Continuing Ed

One thing of value I find in blogs I follow are quick hits and/or recurring features.  So, in a blog about communications, what better regular feature than sharing new words that I’ve come across — new to me, that is.  Here are three:

Hipsterical.  Found this while perusing the comments in an interview with a woman who says that the Facebook era is an “anomaly.”  Funny enough, she works for Microsoft as a researcher who is primarily concerned with the online habits of teenagers.  Oh, and her name is danah boyd.  No, that’s not a typo.  She chooses not to capitalize the first letters in her name.  Do you get the meaning of the new word yet?  I thought so.  You can read the interview here.

Listicle.  Again with the comments.  My friend Ann Lee Gibson used this new word in response to a posting on Facebook (soon disappearing, apparently).  She didn’t use it in a complimentary way when discussing the downward spiral of journalism, and journalists in particular.  It means an article that is basically a list, without any real reporting.  For example:  “Ten Ways to Fight Fat!” or “Top Five Ways to Get Your Blog More Followers!”  Checking out this word on Wikipedia, as good a place as any, I discovered that it was added way back on Valentine’s Day in 2009.  Comment (again!) of the first poster:  “Surprised  we didn’t have it already!”  That made me feel real smart.

Portmanteau.  What “listicle” is, dontchaknow.  Back in the day, I probably would have described listicle as a “made-up word” and been done with that.  But someone had the bright idea to name these word mashups after a style of luggage that has two compartments that itself was named by some French guy who compounded the words for carry (porter) and coat (manteau).  Those French, always on the leading edge of things…  or ledge, if you will.

That’s all for today — more words next time.  Please feel free to share other new words you’ve come across in your daily travels.  It’s fun to learn new things!

Forgetting the Tip

When it comes to writing about writing, especially on the Interwebs, there is this tendency to start giving advice, like some latter-day Dear Abby:  Do this, don’t do that.  You’ll look stupid if you don’t use “educated-sounding” words.  You’ll look dumb if you do.  Every time you use passive voice, a puppy dies.  And so on, and so on.  You’ve read those articles or blog posts, whether you stumbled upon them or went looking for them.  Of course, these dispatches wouldn’t be useful if they also weren’t distilled into 5 or 7 or 10 “tips” that you’ll always remember, and never forget.

Well, here’s my tip:  forget the tips.  Good writing is good writing, even in a business setting.  You know it when you read it.  It is sometimes flavored by passive voice.  Occasionally it doesn’t involve complete sentences.  Like this one.  And, it can include sentences that start with conjunctions (gasp!) and end with prepositions, depending on what you’re writing about.  Sparkling adjectives and really mundane adverbs are used.  To gratuitously split an infinitive is allowed.  There are other sacrifices made to the grammar gods; punctuation prima donnas are not invited.

Writing is not math, thank goodness.  There are no specific formulas to follow or equations to solve.  Yes, there are some rules, but slavish adherence to them does not produce the best results, similar to how some of the best musical performances don’t always follow the strictest confines of tempo or pitch.

Wait a sec, you say.  That’s all well and good for creative writing or fiction writing, but what if I need to communicate in the world of business?  Creativity is not welcome, or perhaps even desired, right?  Well, maybe yes.  Wild and crazy creativity is not something you probably want in a variety of business circumstances, especially when it comes to things like accounting or human resources policies.  Lord knows, getting creative with numbers has gotten a lot of people into a lot of trouble over the years.

So, because this is a blog post and I can’t help myself, here’s my tip: When it comes to writing — business or otherwise — you should start by asking these two questions: 

1. Who is your audience?
2. What do you want to tell them? 

Once you answer them, then communicate with your audience clearly and, usually, concisely. Yes, there are a lot more questions you could ask and answer before you’re done, but I’ve found that most people forget these two crucial points and launch right into a lot of profoundly bad writing.

If you really want some in-depth writing advice, rules and even a half-dozen tips, I suggest you read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which can be found here.  No surprise, I like Orwell’s last tip the best: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”  Truer words…

My Tags Are Showing

I have a confession to make:  All this time that I have been (and have not been) blogging, I have not tagged any of my posts.  They have categories, yes.  But tags?  Not a one.  That is, until now.

Why am I sharing this?  Well, first it is news, if only for this blog.  Additionally, part of communicating with others is making sure they receive the message.  I’m told that tagging is yet another way to help readers navigate the ever-expanding world of content that is out there.  So, gentle reader, I’m really tagging for you.

You’re welcome.

Rough Drafts and Drafting Drunk

How do you start writing?  For a lot of people, staring at a blank screen is terrifying, even paralyzing.  Most people would rather do just about anything but write, it seems.   This is a phenomenon that author Stephen King has noted about writing:  “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”   As a result, during my many years in the workplace I have seen that once you’ve been identified as “a writer” or even “a very good writer” (cue Rainman imitation), you suddenly become like Mikey in the old Life cereal commercials:  “Give it to John.  He writes anything.”  In fact, I often refer to one of my employers as a place filled with editors, not writers.  Guess who I was.  Yep — no one but me, it seemed, wanted to write the first draft, the “rough” draft.

Fast forward to last week, when I was reading one of my guilty pleasures (Entertainment Weekly magazine).  I was skimming over the Books section (yes, EW does have one) and I saw a sidebar on Chelsea Handler.  I don’t enjoy or really care about her writing, but my eye was caught by a quotebox that said, “Write drunk.  Edit sober.”  This apparently has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway, not surprisingly.  It was the first time I’d seen that quote, and it intrigued me.  I wondered whether if it is the loss of inhibition that makes it easier to write?  If old Ernie was right, people need some courage in a bottle to write, or at least be a little creative, I guess.  But apparently, the booze is only a part of the process of writing well because even he acknowledged that the significant and much underappreciated skill of editing must be done with a clear head.  Then again, there is that well known side effect of alcohol, that overarching, foggy narcissism, when anything and everything we do just seems better than the rest.

In case you’re wondering, I’m writing this while quite sober, but I have promised myself a drink after I’m done.  So, maybe writing is really all about motivation, like most things in life.  But to get a little more philosophical for a minute, I like to write because what I produce has an aspect of permanence to it.  I like the idea that something I’ve done might survive long after I’m gone, if not from this world, at least from people’s thoughts.  I doubt I’m the only one to ever feel this way.  We remember the things that we’ve written or read that mean something to us.  We share good writing with others.  We can even “like” it on Facebook.

So, I’m not sure I really understand those people who avoid writing like the plague.  Given all this, who wouldn’t want to write?  Right?  But, in the end, I think this quote from Dorothy Parker sums up best the frustration and satisfaction that is writing:  “I hate writing, I love having written.”

Time for a drink.

What’s New?

Apparently, what’s new is this post — and maybe this blog.  Yes, after a four-year (!) hiatus, I’m going to take another run at blogging.  Only time will tell whether or not I have something to say.  It appears that this blog — like so many, many others — is akin to a fad diet:  you pay a lot of attention to it at first, and it’s rewarding.  But soon enough, life intervenes, either with this work crisis, or that home project.  Or maybe it was just plain boredom and run-of-the-mill writer’s block.  Whatever it is, the posts become less frequent (less interesting?) and eventually, they stop.

To the extent that blogs like this remain primarily a personal indulgence, I will ask my fair readers to be kind upon my reintroduction to the blogosphere.  It may be a bit rough on re-entry.  I do know one thing, though… I want to write more often and better, and the only way to do that is, to coin a phrase, to “just do it.”

So, here I am, just doing it.  More to come…

Speaking of Social Media

I’m very excited about the opportunity today to talk at the ACC Chicago Chapter event on “How Social Media is Changing the Way We Do Business” being held at Drinker Biddle’s conference center in Chicago.  It features three sets of panelists from both Drinker Biddle and top companies discussing a variety of topics, from how social media is transforming intellectual property, the impact social networks have on the employee life cycle and how social networking trends can affect e-discovery and data privacy.  We’re expecting close to 200 attendees, and it promises to be an interesting and lively afternoon!

It Goes Without Saying

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been marveling over the experience I had during and after the Legal Marketing Association’s annual national conference.  It was obviously an honor to be invited to speak about how law firms are using social media from an in-house marketing/communications perspective.  The presentation itself went very well — it was even SRO (thanks in part to a too-small room!).  Clearly there was a LOT of interest in the subject matter.

So, too, I discovered, there was a LOT of discussion during the the session itself on Twitter from people both in the room and even a couple who were miles away.  For a very thorough (and terrific) summary of the session and the tweets during (and after) it, please check out Lindsay Griffiths’ blog post here.  As you can see, there are a couple of spots where I was pretty outspoken and even a bit provacative in my comments.  For those that know me, that’s probably not a surprise.  However, for those that don’t know me, there was a bit of purposeful hyperbole to some of my comments since this was a live presentation, in a hot, crowded and increasingly stuffy room, after lunch — a combination that has proven deadly to many panels I’ve sat through at innumerable conferences.

I’ve participated in these types of panels in the past and have always tried to be thought-provoking.  Sometimes there have been questions or comments during or after the presentation.  In these face-to-face encounters, people are usually polite, even somewhat restrained in their candor given the immediacy and personal nature of this type of interaction with me and other panelists.

But this panel was completely different, thanks to Twitter and the tweets coming from the audience.  The comments were coming fast and furious — nearly simultaneous with the panel’s own statements, and many contained some valuable candor and interesting commentary.  But thanks to the magic of Twitter, the comments were all silent!  Not a sound, other than the soft tapping of a laptop keyboard or mobile device.  In retrospect, it was really amazing, and astonishing, that the majority of interaction in the room during the presentation was occuring digitally.  Absent a couple of quick questions at the end (limited by our running out of time), the only people talking were the panelists.  I joked to someone afterwards that it was like we were in an electronic echo chamber, with a couple of mute hecklers thrown in for spice and variety.

I’m still conflicted about the whole experience, mostly due to what a sea change it represents in the power of the audience.  In the past, as an audience member, you had a couple of choices to make if provoked by a speaker.  You could mumble to yourself or even walk out, or if you were really PO’d, you could yell out (something members of Congress seem to be particularly adept at recently).  Now, though, if you’re motivated enough, you can just whip out your iPhone or Blackberry, type no more than 140 characters, and presto!  Instant feedback or rebuttal.  (Certainly a long ways from the olden days of “Jane, you ignorant …”  For those too young for this SNL pop culture reference, check out this.)

My progressive side says, “Get over it.  This is the way things are now.  It’s great that we can now comment immediately — it will change the way many speakers present.  We will adapt to the change.”  And we will.  Before the presentation, we attempted to get wi-fi access to the room so that we could have the tweets onscreen to respond to in real time.  Right before I started speaking, I actually was able to check a few tweets about the beginning of the presentation on my Blackberry (actually joked about it to the audience).  As the presentation continued, though, it was nearly impossible to check for new tweets and still pay attention to the presentation and make the points I was trying to make.

And that’s where the old fogey in me starts to pipe up and make me sound like a parent or teacher.  “If you’re tweeting, you’re not listening.  And if you’re not listening, you’re not participating.”  Yes, listening is participating.  If you’re more concerned about tweeting things, there is a great chance that you’ll miss something that’s said (maybe even something important).  It could even be that you are disturbing others in the room.  I heard a tweeter (tweep?)  in my presentation say afterwards that a fellow attendee told her it was rude to tweet during a session.  More and more colleges are agreeing with this sentiment by banning laptops in cell phones in class (see this interesting blog post).

For me, the jury is still out on whether tweeting during a speech or presentation is a great new thing or just rude.  Maybe it’s both.  I see tremendous benefit for non-attendees.  I even see benefits to presenters in some circumstances.  I also see how it can be rude — or at least impolite – and it certainly is a bit disconcerting for a speaker.  But I’m grateful to have had the experience with it as both an attendee and a presenter.  It won’t end anytime soon, but I wonder if there will be an evolving etiquette to it.  Or that some will tire of it simply because it takes a lot of energy to do it well.  Or that speakers or conferences will take steps to stop it.

So, what do you think?  Definitely more to come on this.  No matter my conflicted feelings on this topic, I do love the fact that I live in a time where we can even be thinking and debating about this stuff.  Fascinating, incredible, frightening, overwhelming…   And that certainly goes without saying.

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