Mar 312013
 

Nick Bilton’s suggestion that e-mail thank-yous are a time waster has sparked debate on whether or not it’s appropriate to thank people in digital communications. Some have gone so far to suggest that this new social ethic of efficiency is creating a generation of sociopaths.

I was just thinking about this the other day in the context of Twitter. I follow a couple people who thank their followers for every retweet and mention. While these tweets are technically typed in manually, there’s an automatic quality about them that makes them about as meaningful and personal as an auto-DM. And I hope we all know by now how gauche those are.

A few days ago I received an auto-thanks and Follow Friday mention from a popular education blogger, mentioning about ten other Twitter handles. Then I received about eight retweets and thanks from people on that list replying-all to the original tweet. It might have been more had I not started blocking people out of frustration.

My advice in two words: stop that. The automatic “thank you” for a door held open IRL is welcome because it is fleeting. But many of us have e-mail and phone alerts turned on for retweets and mentions. If you had to delete an e-mail or tap an icon on your phone every time someone thanked you for holding a door open, the gesture would begin to lose its charm.

If you want to thank a follower, try doing what I often do: go back through their feed a few tweets and see if there is something there you can retweet, favorite, or comment on.

If you feel you must thank, thank sparingly and genuinely. Take the time to verbalize the reason you are grateful.

Mar 282013
 

That’s the subtitle of my favourite blog on academic writing, “Stupid Motivational Tricks,” authored (primarily) by Jonathan Mayhew, a Professor of Spanish at the University of Kansas, who is a friend of mine and has been since our days in the sun in graduate school at Stanford. I have mentioned Mayhew’s work earlier, in my post on “The Plain Style.”

Mayhew’s blog is notable for its winsome erudition and a tart, funny and hyper-lucid prose style. Its focus on practical strategies for actually putting words on the page is unmatched among scholarly blogs and books I’ve seen. His insights on the latter include ways to divide one’s days and weeks rationally, how to use one’s non-writing time to resolve intellectual and creative problems, and how best to interact with one’s peers.

All of these insights are “portable,” and can help you become more productive in your own workplace. His blog is worth bookmarking as a resource for all writers.

I quite like Mayhew’s recent posts on “creative uses of theory,” like this one called “The Theoretical Reading“: It is said that if you don’t have theory, you will be relying on an unstated theory, unreflectively. That is true. Not having a theory or not having theory will not make you into a creative reader! In fact, you are likely to have very dull ideas, in the same way that someone who knows nothing of poetry is likely to write a poem about flowers that rhymes.

Full disclosure: A few years ago I made one post on this estimable blog. It was titled “Detecting BS.”


Follow us on Twitter: @nocontestca

Mar 282013
 

Over the past few days, I’ve come across three great articles about mentally setting the stage for successful communications.

Heidi Grant Halvorson’s “The 2 Epiphanies That Made Me a Better Negotiator” points out that viewing negotiation as a challenge rather than a threat and focusing on potential gains rather than potential losses lead to less stress and better outcomes.

Cindy May’s advice on acing a job interview? Feel powerful. Also try this when you sit down to write your cover letter and resume or university applications.

Michael Erard’s “Escaping One’s Own Shadow” advises you to “cleanse your linguistic palate” before sitting down to write by reading authorial styles that differ a great deal from that of the piece you are writing. He also makes a good case for shutting off social media while you work.

Mar 242013
 

Last week I gave a presentation to the Vancouver chapter of Construction Specifications Canada. It was called “Twitter? LinkedIn? How to Use Social Media Professionally.” The room was filled with architects, engineers, landscapers, contractors, and one or two marketers: an animated, serious, and friendly crowd. One attendee wrote me afterwards to say that the mood in the room went from skepticism (“does our business really need social media?”) to enthusiasm (“look at all the ways we can find and engage clients!”), to trembling (“the enormity of commitment to social media that is possible and available seemed scary”) (a rare, admirably correct use of the word “enormity,” by the way). Many attendees told me they left with a better idea of how to approach this field and how to be selective in terms of which social media platforms to focus on.

I explained how eight social media platforms – Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, Flickr, and blogs – were being successfully utilized in my audience’s industries. As a handout I provided CMO.com‘s 2013 Guide to the Social Media Landscape, which compares the first six platforms above in terms of their effectiveness across four categories: customer communication, brand awareness, driving traffic to one’s website, and search engine optimization (SEO). It’s a handy-dandy PDF:

According to its website, CMO.com is “Adobe’s content site created to provide digital marketing news and insight for senior marketing executives around the globe. Its aim is to help CMOs stay informed and save time so they can more effectively lead their companies in the digital world. The editors daily review relevant content from more than 150 leading content sources, including major business, advertising, social media, and marketing-industry publications and Web sites.  We scour posts from thought leaders and influential bloggers.  Plus, we publish articles by experts—Adobe’s own, as well as those from around the industry—agency leaders, and other CMOs that you won’t find anywhere else.”

It’s a marvelous site that, in addition to news, provides slideshows, event listings, lucid infographics, interviews, case studies, and product evaluations.

I tell my marketing students they need to check into CMO.com at least twice a week: “You will be paid to be the one person in the room who is on top of everything. Reading CMO.com is one way to help make sure that’s the case.”

Mar 122013
 

In the mid-1990s, shortly after I moved to Vancouver, I got a job doing Investor Relations for a public company drafting news releases, presentations, brochures, and the like. I would put drafts of these items together and present them to management and staff. During these meetings one sedulous and normally silent colleague would typically tear my work to pieces: “What about that, and this. And you forgot that,” etc. I did my best to address all these concerns and fill in the lacunae and maintain my professional demeanor.

One afternoon during such a meeting the company President evidently guessed that this regular show was beginning to make my smiling responses seem a tad bit forced, and he asked my colleague, “Where were you when the page was blank?” (I believed at the time that this utterly marvelous sentence was original with my client. It wasn’t, alas.)

While this remark later became my unofficial job description on basil.CA — “Essentially what I do is stop pages from being blank” — it completely silenced our sedulous colleague forever after, sometimes to the detriment of our company’s IR activities.

I tell my students that colleagues and teachers who edit their work have the same goals they do: To make prose on a piece of paper (or on a computer screen) more correct, concise, complete, convincing, and current. “It’s about the paper, not you. Don’t take it personally. And certainly never feel hurt by this process.”

Addendum: The company President mentioned above needed no more than three or four elliptical sentences by me on a draft news release to compose a detailed, two-page revision himself. But he was helpless before the blank page. My mentor at Prometheus Books Inc., Doris Doyle, was the same way. Each could compose blemishless prose themselves, by fixing the work of others. My sometimes lame drafts served as “generative devices” to get their own prose going.

“Generative Devices,” wrote my Stanford professor Gil Sorrentino, “are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the ‘laws’ set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of ‘inspiration,’ and its idiot brother, ‘writer’s block.'”

I rather like knowing that I was the “preconceived limitation” that got my colleagues’ writing engines humming.

typing


Photo by Miles Basil.

Mar 102013
 

I was walking down Granville Street the other day on my way to London Drugs when I spotted two Chinese monks ahead of me speaking to passersby.

Ordinarily cautious of sidewalk solicitors, I let one of them engage me precisely because they appeared to be Buddhist monks, with their shaved heads and saffron shirts and trousers. He placed his palms together and bowed, and I did the same. He handed me a little card with red tassels, and slipped prayer beads onto my wrist.

Then he showed me a flipbook containing names and donations, which all, curiously, seemed to be 20 dollars and written in the same handwriting.

“Oh, no no no,” I chided him. “I don’t have any money.” I handed back the little card and slipped the beads off my wrist.

“Change?”

“No, I don’t have any,” I told him, and scurried away.

A few years ago, I would have felt guilty, but that day I didn’t. The monk had attempted to invoke one of the most powerful societal norms we have — the reciprocity rule — solely to gain my donation. Because he’d given me a gift, I was then obliged to return the favor, or so it seemed.

Fortunately, thanks to Robert Cialdini, social psychology researcher and author of Influence, I reframed and rejected the gifts for what they truly were.

As long as we perceive and define the action as a compliance device instead of a favor, the giver no longer has the reciprocation rule as an ally: The rule says that favors are to be met with favors; it does not require that tricks be met with favors.

It’s worth noting that invoking the reciprocity rule in this fashion is a short-term strategy. We don’t tend to like people who have backed us into a corner. My fuzzy feelings about monks in general completely evaporated when it came to these particular ones. Indeed, not having any evidence they were affiliated with a temple, I began to wonder if they were monks at all, and whether there was anyone I could report them to.

The long-term (and ethical) strategy? Give freely, without asking for or expecting immediate returns. Reciprocity is powerful, and people will go to great lengths to try to return your favors. What goes around really does come around.

People will be suspicious; we’ve been taught “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and had so many experiences of being tricked that we sometimes reject treats.

That’s ok. Do it anyway.


Photo used under Creative Commons license from Richard Perry’s Flickr feed.

Mar 042013
 

It’s fitting that I should write this post on National Grammar Day. Choosing and arranging the right words with the right endings in the right order with the right punctuation isn’t even close to the most interesting thing I could tell you about language.

I recently had the opportunity to guest “lecture” for an Interdisciplinary Expressive Arts (IDEA) class at Kwantlen. I use the term lecture loosely; what we actually did was meditate upon, collect, and play with words.

Words are how we come to know the world. Though unable to speak intelligibly, infants begin to understand what spoken words mean at around six to nine months. Before we can do much of anything besides eat, poop, sleep, roll over, and turn towards sounds, we are picking up on the complex and consensually constructed language we’ve been born into.

Language has no inherent meaning; in a process that is almost magical, we imbue it with the concepts and objects and actions it comes to represent. Apart from onomatopoetic words like coo and screech, spoken words in no way resemble the ideas they represent. It’s a quality of language called arbitrariness. Look at that word: arbitrariness. Stare at for a little while, whisper it to yourself, until it unyokes from its meaning and begins to look weird and sound foreign. Neat, huh?

The wonder of words is that our creations are viral. Words enter language because we invent them to represent a particular thing, and then enough people must use them for the word to spread. It tickles me to think that words like boustrophedon — which refers to writing that alternates left to right and right to left, like an ox (bous in Greek) plowing a field — and aglet — the cap on the end of a shoelace — filled such a need to describe an idea or a thing that they were coined, they caught on, and they still exist. And the process of adding new words never stops. Want to see it in action? Visit Wordspy.

Not only do we come to know our history and our culture through words, we come to know each other. We are the sum of the words in our vocabulary and the frequency and manner with which we use them. Our idiolects, dialects peculiar to just one person, betray our worldviews and our personal histories. If you can forget politics for a moment, President Obama’s English charts a fascinating life.

That we can string words together into near-infinite variations within the bounds of grammar, an attribute called generativity, allows us to share with another the vicarious experience of our personal histories and imagined futures.

Words make us, we make words, and our words make the world.


Follow us on Twitter: @nocontestca
Follow me on Twitter: @bfwriter