Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Break

I'm going to be blogging on communication topics for Learning Tree International, at least for the immediate short term (my first post is already up and you can find my stuff intermixed with the other communication-related posts). Because I worry about "conflict of interest" kinds of things, I'll be shuttering this blog until either (a) I come up with an obviously different set of topics for this blog, or (b) Learning Tree realizes that I'm not worth spending money on.

Reading or read:

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Terms of Multitudes, Or It's only strange if someone else does it

For the last (many) years, I've been reading my way through Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. I just ran across the listing for terms to be applied to groups of things: My favourite is a "shrewdness of apes" (though, an "exaltation of larks" is still pretty good).

Initially, of course, these terms strike a modern reader as distinctly odd. I suppose these terms are a remnant of old counting systems that didn't go much beyond two (e.g. "one", "two", "many") and the natural extension of those counting system to give every number a unique name (e.g. "dozen" for 12).

But, of course, these terms aren't really all that unusual: We just don't notice the ones we use automatically. We all, I suspect, refer to a "herd" of cattle, a "team" of baseball players. And we do all still retain "pair" for 2 along with "dozen" for 12.

It seems to me that this is the essence of effective technical writing: reducing oddness to familiarity. The goal is always to climb inside the mind of the audience. A great part of that has to mean not regarding the audience as particularly odd (no odder than you and I are, for instance).

I've tried to take this to the logical next step: Whenever I'm reading about some culture foreign to me and I run across some practice that seems bizarre to me, I try to come up with some analogous activity in my culture that seems perfectly natural. This practice has a couple of interesting results. First, it's surprising how little time it takes for me to find an analogy in my culture for something that, initially, seemed foreign or bizarre. Second, it helps me see that other culture as being as human/normal/natural as my culture (sort of my version of "I am human and, therefore, nothing human is foreign to me"). What I like best is that it helps me see my culture with fresh eyes, as something full of odd things.

Where and how we live isn't just the "same old, same old": it's really quite special. We've just gotten used to it and don't notice its special wonderfulness.

My reading or read

Monday, July 21, 2014

Empathy Everywhere, Or Why Technical Writers Rule

The key skill for a technical writer is empathy: The ability to see the world from the reader's (or readers') point of view. Empathy doesn't mean agreeing with the reader, it merely means understanding and appreciating why the reader feels that way. You know you've achieved empathy when you can honestly say "I can see why you think I'm a complete jerk about this" (note: You don't have to think that you're a complete jerk).

What I think is so cool about this is that empathy is also the core skill in so many other fields. I've recently being thinking a lot about User Interface/User Experience design because I've been revamping an application for a client and writing a course on the topic. Empathy--the ability to see the problem domain/application from the user's point of view is critical to success in UI/UX design. I also spend a good deal of my life in negotiations (I'm a married man). Successful negotiation depends entirely on your ability to see the world as the person you're negotiating with sees it.

Of course, terminology changes. In UI/UX design we talk about "personas" (rather than "audiences") and "user stories" (rather than "scenarios") but, essentially, it's all about figuring out what matters to the user and using that to drive the design process. In negotiating we talk about "options" (what we'll present to the other person and what we ask the other person to offer to us) but, again, it's essential that we offer options that are attractive to that other person, that support their purpose in entering the negotiation and help them achieve their goals. In negotiation we don't talk about "explaining things" (the essence of technical writing, in many ways) but we do need to make it clear to the other person what is important to us so that the other person will make us an offer worth considering.

Really, the skills that make a great technical writer are the foundation skills for ruling the world...without anyone actually realizing that's what you're doing, of course.

Reading or read

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Presenting Performance, or "Tonight, We Improvise!"

In previous posts on creating great presentations, I've mentioned that nothing is more boring than watching someone read from their notes. Here are two other awful "mosts":
  • Second most boring: Watching someone recite a memorized presentation
  • Most agonizing: Watching someone try to recover from an error in the presentation
So, what can you do to avoid these problems? First thing: DON'T MEMORIZE YOUR PRESENTATION. Don't even try.

With a memorized presentation, you stop being engaged with the presentation and are, instead, simply concerned with getting from the current "right" word to the next "right" word. Time spent time memorizing is time spent guaranteeing that you'll turn your audience off by draining all the life out of your presentation.

Instead of memorizing, rehearse: give your presentation to yourself, over and over again. You can do this by abandoning your notes and your slides and rehearsing without them--this lets you rehearse anywhere. I get a lot of rehearsal time in while driving my car, for instance. Public transit is another good opportunity (don't move your lips, however, or people will think you're odd. Unless you're in New York City. There, you'll fit right in). And recognize that you don't have to rehearse your whole presentation every time: you can rehearse bits of it that you're having trouble with, or the opening bit, or the closing bit, or a bit you really like, or, really, whatever makes sense to you. That means that you can rehearse your presentation while, for example, during TV commercials.

What's great about these situations is that you can't read your notes (especially while driving your car. I find that the honking is really distracting). But it also means that you can start forgetting to do parts of your presentation. So, after doing a couple of rehearsals, you should go back to your slides (or notes) and make sure that you haven't forgotten about some key point that you've started omitting from your presentation.

Secondly, every time you rehearse, don't try to repeat your last performance. Instead, try to do it differently from the last time. Is there some material that you've realized that you want to drop? Try that. Something you'd like to add? Try that. What happens if you change around the order of your material? If you change the emphasis you're putting on the parts of some key sentence?

For real fun and to gain real insights into your presentation, try giving it like some other person. I find giving my presentation as a tent revivalist preacher often helps me understand how I can make my presentation work better ("Can I get a "YA-YES!"). That presentation style exists for a reason: It works. Try delivering your presentation in a monotone -- that highlights the parts that really do jump out on their own. It's also sort of funny.

Every time you rehearse your presentation, you'll come to understand it better and realize what you need to tweak. That tweaking will never stop and, as a result, every rehearsal will be different (though, after a while, you'll notice that your tweaks are getting smaller and smaller because you do get closer to perfection). If you're doing it right, you simply can't rehearse enough.

When it comes time to give your presentation, it will just be another rehearsal and you'll be fully engaged. You won't do it the way you did it last time but that's OK.

The Biggest Secret in Giving Presentations

The reason it's OK is because of the biggest secret in giving presentations: No one knows what presentation you were going to give. They only know the presentation you actually gave. If you've varied your presentation every time you've rehearsed, you'll find you've actually built up an inventory of stock material that you can use when you come to give your presentation to an audience.

These blocks of material (I call them "shtick") turn out to be tremendously flexible: you can insert them anywhere in your presentation. I have some shtick that I happily recycle into virtually all of my presentations (provided I'm either giving the presentations to different audiences OR building up a "running gag" with one particular audience).

This means that if you do forget something, it won't be a little thing: It will probably be an entire shtick. But, because you've rehearsed with that shtick in a variety of ways and placed it in a variety of places in your presentation, when you realize that (a) you've skipped some shtick, and (b) that you really can't afford to leave it out, you'll have a ready-made way of integrating that bit into some other part of your presentation. You will never be that guy recovering from a mistake in front of an audience -- you will just be the guy doing yet another version of the presentation.

I have some standard shtick that I use at the end of a presentation when wrapping up. A friend of mine was walking past a room where I was speaking, heard one of these bits, and thought to himself "Wow, that's great material. And Peter's coming up with it on the fly!" I wasn't, of course, but since I didn't have it memorized, it sounded like I was making it up as I went along: I was saying it slightly differently, putting it in a different order, or doing something different with it. Sadly (for me), my friend discovered the truth when he sat in on a session I was giving later in the day and heard me do very similar material at the end of that session. That gave away my secret, of course: he realized that I was pulling from a stock of shtick that I had built up and that I was just massaging it every time I used it.

Of course, he wasn't completely wrong with his first impression: To a certain extent, I am making it up as I go along -- I just don't start from scratch.

And, sure, after some speeches or presentations I've sometimes realized that there were things I wanted to say that I'd omitted. But, in the end, that doesn't happen very often and I've never omitted anything important. More importantly: Because no one knows the presentation I was originally going to give, no one knows what I left out.

As a side benefit, this process makes your presentations more professional. In a class I was taking, for example, we were required to make a presentation that run between 4.5 and 5 minutes--not a big window to hit. But, because of my frequent rehearsals, I knew exactly how long my presentation was going to take. When it was my turn to speak, I stood up, spoke without notes, "made it up as I went along", and took my bow at 4:45, right in the middle of the window.

I've spoken at weddings and funerals and I've never spoken with notes (of course, on these occasions I'm speaking for ten minutes or less). People frequently comment on this but that's only because they haven't followed me around for the prior two weeks. At the start of the process, I did do some planning: I took a first cut at what I wanted to say, stories I wanted to include, and the order I wanted to cover my topics in. But after that initial planning session, whenever I had a chance, I was rehearsing my speech (or parts of it) over and over again, doing it differently every time. The final result has a family resemblance to the original plan...but it's a distant relation.

More importantly: It's always come out alright at the occasion. Always. And it also gives me room to speak from the heart when I finally stand up to speak. And that, as it turns out, matters more often than you might think.

Reading or read

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Reasons for Reading, Or There are so many readers out there

I read reviews of books on Amazon.com and often run across reviews that say something like "books should do x" or "great writers do y" or "real literature always has z." Just to be perverse, rather than look at what a good book should do why don't we come at the problem from the reader's point of view? If we ask why someone reads a book then we should be able to answer the question of what a book should do.

We read for pleasure, of course, but that pleasure comes in many forms: to laugh, to be moved emotionally, to be thrilled, to be horrified, to be just scared a little. I think that one of the reasons that 'kid's lit' (or Young Adult fiction) is so popular is because it delivers these pleasures in concentrated doses (I'm looking at you, "Hunger Games").

We also read to gain some insight into a time or place we find interesting. Reading for this reason can work in at least three ways. A book that is written about a time and place will give the reader a view from the author's perspective (and providing that view was probably part of the author's intention in writing the book). People who read historical fiction or books set in Japan are obviously in this category. Much of my fascination with books from India has been the chance to be exposed to life in a foreign country.

A book is also of its time and expresses that time and place without the author intending to do that. We often read books written years ago to understand what people wanted to write about "back then." So, while Trollope describes the world he lives in as he sees it, Trollope is also a product of his time. As a result, the things that he wants to talk about and the way he talks about them help us understand the time he lived--and I enjoy that. I'm reading "Junky" by William Burroughs at least in part to understand what it was like to be a junkie in New York in the 1950s.

In addition, a book is also of its time and place because of the way it was received by the readers of its time. Reading the popular literature of a different time or place is often wonderful way of understanding what the people "back then" or "over there" care/cared about. People who read "Victorian literature" or fiction from the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s (as I do) probably fall into both of these categories: they read for the insight into that time and they read for the pleasures that books at that time delivered to readers. It's certainly the only possible reason I could have for why I'm reading "The Mysteries of Udolpho" by Ann Radcliffe.

We read to be informed: The reason that I'm slogging the "The UX Book."

Some people (me, again, as an example) read to see how language can be used. What sort of things do you talk about in a collection called "The Best Gardening Writing of 1992"? How do sports writers write about tennis matches and baseball games? One of the things that I enjoyed about some of the military books that I've read has been the way they are written, as much as the context.Closely related to this is reading to see how writing has changed over time. I've read a number of books that were written decades (or even centuries) ago and enjoyed seeing where my language started from and how it ended up where it is today.

Sometimes we read to get "behind" writers to the material that affected them and that they draw on. A writer you like refers to some other book as "great" and you go and buy that book. You buy not it not only because you think that book will be a good read but also because it will give you some insight into that writer. The reason that I read three of the Italian epics (the two Orlando books and "Jerusalem Delivered") was because C.S. Lewis spoke well of them.

Fans of an author (or genre), of course, compulsively search out books because they want to read 'everything' (that's almost the definition of 'a fan'). Readers who want all the books in a particular series of stories often read books for this reason (they often say things like "Oh, I know that book wasn't very good, but I've read everything else."). Others recognize this as a reason for reading and will mention that a book is "for fans only." While in New York, I picked up a copy of William Burrough's "Queer" because I'm reading "Junky", will be reading "Naked Lunch," and "Queer" is sort of the book he wrote in between those books. I've read all of John Gardner's books (including his kid's books and books about writing) because they're all written by John Gardner.

I suspect this list isn't exhaustive: there's probably lots of reasons that I've missed and I've only picked the ones that I know drive my reading. My wife, for example, will read almost anything as long as she gets to meet interesting people in the book--plot and action are nice but not a necessity. I've read any number of thrillers where characterization was obviously unimportant and plot was everything that mattered.

So, when someone says "a book should do x" or "good authors don't do y" I don't think that the person writing the review has any idea what they're talking about. In fact, if we looked at all the books that those reviewers have read we'd probably find that they're not even talking about why they read: they probably read lots of books that don't do either x or y. I recognize that my only reading is driven by a variety of different purposes and, I suspect, theirs is also. There are so many readers reading for so many different reasons that it's difficult (by which I mean "impossible") for anyone to say what a writer should or shouldn't do.

Reading or read

  • The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel by Isaac Babel
  • Junky by William S. Burroughs 
  • The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
  • Tales of Sevastopol by Leo Tolstoy
  • Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Scorpion by Matt Wagner
  • Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Blackhawk and the Return of the Scarlet Ghost by Matt Wagner
  • Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Vamp by Matt Wagner
  • The Human Stain by Philip Roth
  • God's Gift to Women by Don Paterson
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki 
  • All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  • Krishnakanta's Will by Bankim-chandra Chatterjee
  • River of Fire by Qurratulain Hyder
  • Friday, April 4, 2014

    Words That Don't Exist, Or, You can't preg anything

    A friend recently wondered what the opposite of "recessed" was--"uncessed," perhaps? The actual opposite is "raised," of course, as my friend knew. But sometimes our mind gets trapped by patterns in words (and sentences) and wanders off on blind trails. The issue with "recessed" is that it looks like "re-cessed" suggesting that "cess" is a word that can carry prefixes and suffixes. However, "recess" (in this sense) is, as far as I know, just a word that happens to begin with the letters "re."

    English isn't a logical language and, because words come from so many places, there probably aren't any patterns that you can rely on. For instance, "impregnable" is a word that suggests the existence of the word "preg" (as in "Who will preg the impregnable?"). And, how, we wonder is this related to "pregnant"?

    While "preg" may once have been a word (I don't know) it isn't any more. Though, interestingly enough you are allowed to say "That position is very pregnable" (though the spelling checker that comes with Blogspot disagrees, I notice).

    As an another example, I once had a classmate refer to a team "mantling and dismantling" a scaffold. It makes you wonder why we don't have "mantle" as a word.

    This desire to spot patterns and create words is so powerful it's actually added new words to the language (a process called "back formation": people move from what they consider to be a variation on a word to what they assume must be the base form of the word--in fact, that 'base form' did not, previously, exist). The noun "editor" existed long before the verb "edit" did but people, assuming that "editing" was what an editor did, added "edit" to the language (in fact, "editor" was a Latin noun that meant "producer of games"). Perhaps, it's only a matter of time before we start saying that what ushers do is "ush."

    Moving beyond words that don't exist (at least, not any more) there are all those words that do exist but can only be used in particular situations. Some words, for example, are only used in the negative: You could, presumably, "mince words" but no one ever does; People only say "I'm not going to mince words." And you certainly can't "unmince" your words though, presumably, that's what you do when you put 'officialese' into plain language.

    Language is fun.

    Reading or read

    Saturday, March 1, 2014

    Fitting into the Local Language, or New words! New words!

    I'm just back from three weeks in the frozen north (Iqaluit on Baffin Island and Rankin Inlet on the northwest corner of Hudson's Bay). Being up there reminded how important it is to develop a feeling for the "local language," especially if you want to talk about your reader's immediate environment and have some measure of credibility. After all, if you can't speak the "local lingo" how much can you know about the local conditions?

    As I spent time in these communities, I started picking up the terms and inserting them into my speech. As an example, I was staying at the Frobisher Inn...but no one calls it that: It's "the Frob;" the land mass I was on for the first two weeks is "Baffin," not "Baffin Island;"  the place where I spent my third week is "Rankin" not "Rankin Inlet." If, for instance, you have a gathering where people just come to talk to each other then you're coming "to have a chat around."

    Of course, if you're only in a location for a short period of time, you won't become fully fluent in "the vocab" (as English as Second Language teachers describe it). As a result, you'll drop clunkers: use words incorrectly and use non-local words when there's a local word that you don't know (yet). In order to get permission and forgiveness (i.e. to defuse reactions resulting from your misuse of the local lingo) you need to mention that you're only just starting to learn the local vocabulary. Again, this goes to credibility: It shows that you're interested in the local environment, that you're actively getting familiar with it, and that you recognize that it's a rich environment that a short term guest (like you) isn't going to pick up in a few weeks.

    One last term that one of the people I was working with shared with me: In Prince Edward Island (where she was born and grew up) people may wave to you today...but yesterday they "wove to you." Cool.

    Reading or read