We Are Addicted to Stories

How many stories did you tell today? Think about that for a moment. I am not talking about the stories we tell ourselves because that is constant. Our head gets choked with rational and irrational sagas. I am talking just about the ones you tell. Did you share the tale of your commute with colleagues? Did you tell an anecdote from your high school days?

How many stories did you hear today? If you spoke with three people you probably heard upwards of twelve to fifteen stories. Little ones are seeded throughout our conversations. Big ones entertain and engage.

How many stories did you read today? Between newspapers, that novel you are working your way through, and even advertisements you will have read a ton of stories.

How many stories did you watch today? We live in an era of binge-watching. Movies are everywhere. We can load tv shows and movies on our devices and consume them anywhere. Most shows now have four or five subplots so there are plenty of narratives to follow.

John Gottschall author of The Storytelling Animal says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” Stories are the primary construct for human interaction. It is how we connect.

I have been practicing storytelling and narrative psychology for the past ten years. What has surprised me is we see narratives even where there are none. The storytelling format affords meaning to our lives. It is an engrained form of problem-solving. It helps us make sense of the world.

Humans have always been storytellers. We started with pictograms on cave walls then became masters of the oral tale before we took up the pen. Stories provide a way for humans to feel control over the world. They allow us to see patterns in chaos and meaning in randomness. They are sorting devices and educational vehicles for what has come before, what is happening now and what may take place.

Storytelling shows us how other people think. We compare and contrast when digesting stories. This may affirm our own beliefs and perceptions but more importantly they can throw them into question.

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The Hot Dog Stand Story

This business fable has stayed with me since I first heard it in university. Over the years, interpretations have popped up at conferences, meetings and in articles. It is an entertaining tale offering different lessons depending on what is emphasized. Apologies to the original author. I would gladly give credit if I knew who you are. Here is my version.

There was a man who ran a roadside hot dog stand. It was located far outside the city. For years he worked hard to make it a success. That effort paid off and eventually people would travel long distances for one of his hot dogs. It became a popular and sentimental institution. Families formed traditions around visiting the stand and tourists were told to fit it into their schedule if possible.

So what made it special? It was not one thing, it was a combination of quality and care that was difficult to match or copy.

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How Blogging Has Influenced Writing

It is hard to comprehend that a new blog is created every 7.4 seconds. Nearly 3,000,000 posts are made public every day. Over 10,000 updates take place each hour. These statistics come from Technorati and prove that there is a hell of a lot of content in our world.

The Internet and social media democratized writing. Unfortunately, so much of it is poor. The content tends to be unoriginal, dumbed-down, misleading and misinformed. Other issues persist including the regurgitation of the same content and the writer lacking credibility. There seems to be a need to pump out more, for more’s sake, rather than providing real thought, real value.

These issues impact the profession of writing and the efficacy of blogging. For those with a formal education in writing the vast majority of blogs provoke cardiac arrest. The very basics of writing are missing; structure, spelling, tenses, storytelling, and grammar. Too many blogs fail to include a unique point-of-view and a motivating call-to-action.

It is fair to say that the very nature of blogs is sloppy. They are opinion pieces lacking interviews and research, they are short compared to articles and papers, the content is built around SEO keywords, the style is casual, and, as covered, good writing is optional. Every single blog post would benefit from proofreading and editing.

Writing is an art form. Blogging must correct the ‘quantity over quality’ mission it currently pursues. Here are ways to make that correction.

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Storytelling Good Reads

Enjoy this round up for recent and relevant storytelling articles. Some are geared to the practice of writing but you will find they can be applied in a commercial context to help drive your brand, marketing and advertising.

Inciting Moments (find it here)

From the Writers Write blog comes this education on two types of inciting moments that drive interest and the story. At its root is how a problem is solved so this construct can be applied to a brand beautifully and creatively.

Storytelling Is Not a Strategy (find it here)

Kelly Wenzel, Chief Marketing Officer at Contently, chooses a provocative title for this piece but the content is less contentious. It deals with content marketing. A term I have always disliked…has there ever been non-content marketing? Those who choose to identify themselves as content marketers seem to believe the goal is producing and pumping out more and more stuff. Wenzel gets teasingly close to what should be happening – a solid theme that motivates the audience and supporting communications that keep it fresh.

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The Perils and Pleasures of Public Speaking

“There are certain things in which mediocrity is not to be endured, such as poetry, music, painting, public speaking.” Jean de la Bruyere

This piece can be read below or download the nicely designed PDF and share around (PublicSpeaking).

I recently spoke at a client’s retreat and it marked the 125th time doing so. This does not include pitches and client presentations, guest lectures at schools, and media appearances. There has also been a large number of webinars, seminars, and panels. Along the way I have witnessed thousands of presentations representing the absolutely brilliant to the unbearably bad (I count some of my own in both camps).

Every conference provides old and new lessons in public speaking. Whether these events are valuable, necessary evils, boondoggles, idea stimulators, fiascos, ego-fests, networking opportunities, money grabs, or highly entertaining – one can take away something to apply when your turn to present comes up.

Given the experiences and observations accumulated, I have compiled ideas and lessons that work. In so doing, I avoid the obvious and well-stated ones. What follows should be extremely helpful when your turn at the podium comes up. Read more

New & Improved: This Branding Trendsletter Is A Must

Its not on any set schedule. We send out New & Improved when we have good stuff to share. Not only our own ideas, cases and thoughts leadership but the best thinking in branding, marketing, and thought leadership. Sign up here. If you don’t like it you can opt-out any time though we will go into a deep depression.

Check out the graphic eye candy below to give you an idea of the content…like these wonderfully designed headers…

And how about this proprietary content?…

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Fun and Accurate “Truth Facts”

This Truth Facts website positively nails what we encounter in daily life. It takes those insights and creates pithy charts to illustrate the finding. Let the smiles and head nodding begin.

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Top-Drawer Business Books of 2016

Too many business book lists are narrow in definition. As Robert Weider said, “Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative person looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport.” The Top-Drawer list is less traditional. That is why the list includes, and is sometimes dominated by, books not categorized purely as “business”.

We always avoid books promising four-hour workweeks because they are fables, over-simplified and prescriptive how-to works that are vacuous and dangerous, and so-called inspirational books that are trite, lite and ineffectual. These are all tossed aside when one experiences the blunt adversities found in actual commerce.

There are no shortcuts or magic panaceas in business. We have to do the work even when reading. As John Locke stated, “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” We encourage you to read the selections here and make the knowledge yours.

The list includes books released in 2016 that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, well written, applicable, thought-provoking, and innovative. Our last bit of criteria makes the selections tougher to determine and that is timelessness of content. We love sharing the Top-Drawer list because so much of success in business is predicated on great storytelling and these selections exemplify that skill.

This year 13 make our list and are presented in no particular order. For the first time, fiction efforts are included for the amazing lessons they carry if one is open to the education. For fun, we have included a separate list of 8 timeless business novels.

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2016 Top-Drawer Business Books

It is that time again. We are happy to share our annual business books picks. Welcome to the 9th edition of the Top-Drawer Business Books of 2016. Too many business book lists are narrow in definition. Our list is less traditional and duplicative to others. That is why it includes, and is sometimes dominated by, screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-3-32-04-pmbooks not categorized purely as “business”.

We always avoid books promising four-hour workweeks because they are fables, over-simplified and prescriptive how-to works that are vacuous and dangerous, and so-called inspirational books that are trite, lite and ineffectual. These are all tossed aside when one experiences the blunt adversities found in actual commerce.

There are no shortcuts or magic panaceas in business. We have to do the work even when reading. As John Locke stated, “Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” We encourage you to read the selections here and make the knowledge yours.

The list includes books released in 2016 that are top-of-mind, notable, relevant, Famous_Nathan_jacket_revise_new_trim_size.inddwell written, applicable, thought-provoking, and innovative. Our last bit of criteria makes the selections tougher to determine and that is timelessness of content. We love sharing the Top-Drawer list because so much of success in business is predicated on great storytelling and these selections exemplify that skill.

This year 13 make our list, 4 more than last year, and are presented in no particular order. For the first time, fiction efforts are included for the amazing lessons they carry if one is open to the education. For fun, we have included a separate list of 8 timeless business novels.

Remember, life is too short to drink cheap scotch or to read books that are not Top-Drawer. So keep these selections within easy reach for repeated reference. Access the list here, topdrawer2016final.

The High Cost of Poor Business Writing

Hello dear reader. It is important for you to know that I labored over every word in this post. Oliver Wendell Homes said, “carve every word before your let it fall.” For tone-of-voice I strove for “friendly academic and passionate advocate”. Then I asked, “What do I want the reader to remember?”

I love to connect with people through writing. I do a great deal of business writing and have been encouraged of late. This skill and practice is under scrutiny. Its poor quality leads to inefficiency and ineffectiveness. I am encouraged because we are beginning to recognize the magnitude of the problem.

Josh Bernoff recently wrote in The Daily Beast a piece titled, Bad Writing Costs Businesses Billions. Bernoff has been a writer for 30 years and just published, Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. The article grabs with an amazing statistic. It seems that bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year. That is a staggering number.

Bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year.

Bernoff writes, “Think about it. You start your day wading through first-draft emails from colleagues who fail to come to the point. You consume reports that don’t make clear what’s happening or what your management should do about it. The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.” The last sentence resonated with me. I am on a mission to ruthlessly, creatively and intelligently improve my own writing. This is a demonstration for to do the same.

American workers spend nearly a quarter of their day reading. Much of that is wasted because the material is poorly written. Bernoff has done the math, “American workers spend 22 percent of their work time reading; higher compensated workers read more. According to my analysis, America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material. Every company, every manager, every professional pays this tax, which consumes $396 billion of our national income.”

The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.

Bernoff illustrates the problem with this mind numbing job description example: “The Area Vice President, Enterprise Customers will develop and manage a sustainable strategic relationship that transforms the current commercial model by creating joint value that results in the ongoing reduction of costs, continuous process improvement, growth and profitability for both partners with the ability to export key learnings.” Such language is poor and embarrassing but it also grates.

Kaleigh Moore wrote an article on business writing in Inc. earlier this year. It examined a related aspect of poor business writing. She makes the case that communication “is an essential skill for any business”. This seems obvious even fundamental but apparently it is not given the sad state of the skill in the business world.

She cites a study from CollegeBoard, a panel established by the National Commission on Writing. It shows that “businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training annually. Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees–not new hires.” This is not attributed entirely to our early years in the education system because “even a college degree doesn’t save businesses from the effects of poor writing skills.”

A report from the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills notes that 26.2 percent of college students had deficient writing skills. These educated folks “also lacked proper communication skills across the board.” This should come as no surprise. Writing makes you a better reader and conversationalist. It can also improve your presentation skills. Writing, reading, conversing and presenting all contribute to knowledge and confidence. That makes for a much resilient, more innovative and efficient workforce.

Carolyn O’Hara is the Managing Editor of The Week and tackled the subject of business writing in Harvard Business Review. Her piece, How to Improve Your Business Writing, is practical. She paraphrases Marvin Swift who said, “clear writing means clear thinking.” Swift wrote a touchstone essay on business writing in a 1973 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management is quoted in same piece, “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.” That is so true. I have witnessed too many of my clients making the mistake of not only assuming they have been heard but that they have also been understood. Too frequently, neither has taken place.

Too many of my clients making the mistake of not only assuming they have been heard but that they have also been understood.

O’Hara lays out sound advice:

Think before you write: don’t start writing on the spark of an idea. Talk it through in your own mind before words flow on paper.

Be direct: make your point right up front. It will guide everything after. I think of this as a thesis statement to be proved or disproved.

Cut the fat: avoid the unnecessary and build up the necessary but not with more words. Do it with more emphasis…there is a difference.

Avoid jargon and $10 words: I used to believe I was paid by high-sounding words. I know now it is about being convincing and not trying to impress.

Read what you write: I agree but recommend reading it out loud. I am often embarrassed when I hear the words. Equally so, I am happy when they are edited for greater impact.

Practice every day: We write something every day but I also advocate walking away from that book, article, blog, or report. After all, athletes do not train the same muscles each and every day.

Josh Bernoff has his own advice for better business writing. He suggests “The Iron Imperative” where you “treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. To embrace it means that every time you send an email or write a document, you must take a moment to structure it for maximum readability and meaning. We are lazy; we’d rather save our own time than someone else’s.” That is very true. It is far too easy to press “send” than to edit again.

It is far too easy to press “send” than to edit again.

He recognizes that smartphone or computer screen reading “reduces attention spans and concentration” so it “demands a radical rethink of the way you communicate in writing. In this environment, brevity must become a core value.”

I am not a proponent of this in a strict sense. Most social media is soundbite-like but exists to compel people to investigate and learn more. That eventually demands long-form business writing. Bernoff’s mantra of ‘clarity, brevity, and plain language’ misses the opportunity to be creative, inject personality and tell a rich story.

Let me summarize what we have covered in hopes of compelling and convincing you of my thesis. First off, poor business writing costs businesses big dollars in inefficiencies and lost sales. Second, everyone needs help to be a better writer.

This means you. You can always improve and if you do you will be contributing to your career, your company’s success, and the entire economy. If that was not enticing enough, you will be incredibly proud when you press send on that next e-mail or text or when your article appears in Fortune or Bloomberg BusinessWeek or when your marketing materials convince a customer to try your offer.

Famous advertising professional, David Ogilvy, had it right, “People who think well, write well… Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.” We are taking writing for granted. It is just something we do, not do well. That has to change.

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