indicates to me, as I’m sure you probably heard from when I read it, which indicates to me that she’s using needlessly formal, polysyllabic words. And as a result, her readability was only 36%. So we worked on it together, just for a few minutes and I, you know, this is part of really what I want to kind of impress upon you, which is that this stuff is so easy. You know, writing with impact, writing concisely, writing with personality and power is just not, it’s not rocket science. This is really, it’s a learnable skill.

So anyway, let me just read to you her revised version: ‘We’re excited about creating a new e-business strategy and we’d like your ideas to help shape it. To help you, our main goal is online innovation. That will help you to win new customers, build your brand and make more money. Hitting these targets will show that we have the right mix of skills.’ So I slightly, I slightly changed just a couple of the of the words there but you get the idea. It’s shorter. It’s more concise. We’ve kept the the contractions which renders it conversational and human. And in fact that first line, I think, has got quite nice rhythm to it. ‘We’re excited about creating our new e-business strategy and we’d like your ideas to help shape it.’ There’s a bit of a rhythm there. And then we’ve got a short sentence ‘To help you, our main goal is online innovation’. Okay, full stop. ‘We’d like you to focus’ or that will I think I said, because she used the word focus which is a S.O.W. (Severely Over-used Word) so I just replaced that on the hoof. ‘That will help you to win new customers’ so when verb, build the brand or your brand or our brand, ‘build’ verb, and ‘make more money’. Now the verb. So can you hear that, hear the difference between ‘supporting profitability customer acquisition and brand enhancement’ in the first version. ‘To win new customers, build our brand and make more money’. You know, it’s plainer English it’s simpler, and it’s more powerful, it’s much easier to read and as a result, and also just before I share with you the readability. We decided to launch the last sentence with a gerund, which is a verbal noun: ‘Hitting these targets will show…’, rather than ‘demonstrate’, ‘show’ is one syllable, ‘demonstrate’ is three syllables. Use the simple word: ‘Hitting these targets will show that we have the right mix of skills’, rather than ‘We must also set clear targets that are achievable and demonstrate our capabilities.’

Don’t know about you, but I certainly know which style of writing I’d prefer to read. Now that, that later the ultimate version that we created, that Kelly created, actually scored, let me just find it. So she reduced her ASL average sentence length, to 14 words, which is brilliant. Average characters per word dropped from 5.1 to 4.5, because she, she started using simpler shorter words simpler language, and there was that as a result of that, get this, I mean we doubled (I think I said triple) but actually it was double. We doubled her readability, almost exactly actually from 36% to just under 72% readability which is well within plain English.

So you know, Hats off to Kelly, who just showed how easy it was, how easy it is to do that, and a brilliant result. And I would say that we did that in total elapsed time of 10, 15 minutes, you know, folks. That’s how easy this stuff is! I really want to impress upon you that the ability to write with impact power and personality is an eminently learnable skill that is within the gift of everybody. So on that note on that, hopefully inspiring note, I’m going to leave it there for now.

Thank you Kelly for being a brilliant delegate. And I’ll see you tomorrow for episode 147. Thanks for listening. Bye now.

~~~

Interested in transforming your writing? Then please get in touch for a relaxed, no-obligation chat with Scott: scott@writeforresults.com

Thank you.

 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai (thanks, Otter!)

A quick cure for wordiness and wind

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Last week I ran a webinar for a longstanding client. We had eight people on the call and were using the Readability Stats in Word to track the improvements in their readability score for each successive version of a re-writing exercise I’d set them. The exercise was to ‘translate’ a piece of corporate gobbledygook into good, old fashioned, mid-register plain English.

The Readability Stats in Word are really useful. They give you a percentage score (called the ‘Flesch Reading Ease’) based on the work of a psychologist called Dr. Rudolph Flesch, a clever man. A Viennese Jew who fled Nazism in the 1930s, Flesch settled in Manhattan and spent the rest of his life there studying readability and writing some really good books about it. This is how they look (and these are the stats for this blog):

Within 90 minutes, everybody on the call had raised their FRE from mid- to late-20% — which is pretty poor — to 60% and beyond. All the delegates saw their readability double and, in a few cases, triple. According to the Stats, plain English — which most B2B writers should be writing, but don’t — starts at an FRE of 60%. It’s rare for business writers to hit the heights of plain English, believe me.

In the readability stats, you need to be aware of four numbers or ‘ratios’. Well, five, if you include word count, but I’m sure you already know how to do that. The four numbers to look out for are:

1. Average words per sentence (ASL), which should be 15–20 words;
2. Flesch Reading Ease, which is a percentage, with plain English kicking in at 60%;
3. The proportion of your sentences in the passive voice, which should be as close as possible to 0%;
4. Average characters per word (circled in red in the Stats below).

I want to focus on the fourth one.

What I noticed during last week’s webinar (and for many years before that!) is that almost all the delegates were using business-speak, buzzwords and ‘MBA-itis’. Besides being honking great clichés that make readers’ eyes glaze over, these words are long and push the average number of characters per word up to 5.0 and beyond.

But even without reading the text, merely by looking at that fourth number, I knew what the problem was: they were being needlessly wordy, formal and verbose. Despite paying lip-service to the concept of plain English, they weren’t using it.
Instead they were writing stuff like ‘We are committed to focusing on this strategic priority…bla-bla-bla.’ This is as far away from plain English as Z is from A.

In some cases I think the number was more like 5.7 or even 6.0 . And even though that may not sound a lot, the moment your average characters per word goes above 5.0, you’re in trouble. That flatulent troll (‘Windy’) has grabbed you by the ankles and is dragging you — and your readability — down.

As I was thinking about this all-too-common problem with business writing, I was reminded of an important writing equation we’d all do well to remember:

The value to the reader of your content should always be greater than the energy they need to expend to get that content:

Value of content to reader > energy needed to get the content

Another way of putting it: the value to the reader of your content should be a multiple of the brain calories they expend to get it. The less readable your writing, the harder you make it for your reader, then the likelier you are to lose them. They may never revisit your writing again, which would be a sorry state of affairs. Don’t let it get to that…or Windy may crush you underfoot.

~~~

Scott Keyser is The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words. He issues a daily podcast, ‘The Writing Guy’: https://anchor.fm/scott-keyser/. scott@writeforresults.com

The Magick of Spelling

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The Magick of Spelling

based on episode 144 of The Writing Guy podcast

A couple of days ago, on Sunday, I spoke in my podcast about the lovely, serendipitous stay that my wife and I had in a gorgeous part of Somerset called Barrington. In the bookshop in Barrington Court (a stunning National Trust estate worth a visit), I picked up a secondhand copy of a book called Spellbound, The improbable story of English spelling, by one James Essinger. And if you clocked that particular episode of the podcast, I’d come out without any money. But the farmer whose land we were staying on — who happened to be behind me in the queue — kindly lent me the money to buy it. So I’ve been reading this wonderful book, Spellbound (an apt description of its effect on me) and it’s fascinating.

For me, it’s cemented the link between spelling and magic.

Let me say that again.

I believe that spelling and magic are linked. And I will — if you’ll excuse the pun — try and spell that out for you.

Tidings of great joy

We all know that spelling means writing a word with the letters in the right order. And obviously if you do that, you’ve spelled (spelt?) it correctly. And if you don’t, you’ve misspelled (misspelt?) it. Now the derivation, the origin, of ‘spell’ is the ancient Germanic word, spell, meaning ‘recital’ or ‘tale’. And when it entered Old English or Anglo-Saxon in about 500 AD, not surprisingly it gained the meaning of a narrated, spoken, oral story. Picture a bunch of bearded Saxons huddled around a fire deep in Epping Forest telling tales (some of them tall).

And this is the root of the word ‘gospel’, the teachings of Christ. Originally gōdspell in Anglo-Saxon, it meant ‘good story’ or ‘good news’. Obviously if you’re a Christian, you’d see the story of Christ as good news. But whatever your religion, you’re likely to agree that the Gospel (the first four Books of the New Testament) is the story of a good man who did good works.

The second meaning of ‘spell’

Of course ‘spell’ has another meaning, that of a magic spell, first recorded in 1579. A spell is a special set of words, formulae or verse possessing magical powers — usually found in a book called a ‘grimoire’ (think Hogwarts library) — able to confer magical powers on somebody or something. Once again, we’re back to spelling: if you mis-order the words of a spell, your magic may not work. Your wand will be just another old stick of hazel or willow. So spelling out your spell correctly matters.

But where might that come from, that second magical meaning?

Back to Christ, or to be precise, His birth.

I’m speculating here, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that one source of the word ‘magic’ is magus, specifically a member of the Persian priestly class of the 6th century BC, and, generally, priests or wise men.

And the three wise men (magi, plural of magus) who visited the infant Jesus at his birth were either priests or astrologers, hence they were able to navigate their way to Bethlehem by the stars (and then able to go home by a different route to avoid King Herod). After all, you wouldn’t invite any Tom, Dick or Harry to such an auspicious event, would you?

Picture the scene: you’re a Sumerian slave

Imagine being an illiterate worker in Sumeria or Babylon or the Holy Land, and a man in a long,  purple robe who can write, spell and speak well tells you that in precisely four days he will make the moon blot out the sun (an eclipse). You pooh-pooh it, but when it happens, you fall to your knees in awe at this ‘magician’. He’s just a clever man who knows his astrology. So the jump from wisdom to magic is a tiny one.

Leaving aside the astrological aspect, thousands of years ago the sheer ability to write and spell properly, to record important events, like the birth of a royal heir, to make people do things through the written word, would have wowed the average person. He or she (they) would have regarded them as possessing special, supernatural, quasi-divine powers; I know I would have.
There are stories in the Middle Ages of people pouring water on the illuminated manuscript of a Bible and drinking the inky liquid to (literally) imbibe the word of God.

Picture that. The scribe would not have been pleased!

The next link: spelling, magic and song

As James Essinger says in his book Spellbound, when we have a spell cast on us, we are charmed — as in a snake charmer; we are fascinated. We are thrown into a trance, entranced, which links to the idea of enchantment, from chanting (French, chanter, to sing). Chanting is rhythmic, incantatory sound that can charm and spellbind us. Likewise, when we’re in the presence of a charismatic person, we can be captivated, deprived of our free will or volition. Charmed into submission (or seduction).

And that brings us to another aspect of spelling: the concept of rhythm. Poetic or musical rhythm relies on the words or the sounds being in the right order, as in spelling a word correctly. It’s the precise order that creates the harmony and conjures an effect upon us. Mess up the order of the spell, the song or the poem, and it doesn’t work.

Can you see how spelling, story, news, magic, rhythm and order all seem to be connected?

So, what does this mean for us as writers?

If the people we’re trying to influence with our words don’t know us personally — as in a bid, blog or brochure — we need to spell words correctly. There’s no excuse for spelling words wrong, especially when we have spell-check to hand. (Having said that, Shakespeare spelt his own name six different ways, so you may want to use that in your defence.)

The other thing I’d say about spelling — and I use that to mean placing things in the right order — is the idea of rhythm and arrangement. We need to be aware that, even when we’re writing prose, our writing can be rhythmic; it can flow, rise and fall. And one of the great ways, maybe the only way, of sussing out our rhythm is to read our writing out loud. (I devote a whole chapter to this in my book, rhetorica®).

Whatever you do, please read your writing out loud before you publish, share or send it.

As for arrangement, that’s about the structure of your document, ie what order you put the content in. But that’s another story, for another day.

Let’s leave spelling there for now. At first you may have thought that spelling was a relatively small aspect of writing. But I hope I’ve shown that, viewed differently, it’s a skylight on a much larger world. You might even call it magick.

~~~

Scott Keyser is The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words. He issues a daily podcast, ‘The Writing Guy’, on https://anchor.fm/scott-keyser/
scott@writeforresults.com

In the era of ‘fake news’, punctuation matters

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Trump_wall_640-nc
On today’s BBC website, in an article on the US-Mexico border wall, an important punctuation mark has gone AWOL: ‘A government watchdog is also reviewing compulsory purchases being made along the US-Mexico border with property owners resisting the Trump administration’s efforts to build on private land.’
 
The missing comma between border and with introduces ambiguity: a busy reader scanning the text could interpret it as meaning ‘the watchdog was reviewing compulsory purchases together with/alongside property owners’, as opposed to the sense of ‘against a backdrop of property owners resisting the Trump administration’. Omitting the comma changes the meaning completely. 
 
Inserting a comma after border would signal to the reader that additional information is coming, ie that private property owners are resisting the Administration building on their land. 
 
The primary purpose of punctuation is to clarify meaning. And when it comes to navigating the minefield of ‘fake news’, clarity is all.