All posts by Scott Keyser

readability scott keyser

How to double your readability score

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The other day, I spoke about a webinar that I ran for a client. I had sent them a very short paragraph written in corporate gobbledygook, and their mission—should they have chosen to accept it—was to rewrite it in plain English. That meant using simple, jargon-free language. Using the readability stats in Word, everybody, without exception, managed to double their readability as measured by the Flesch reading ease score. In Kelly’s case, her results were simply stunning.

So what I’d like to do is share with you her original rewrite, along with its readability score. Then I’ll share her ultimate version, with amazing readability.

 

Kelly’s paragraph, with low readability

This was Kelly’s original rewrite:

‘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 she changed the tone of voice a little bit, quite rightly trying to make it more inspirational and direct using ‘you’ and ‘your’, in second person singular. 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’. 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 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. That immediately indicates to me that she’s using needlessly formal, polysyllabic words. As a result, her readability score was only 36%.

So we worked on it together, just for a few minutes, proving that this stuff is so easy. You know, writing with impact, writing concisely, writing with personality and power is not rocket science. This is a learnable skill.

 

Doubled readability in Kelly’s revision

Here is Kelly’s 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 changed just a couple 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 has got quite a 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…’ Because she used the word focus which is a S.O.W. (Severely Over-used Word), I just replaced that on the hoof. ‘That will help you to win new customers…’ here we have verbs, including ‘build’ and ‘make more money’.

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 your brand and make more money’? You know, it’s plainer English. It’s simpler and more powerful. Much easier to read. 

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 simpler 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.’

 

The overwhelming readability preference

Don’t know about you, but I certainly know which style of writing I’d prefer to read. That later, ultimate version that Kelly created had an average sentence length of 14 words, which is brilliant. Average characters per word dropped from 5.1 to 4.5 because she started using simpler, shorter words and simpler language. As a result of that, we doubled her readability. It went from 36% to just under 72%, which is well within plain English.

Hats off to Kelly, who just showed how easy it was, with brilliant results. I would say we did that in a total elapsed time of 10 or 15 minutes. 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 everybody’s gifts. So on that note—that hopefully inspiring note—I’m going to leave it there for now.

Thank you, Kelly, for being a brilliant delegate. 

This readability article has been taken directly from Episode 146 of The Writing Guy podcast. Please have a listen if you’d like.

 

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

wordiness scott keyser write for results

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 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, riddled with wordiness, 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 Readability Stats look:

wordiness scott keyser

 

How to Diagnose Wordiness

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.

 

Wordiness: A Closer Look

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 isn’t just wordiness, it’s 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 like 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.

 

An Equation to Combat Wordiness

As I was thinking about this all-too-common problem with business writing, I was reminded of an important 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. And 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.

wordiness scott keyser

Thank you for joining me in this jaunt through wordiness and its remedies. Should you have questions regarding plain English, winning bids, nailing pitches…anything related to writing…please contact me and we’ll chat. I also invite you to connect with me on Facebook and LinkedIn

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

spelling scott keyser

Spelling magick

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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 spelling 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.

spelling scott keyser the writing guy

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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/.

punctuation scott keyser

In the era of fake news, punctuation matters

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Today, on the BBC website, in an article on the US-Mexico border wall, an important punctuation mark has gone AWOL. A sentence reads ‘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’. This is in contrast to the intended meaning: ‘against a backdrop of property owners resisting the Trump administration’. Omitting the comma changes the meaning completely. 
It might be hard to believe that one little comma could change the core message of an entire sentence, but it can.
Take this comma for instance:  ‘It’s time to eat, Grandpa’. You’re obviously calling Grandpa to dinner. Remove the comma and you have ‘It’s time to eat Grandpa’.
Grandpa might not fare so well in the second example.

Remedying this punctuation dilemma 

In the BBC news sentence, inserting a comma after border would signal to the reader that additional information is coming. It would tell us that private property owners are resisting the Administration building on their land. This is crucial, particularly when the world is getting its news from this reputable source. 
 
The primary purpose of punctuation is to clarify meaning. And when it comes to navigating the minefield of ‘fake news’, clarity is all. 
Confused about the rights and wrongs of punctuation? Worried about mis-punctuation? Even the most confident writer can make punctuation mistakes that compromise their message. Let’s connect, to establish a better understanding of punctuation, spelling, word history, plain English and so much more! You can find me on LinkedInFacebook and The Writing Guy podcast.

WordWayv: The Wave/Particle Theory of Rhythmic Writing

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© Scott Keyser 2019

WordWayvTM is a new way of representing the natural rhythms of the written and spoken word in English. The purpose of this blog is to introduce the concept of rhythmic writing and establish my IP/copyright in WordWayvTM.

~~~

Everything is energy.

The air you breathe, the water you drink, the ground you walk on, the chair you’re sitting on, the shoes you’re in. That chair may feel solid to you, but in reality it’s a universe of electrons whizzing around nuclei so fast that it feels solid. But if you could peer into one of those plastic, leather or wood molecules in your chair, you’d see largely empty space.

There is no such thing as matter.

Isaac Newton posited the theory of stable, unchanging ‘building blocks’ of matter, that create unending chain reactions of cause and effect. But quantum mechanics and sub-atomic physics tell us he was wrong. There’s only energy.

And energy — eg radiation (the electro-magnetic spectrum, including visible and ultra-violet light), sound, wind, electricity, water — has two properties: it consists of particles and it travels in waves.

In terms of particles, think photons (light), air molecules (sound, wind), electrons (electricity), water molecules (water).

If everything is energy and energy comprises particles and moves in waves, it follows that language shares the same properties. It, too, must consist of particles and move in waves.

The particles are the individual letters and words (interestingly, grammarians refer to monosyllabic words like prepositions, pronouns, articles and conjunctions as ‘particles’). They make up the words we speak and write.

And when they combine in sentences or stanzas, they move in waves. That’s rhythmic writing.

 

Rhythmic writing…as spoken words

We hear rhythmic writing most easily in speech, in the rise and fall of stressed and unstressed syllables. (A syllable is a unit of sound within a word.) A stressed syllable is one we emphasise, and an unstressed syllable is one we don’t.

Take the words continue, discuss, reduce, betray, catholic and perform. Here are the stressed syllables CAPITALISED:

conTINue

diSCUSS

reDUCE

beTRAY

CATHolic

perFORM

This tendency of English to vary the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is known as ‘accentuation’, ie when we speak, we give our words a particular weight, push, emphasis or accent. It’s why English is known as a ‘stress-timed’ language. This gives it its familiar rise and fall, its unmistakable rhythm.

But not all languages are the same. In the Chinese languages and in Thai, for example, all the words are of one syllable (‘monosyllabic’) and variety in speech is achieved by varying pitch, ie the speaker’s voice goes up or down in timbre.

Here are two sentences, with the stressed syllables capitalised:

EVery TIME we TALK, we STRING toGETHer a SERies of STRESSED and UNstressed SYLLables withOUT even THINKing aBOUT it. THIS gives our LANGuage its RHYthm.

Do you see how the particles — the smaller words, like we, a, of, and, even, our, its — are typically unstressed? The stress falls on the words, and the parts of the words, that carry the most meaning. So sound and stress collaborate to convey meaning.

When you say those two sentences out loud, you can hear how the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables makes the sound rise and fall, like a wave. This is the wave-like rhythm of our spoken language.

The same goes for our written language. Speech and writing are intimately connected: humans spoke (and sang) before they wrote; speech gave birth to writing. And the most obvious type of rhythmic writing is poetry.

 

Rhythmic writing in poetry

The following satirical ditty — written in the 18thcentury by Samuel Johnson — uses a simple, regular pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables:

I put my hat upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

Here are the stressed syllables capitalised:

I PUT my HAT upON my HEAD,
And WALKED inTO the STRAND,
And THERE I MET anOTHer MAN
Whose HAT was IN his HAND.

(If you’re unsure, try saying it out loud. But this time, stress the lower case, unstressed syllables; it sounds absurd and unnatural.)

When we learn ‘prosody’ (the study of poetic meter and versification) at school, we’re taught that ditties like this are in ‘iambic trimeter’ and ‘tetrameter’, that lines 1 and 3 have four ‘metrical feet’, while lines 2 and 4 have three.

How off-putting is that lingo? The technical jargon of prosody makes it sound complicated, difficult and dull. But it’s profoundly simple, because we naturally use these rhythms; they’re in our DNA.

So, we can hear the rise and fall of this poem’s basic rhythm — especially when we say it out loud or hear someone else reciting it. But what if we could see it, graphically, as a picture?

Now we can, using WordWayvTM, my wave/particle theory of rhythmic writing.

 

WordWayvTM  to map rhythmic writing

First, let’s map the stressed and unstressed syllables in the above poem, using graph paper, so the syllables are evenly spaced. As you can see in the image below, each syllable on each line gets its own mini-box, with a dot placed above the stressed syllables and a dot beneath the unstressed ones, reflecting the capitalised syllables in the version of the poem above.

rhythmic writing scott keyser

 

Next, if we join the dots on each line, we see the wave shape, the rise and fall, of the iambic rhythm emerging:

 

 

rhythmic writing scott keyser

Of course, representing it like this doesn’t do justice to the fluidity of the poetry; the graphic style is linear and angular. Nonetheless, the regularity of the rhythm/wave is clear to see: lines 1 and 3 and 2 and 4 are rhythmically identical.

When we turn it into a WordWayvTM, though, we get something more fluid:

rhythmic writing scott keyser

 

You can see (I hope!) that the stressed syllables sit in the crest of the wave, and the unstressed ones in the trough or dip. The particles (the individual words) constitute the wave; the wave unites the particles. And the rhythm — or flow — gives it energy.

This poetic meter or rhythm is technically known as ‘iambic trimeter/tetrameter’, but I prefer to call it the ‘3- and 4-crested wave’. I’m sure most school children would prefer that, too!

 

Rhythmic writing, bastardised

Now, let’s see what happens to the rhythm when we effectively bastardise it by changing a few words:

I put my fedora upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I encountered another man
Whose hat was in his suitcase.

And now with the stressed syllables capitalised:

I PUT my feDORa upon my HEAD,
And WALKED inTO the STRAND,
And THERE I enCOUNTered aNOTHer MAN
Whose HAT was IN his SUITcase.

The loss of rhythm is clear to the ear, but how about to the eye? When we join the dots and show it graphically, how does it look?

rhythmic writing scott keyser

 

The extra syllables in the words fedora and encountered have spoilt the rhythm of lines 1 and 3; they now sound almost ridiculous. And losing the alliteration of the ‘h’ of hat and hand in line 4, the loss of the rhyme of Strand with hand, and with the poem ending on the falling note of the unstressed syllable case — all of this has destroyed the rhythm.

It’s arrhythmic. And now we can both hear and see it.

 

More rhythmic writing to come

In my next blog, I’ll use WordWayvTM to examine more complex poetry and prose, and show you how establishing rhythm in any form of writing gives it clarity, conciseness and power.

Till then, “Style is a very simple matter; it is all about rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words…”
Virginia Woolf

I invite you to join me, The Writing Guy, in learning more about the rhythm of the English language. Visit the Write for Results website and the Write for Results Facebook page today.

 

sign of intelligence scott keyser

Dancing with words: a sign of intelligence

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As human readers and writers, we’re always looking for a sign of intelligence in making decisions. Whom to read, whom to hire, whom to contract…the list goes on. How do we do that? What are the criteria and are we even aware of them?

Yesterday I had a NeuroKinetic Therapy™ (NKT) session with a therapist called Sue (for a sports-related knee injury). NKT addresses musculo-skeletal 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. Our perception of the message and the messenger are positively influenced. We find the sign of intelligence we were searching for.

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.

Sign of intelligence:  a study

The search for a sign of intelligence isn’t 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

Are your business communications answering the call for a sign of intelligence? Or are they missing the mark? Find out by learning about plain English, writing human and much more as I walk you through how to win bids and tenders, nail your pitch and transform your writing. It’s all on my website, writeforresults.com.

chained library scott keyser

Knowledge unchained in the Chained Library

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The week before Xmas, my wife and I saw a performance by Ian Anderson, rock flautist of Jethro Tull fame. There was a concert in Hereford Cathedral to raise money for the Cathedral’s Perpetual Trust. chained library scott keyser the writing guyAlongside the unlikely Loyd Grossman, gastronome and musician, Anderson cavorted beneath the high altar like a sprite. The red, gold and violet lights glinted 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. It’s a national treasure, inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. In fact, the 1300 Mappa Mundi (Latin for ‘map of the world’) is the largest surviving medieval map of the world.

It features 420 cities and towns, biblical events, plants, animals, birds and mythological creatures (including ‘blemmyes’, headless men with faces on their chest). And 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. Every volume was 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 Chained Library

chained library scott keyser

The books housed in the Chained Library are rare and exquisite beauties, formative for our civilisation, culture and ideas. From birth, they have been tethered to their wooden shelves. The chains are attached to the front of the book, not the spine. The reader can 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 it ironic that the knowledge and wisdom contained in books can free us, yet here they’re shackled. Of course I understood why, but the visual irony intrigued me.

That got me thinking about books in general.

 

A Reminder from the Chained Library

Where would we be without books? Without them, 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 or 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.

This brings to mind a 2014 study into the correlation between exposure to books and academic achievement in 42 nations. It 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.)

Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, has written a wonderful book called A History of the World in 100 Objects. In it, he says, ‘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.’

How do we share what we’ve written with the world? That’s where Herr Gutenberg comes in.

 

Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Revolution

Johannes Gutenberg was a 15th century German blacksmith and goldsmith. He introduced printing to Europe with the printing press, which the traditional wine press had inspired. His invention of mechanical movable type started the Printing Revolution in Europe. This ushered in the modern period as a milestone of the second millennium. It played a huge role in the development of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Furthermore, it laid the basis for our modern, knowledge-based economy. 

(As an aside, movable type was first invented in the Far East, as was paper. 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. More books have been published in the last 50 years than in the previous 500, a trend that looks set to continue.

We love our books in the UK, despite chaining some of them up. The UK publishes more books per capita than any other country, releasing more than 20 new titles every hour.

 

The Chained Library, books…and Magick?

How far we’ve come, yet the basic technology of the book hasn’t changed a lot. Think about 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. Books shrink the millennia between the birth of an idea and our consumption of it. They eternalise thoughts from humans long-dead.

If that’s not Magick, frankly, I don’t know what is.

I invite you to ruminate on the Chained Library and all it signifies in the world of books. I also invite you to join the discussion at the Write for Results Facebook page. Like and follow for writing advice, as well as news about upcoming workshops to improve your writing. See you there!

© Scott Keyser 2019

value proposition scott keyser

Nail your value proposition

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Just got off the ‘phone from a client called Andrew, who runs a small (but ambitious) life-sciences consultancy. He’s helping strategic functions in large pharma companies add more value to their businesses. It was an ‘it’s-been-a-while-how-are-you-just-calling-to-check-in’ call. In the summer, I had worked with Andrew and his team on their ‘value proposition’ (VP), or their offer of value to their market.

 

A better value proposition, for more traction

Andrew’s business had some heavyweight experience and a track record in the sector. However, their ‘overview’ slide deck to attract potential clients hadn’t been getting traction. They knew they needed a more compelling value proposition to scale the business.

In a half-day workshop I challenged every word of the slide deck. 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 refined their ‘parent’ value proposition to produce a family of ‘child’ value propositions. There was one for each specific business function in their clients’ organisations. Each one reflected the varying needs of each function. This also unlocked a whole new revenue stream that could be his path to hypergrowth.

 

Andrew’s value proposition

Andrew 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 the confidence to approach new markets. They were also now prepared to 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 it all happened in one day’s work, with a client who had the courage to commit to nailing their value proposition.

 

Your value proposition

I turn 60 next year. As I survey my 38 years’ experience, I see B2B comms as the single biggest challenge facing UK SMEs. Small businesses are the engine room of the economy, and should express their offers of value to their markets in clear, concise and compelling ways. Think of it as sequencing a business’ DNA.

Contact me if you’d like to know more. And please, be sure to Like and Follow the Write for Results Facebook page for more business writing wisdom and updates on upcoming events.

Writing as therapy: how words can heal

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Girl with Glasses Sitting Wooden Table Workplace

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.”
Flannery O’Connor

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 scott@writeforresults.com.

Why my writing workshop scored 100%

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gilgamesh book
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: scott@writeforresults.com.