Tag Archives: writing

Jargon busting

Stop misusing jargon. Here’s how to write well with technical terms:

1. Introduce the jargon word for the first time

2. Explain it in everyday language

3. Carry on using it consistently

This reassures expert audiences that you know what you’re talking about. You need to go one step further for non-expert audiences, and help them to SEE what you mean.

Let’s take a current example of jargon: “intersectionality”

1. Introduce the word: “intersectionality”

2. Explain it in everyday language: “this means an analytic framework that attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society.”

Hmm. That’s not very everyday, is it? Too many big words.

Try again: “rather than looking for one reason – such as class or gender or race – to explain why people are poor, intersectionality suggests that all these factors – and more – get piled on top of each other and twisted round and round, and that’s what keeps people down.” (note, apart from “intersectionality” there are no big words)

3. Visualise: “intersectionality theorists might say, imagine you’re climbing a steep hill. It’s hard enough, then someone adds a heavy backpack. Other people keep putting rocks into the backpack. Each rock is a different reason why people discriminate against you: your sex, your age, your class, your ethnic background. Everyone has different rocks, but weirdly, these are special rocks that have the power to affect each other: one rock could make another rock heavier or lighter.  Intersectionality says “when someone is lagging behind, don’t just blame one rock, open up the backpack and see what’s going on inside.”

Three notebooks that will turn you into a “creative” type

Are you frightened of a blank piece of paper? Do you sit there thinking “I’m not a creative type”? Do new ideas stay stubbornly hidden when you need them most?

That’s how I used to feel.

I used to think that only a few lucky people were born creative, and that I wasn’t one of them.

Now I think I am creative.

I think you can be creative too. You just need to develop some good habits.

So, here’s one of my habits, involving three notebooks and a large table.

(Before you ask, you can’t do this on a computer, never mind a mobile phone. So no, there isn’t an app for this)

Head off down to your favourite stationary store (or a decent pound-store) and buy yourself:

Notebook One: A2 size or as big as you can fit on your table.

Notebook Two: A4 size.

Notebook Three: A6 size, as small as a passport or mobile phone.

And here’s how you use them.

Notebook 1 is for mind maps, spider-graphs, doodles and clumps of words that should go together. This helps you plan out a piece of work, or just get ideas down in a rough sort of pattern. Notebook 1 is how your brain works: a mixed bunch of ideas, loosely connected.

Notebook 2 is for a habit I learned from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. If ever you’re stuck, or just mentally restless, do this. Sit down and write three pages of A4. Just write. It doesn’t matter what, just keep going. It can be what’s on your mind right now, what’s going on outside, what happened today. It can be as simple as “I can hear Mum making tea in the kitchen.” If you’ve spent hours staring at a screen and your brain feels stale, do this now.

It will take you about 40 minutes to write three A4 pages. After five minutes, the nagging feeling of doubt (“Help, I can’t think of anything!”) fades away. Ten minutes in, more ideas are popping into my head than I can write down. Ideas are tumbling over each other in a stream. Sometimes a good idea or something urgent will pop up. And that’s when I switch to…

Notebook 3, which is sitting right beside me. I quickly jot down the idea and then switch back to finish my three pages on Notebook 2. At the end of 40 minutes, I will have two or three ideas in Notebook 3. This is also the book you carry round with you for the ideas that come to you during your day.

Finally, you take Notebook 3  to bed last thing at night. Before you settle down to sleep, make a note of three or four ideas you’ve had that day. Again, it doesn’t matter if they’re ground-breaking, set-the-world-on-fire ideas, just that they were yours. What you’re doing is training your brain to notice your own creativity. The more you’re aware of having new ideas, the more you’ll realise you ARE creative.

I’ll be honest, I don’t use three notebooks every day. But I feel better every time I do.

CAUTIONARY NOTE: don’t leave Notebook 2 lying around for all to see. If you want your stream of ideas to flow, you have to just write what comes to mind. You MUST NOT write Notebook 2 thinking that someone else might read it, as this will shut your ideas down and make them safe.

CREDIT: thanks to Zainab Khan for letting me test out the three notebook method.

NB: I also used Notebook 1 to block out chapters of my book before I started writing. I borrowed that idea from Hollywood scriptwriter Blake Snyder.

Image from Pixabay.com

Hey, I’ve got a great story…

Now, I’ve bought fifteen seconds of your attention. You’re hooked by the promise of a great story, with action and heroes. But why do stories work on us like this?

I’ve just finished two days storytelling training with a large media company and I’ve never known sessions to go so well. These were all professional storytellers but it was like everyone instinctively got it and still wanted to learn more.

Now I think I know why. So let me tell you a story…

Think of a time when you were new in a job. You settled in to an established order and tried to follow what people around you were doing. But then you found problems you couldn’t resolve, things that didn’t make sense. Surely there had to be a different way to do this? You tried, but nothing worked at first. You kept trying. Gradually a shape emerged from the chaos. After a lot more trying, you established a new and better way.

I’m describing the classic hero’s journey, from Homer’s Iliad to Homer Simpson. I’m also describing the way our brains make sense of a confusing world: assemble evidence, spot things that don’t fit, resolve problems by finding a new theory. It’s thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Or…

Act One: the world has an established order but something doesn’t fit

Act Two: the problem can’t be ignored, you have to act

Act Three: through trial and error you realise what needs to change

Act Four: you struggle to put this new knowledge into action

Act Five: a new order emerges where everything makes sense

And we all live happily ever after. At least, until the next problem emerges.

This is the story of Hamlet, Jane Eyre and Breaking Bad, and it’s the story of your day at work too. It’s the story of anyone trying to make sense of their world. This is why storytelling works – for professional writers or anyone who needs to communicate with passion about their work. We tell stories in the same way as we make sense of the world and our own place in it. This is why, a few seconds in to any conversation about work, I find myself telling stories to make my point.

“All of our storytelling theories have one thing in common,” writes John Yorke*, who has studied dozens of them. “All revolve around one central idea: the incomplete is made complete, sense is made.”

“Storytelling is the dramatisation of the process of knowledge assimilation.”

So long as you remain curious about the world or determined to change it for the better, you will be hooked by stories.

I think, therefore I am… a storyteller.

*Into the Woods, How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, by John Yorke

Click here if you’d like to watch the storytelling training I delivered last week.

3 steps to avoid the bull

Why do so many smart people in business and public service write and speak so badly? A UK judge recently accused a social worker of writing in such dense bureaucratic terms she might as well have been speaking a foreign language. What did “imbued with ambivalence” and “having many commonalities emanating from their histories” actually mean? And how did this help anyone decide if a child should be taken away from its mother?

If you’re writing bull, here’s three steps to help you sound more human.

Step 1: Work out why you write so badly.

It’s probably down to fear. Many of us are afraid we don’t belong, afraid someone will tap us on the shoulder and say “I’m sorry, there’s been a terrible mistake. We’ve just realised you don’t know what you’re doing, please leave.” So we copy the language and manners of those around us, the better to fit in.

Then there’s the fear that what we need to say is unpleasant and will upset the listener. So we reach for euphemisms like “downsizing”. The pain is still there, but with added confusion and mistrust.

Keep an eye out for these fears when you sit down to write, they are red flags predicting bull.

Step 2: Be sure of what you want to say and why.

What do you believe in? What are your values? How do they inform what you’re trying to do? In the case of the social worker, I bet she believes in giving vulnerable children the best chance of happiness. Does that mean sometimes making tough, painful decisions? Yes? Then say so. Explain why your values make you act the way you do.

Think about your listener. What are their values? Do they trust you to be honest? What language do they feel comfortable with? You owe it to them to be as clear as you can – on their terms, not yours.

Step 3: Re-write, with help from the masters of 20th century prose.

Write down everything you want to say. Read it back and underline all the moments you felt fear. Underline any section where you’re not sure about the values behind it. Chances are this is where you’re writing bull.

Now re-write, with advice from three masters of 20th century prose: Winston Churchill, George Orwell and David Ogilvy.

Churchill: “Short words are best and the old words, when short, best of all.” So engage in a process of extinguishing, eliminating, de-prioritising… No, try to strike out any long, modern word and use old, short words instead.

Orwell: “Never use the passive when you can use the active.” Passive is a fudge, allowing responsibility to be evaded. “Concerns were raised…” No, tell me who raised concerns about what and who responded.

Ogilvy: “Write the way you talk. Naturally. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, attitudinally, judgementally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.” Enough said.

For more tips on great prose writing:

Five writing tips from Winston Churchill’s “finest hour” speech.

George Orwell’s five rules for effective writing.

And David Ogilvy’s 10 tips on writing clearly.