You’re a funny warthog
In storytelling, there are a few fixed roles.
The most important is the hero: the protagonist.
On the other hand, there’s the villain – the antagonist – who opposes the protagonist.
In The Lion King, for instance, Simba is the hero. We experience the story from his perspective and empathize with his goals and problems.
Simba’s uncle, Scar, is the villain. He wants to kill Simba and become king of the animal kingdom himself.
A lesser-known role is that of helper.
This is the one who supports or saves the hero in difficult moments.
Simba has two helpers: Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog.
If you use storytelling in your communication, it’s good to think about this division of roles. Because there’s a danger that you assign yourself, your organization or your product the role of the hero.
It works better to give your audience that role. For example, to tell your story from the perspective of the customer, patient, employee, student or citizen.
Certainly, you have a role as well, but that’s the role of helper. The one who saves or supports your audience.
That’s a very important role. But you’re not Simba.
You’re a funny meerkat or warthog.
Is this heaven?
A song by comedian Bo Burnham starts like this:
An open window
A novel, a couple holding hands
A poem written in the sand
Fresh fallen snow on the ground
A golden retriever in a flower crown
It seems like a collection of random, idyllic images. It’s only in the chorus that it becomes clear what those images have got to do with each other.
Is this heaven?
Or is it just a white woman’s Instagram?
I can work with that. 😉
On social media, we often show an idealized reality.
You don’t share that your mud-legged golden retriever just soiled your couch, or that you no longer have the concentration for a thick novel.
The same goes for professionals and organizations: they also usually present an idealized version of themselves. They show how good and successful they are.
Does that work?
Certainly not always.
We might be impressed by the white woman on Instagram. But we don’t feel a strong connection with her.
For that reason, it’s interesting not only to communicate about the things you’re good at, but also about your doubts, problems and shortcomings. In a presentation, for example.
That’s scary and requires a lot of fine-tuning.
If you do it carefully, your audience won’t think of you as a loser. They will think of you as human, reliable and sympathetic.
I’m just improvising
Have you ever taken classes about designing or choosing visuals? For your slides, for instance?
For most knowledge workers, the answer is ‘no’. At universities, designing visuals is rarely part of the curriculum.
Even though almost everyone has to give presentations, later, at work.
Visuals anxiety. Image insecurity. Perhaps even image shame.
The sense that you are just improvising.
Based on intuition. Based on what you see others do.
This article offers some tools to choose consciously between 4 types of visuals. Every type of visual has its own advantages and disadvantages.
This article helps you, for instance, when you often use the same type of visuals. For example, when 80% of your slide show depicts data visualizations, or schematic representations of cell structures.
The article also helps you when you use very few visuals. When 80% of your slides show bullet points with text, for example.
Curious? Read it here!
How do you come up with a metaphor?
A popular science article begins like this:
[…] imagine a company of drunken students who wander in the streets, and whenever they come to an intersection one of them just spins around and they all go down the path that ends up being in front of the spinning student’s eyes.
In this way the author, Oliver Nagy, makes the mathematical concept of ‘random movement’ concrete. That’s an arbitrary route in a network. Random movement is used, among other things, to describe stock prices and the distribution of pollen.
Is your subject also abstract and do you communicate with a wide audience?
Then it really helps to use a concrete metaphor.
But how do you come up with that?
Usually it helps to articulate the underlying idea first.
In Oliver’s case: sequential, random movements on nodes.
The next step is to brainstorm where you encounter that idea in a familiar sensory setting.
Streets and intersections make the network physical in a logical way. And drunken wandering is a beautiful depiction of random movements.
The metaphor allows Oliver to quickly explain later what distribution is (places where the students can be and the probability that they are indeed in that place) and mixing time (the time that elapses until it no longer matters for the distribution what the starting point – the pub – was).
PPS Oliver’s article is meant for people with a basic knowledge of mathematics.
Ode to your shitty first draft
Are you a perfectionist?
When you write, perfectionism is both a blessing and a curse.
A blessing because your text gets better when you rigorously sharpen formulations and spot errors.A curse because perfectionism often frustrates the beginning of your writing process.
The beginning of a writing process is almost always messy. For a perfectionist, that’s hard to accept. The result may be that you start late or don’t start at all writing your text.
Therefore, today in the spotlight: the shitty first draft (SFD).
When you allow yourself an SFD, you consciously insert a phase of imperfection.
You write in this phase just to explore lines of thought and formulations.
No one is looking at it.
No one criticizes you if your thoughts are childish, your paragraphs messy, or your sentences clichéd.
You just write. Preferably at a good pace.
Is your SFD finished?
Then you take some distance from your text and start the next writing phase. For example, you can create a new structure plan (bullet list). Or you start with a new version in which you copy a successful passage.
With the shitty first draft you create a first, accessible step in your writing process. So that you can start writing more easily.
PS The idea of the shitty first draft comes from the book Bird by Bird by writer Anne Lamott.
PPS Due to the holidays, I won’t send you any tips for the next four weeks. See you the end of August!
More than a *$&#ing shitload
China produces 56,432,811 tons of tomatoes annually.
What are you picturing when you read this sentence?
And would it have been different if it were 28,216,405 tons of tomatoes?
A difference of 50% is huge. Yet our brain doesn’t necessarily experience it that way with large numbers.
An episode of the TV show Bullshit! explains this nicely.
Penn, an overweight American in a suit, stands behind a table. On that table are cups with chocolate candies: N&N’s.
His producer doesn’t allow him to mention brand names.
The first cups contain 1, 2, 3 and 4 N&N’s. Penn eats them and explains that he understands this well. 3 is 3 times as much as 1. But still, it’s not much.
5 to 8 N&N’s is already better: he calls them ‘a few’. And 10 to 30 N&N’s are ‘a bunch’.
There are many things Penn would like to eat ‘a bunch’ of.
Then we come to ‘a lot’ (10 bunches). And after that it’s just a big pile. An assload, a shitload, etcetera.
On the table is a cup with 2347 N&N’s. Penn explains what that means for his ‘monkey brain’: ‘more than a mother*$&#ing shitload’.
Do you ever communicate about large numbers? Try to make them relative. Or to relate them to something your audience can imagine.
Facebook has 2.9 billion users. About a third of the world’s population logs in monthly. If Facebook were a country, it would have the most inhabitants in the world.
A has to do with B
Until the beginning of 2020, I gave face-to-face training sessions.
With name plates and flipcharts. With coffee pots and cheese sandwiches for lunch.
I can hardly imagine it anymore.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I mainly see training participants on Zoom and Teams.
That has its drawbacks, but not only…
In online sessions, I started to discuss one communication technique much more often. And that worked out so well that I thought, why haven’t I done this before?
The technique is called ‘stringing’.
When you string, you connect a term you introduce to a term you’ve already used.
- As you grow older, your working memory deteriorates.
- This working memory deteriorates when certain brain circuits become less well connected.
- The decreased connectivity in these brain circuits is the result of problems with two so-called theta interactions.
A has to do with B, B with C, C with D. Etcetera.
On a shared screen, I use colors to analyze a text or a bullet list in this way. You usually don’t have a whole piece of text ready on a flipchart, do you?
Stringing is a simple technique, but it often greatly improves the flow and comprehensibility of a story.
PS Want to know more about stringing? I wrote this article about it.
Brainstorming for an hour about two words
A while ago I spoke to Renske.
And Renske made a stimulating remark about titles.
‘You can easily brainstorm for an hour about an appealing title. Even though a title only consists of a few words.’
Okay, take a step back.
Who is Renske?Renske is a teacher-researcher at Hogeschool Utrecht. Her subject is ‘youth’.
For a new website, she called in my colleague Priscilla.
The website describes nine working methods. And those methods have titles.
Two of the original titles were ‘Triade Conversation’ and ‘Multiactor Intervision’.
Those titles provoked alarming reactions.
‘Erm, what do you mean?’ ‘If you want to recruit people, you really have to come up with another name.’
That’s why Renske decided that things had to be done differently. And that it could take some time. To make sure the titles would evoke curiousity.
Do you ever create titles yourself? For your report, your presentation or your project?
Invest time, brainstorm, come up with alternatives and check them with your target audience.
Just like Renske.
PS You can read the entire conversation with Renske below. The communication lessons from her project are, for example, about dealing with a broad target audience, formulating calls to action and informal writing. And you can read what the new titles are. 😉
Getting used to an informal writing style
Communication lessons from Renske Schamhart
How do you address many different people at the same time? That was one of the most important questions in the project called ‘Learn with us in the youth domain’. Teacher-researcher Renske Schamhart, from Hogeschool Utrecht (HU), wanted to share working methods with ‘the entire youth domain’ on a website. This domain extends from crèche to neighbourhood team and from university to juvenile detention.
Six characters as target audiences
In the project, it quickly became clear that the website has six target audiences: young people, parents, researchers, professionals such as youth care workers, and teachers and students from courses such as pedagogy and Social Work.
Renske: ‘On the website, we gave each target audience its own color and ‘character’. For example, the parent character is a father with a baby in a carrier. The associated color is red. If you click on a character, you’ll see the working methods that are interesting for that target audience. So you can click through the site from your own perspective.’
What’s in it for me?
If visitors just click around, it’s not enough: they also have to do something with the working methods. And for that, they need to be motivated.
Renske: ‘On the website, we didn’t only describe what the working method entails, but also what it yields. The only thing was, that differs per target audience. A teacher doesn’t get the same out of a working method as a professional. That’s why we answered the same question from the perspective of each target audience: What’s in it for me?’
A related question is how exactly the audience should get to work with the working methods. Renske: ‘Through conversations with Priscilla, I started to think about this a lot more. We wanted to include a clear call to action, instead of just inform. At first glance, the call to action seems clear: choose your working method and get to work. But a student, for instance, can’t do this on his own initiative. He will link up with a teacher or with someone from a network who organizes a working method. So you have to find out for each subgroup how you can help them to get started.’
Away from ‘university worthy’
The style of the texts on the website is informal: short sentences and accessible language. Some sentences are even incomplete. A sentence that, for example, starts with ‘And’. When you read the texts, it’s almost as if someone is talking to you. Because Renske works in higher professional education every day, she had to get used to this informal writing style.
Renske: ‘I’ve been trained to write ‘university worthy’, with complete sentences. If students use colloquialisms, I correct them. So I had to get used to the informal style, but I also like it and I’ve learned a lot from it. Moreover, we get enthusiastic reactions to the texts.’
The project also made Renske think about communication tools in the university, such as PowerPoint presentations and study manuals. ‘Our means of communication are university worthy, but often quite boring. There is much to be gained if we attune it more to the students’ perception of the world.’
Titles and image reinforce each other
Each working method has its own title. For Renske, the importance of an appealing title became increasingly clear during the project.
Renske: ‘Two of the original working method titles were ‘Triade Conversation’ and ‘Multiactor Intervision.’ We received alarming reactions on those titles. ‘Erm, what do you mean?’ ‘Difficult word.’ ‘If you want to recruit people, you really have to come up with a different name.’ Those comments made me realize that we needed to pay more attention to the titles. Even though a title only consists of a few words. In the end, we chose ‘Triple profit’ and ‘Intervision outside your bubble’ as the new titles.’
Renske also points out the interaction between title and image. ‘Each working method has its own image. If we had a good title, it turned out to be easier to come up with that image. This applied, for example, to ‘Intervision outside your bubble’. In the image accompanying this working method, four people puncture each other’s bubble. You won’t come up with something like that with ‘Multiactor Intervision’.’
A lot of work, but then you have some
When asked about a last lesson, Renske reflects on the time investment. ‘Realize that such a project is labour-intensive, also as a client. If you want to do it carefully, you’ll have to think about a lot of choices, and check everything you create with your target audiences. But then you’ll get something really nice in return!’
The downside of a free audio tour
Fleur works for a large museum.
She has a plan to improve visitor ratings. That is: free audio tours for every exhibition.
Visitors who follow an audio tour, rate the exhibition on average 0.6 point higher than other visitors. And if the audio tour is free, it will be used more.
Not much to argue with, right?
Unfortunately, Fleur’s audience – the museum’s management – will probably have a different view.
Usually, you mainly think about the benefits of your own plan. While your audience primarily focuses on the risks. Because your audience has status quo bias: it unconsciously prefers to leave things as they are.
The status quo is known and ‘safe’. Despite the imperfections.
If you propose to change the status quo, your audience won’t know what it’s getting. That’s why such a proposal leads to reservations.
Is the data solid?
Is it financially possible?
What does this mean for counter staff?
Do we have enough equipment?
Can we do this with every exhibition?
If Fleur addresses and removes such objections, her story becomes more convincing.
Do you have a plan that you believe in as well?
Use your enthusiasm in your communication. But also look at it through the lens of the status quo bias.
Storytelling: what is that exactly?
The organization I work for has ‘storytelling’ in its name.
I give training on storytelling. I advise on storytelling. I do executive storytelling work.
So you would expect me to know exactly what it is: storytelling.
But do I?
Of course I have an image of the term. But I must admit that I couldn’t describe it one-two-three. And that’s what I wanted to do for a new page on our website.
The thing is, people use the term ‘storytelling’ in a variety of ways.
Storytelling in a presentation can relate to (personal) anecdotes and emotions.
In (corporate) storytelling in companies it’s often about meaning and the ‘why’.
Storytelling in reports and scientific papers usually refers to a ‘narrative’ structure.
Do you get confused by the term ‘storytelling’ as well? On our page ‘What is storytelling?’, I’ve broken down storytelling into three main ingredients.
So you can quickly see if it is for you. And get ideas on how to apply it.
PS Also check the cool visualizations. Thanks to my colleague Priscilla!
I Have a Dream in PowerPoint
Is there something wrong with PowerPoint?
In any case, the program has a dubious reputation.
For example, there is the expression ‘death by PowerPoint’. It occurs when you’re in a musty room listening to someone who monotonously reads slides full of boring walls of text.
Switzerland even has an Anti PowerPoint Party. The aim of the APPP is to ban PowerPoint through a referendum.
According to the party, in 95% of the cases PowerPoint leads to poorer presentations. With major economic damage as a result. (The solution? Flip charts.)
A third and final example of the resistance that PowerPoint provokes comes from Belgium. It’s from the comedian Arnout (sic) van den Bossche.
In a skit (in Dutch) he shows a PowerPoint version of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. Including agenda, inimitable 3D bar charts, spinning text, moving arrows and action plan.
According to Van den Bossche, PowerPoint takes the soul out of a presentation. Because people start with the technology and not with the story.
Does that make PowerPoint intrinsically bad?
I don’t think so. I actually like working with it myself.
If you know and avoid the pitfalls, PowerPoint is a fine tool.
If you don’t, it turns into a murder weapon.
The true nature of the Smurf
Blue gnomes with white pants and a floppy pointed hat.
Smurfs may seem innocent.
But nothing is less true.
In a book from 2011, the French political scientist Antoine Buéno shows the true nature of these creatures.
The gist? Smurfs are totalitarian racists. Kind of Nazis.
First of all, the Smurfs have a dictatorial leader: Papa Smurf. They must hand over all of their possessions to him.
And then Smurfette has blond hair. A clear reference to the Aryan ideal of beauty.
Finally, there is Gargamel, the evil enemy of the Smurfs. Whoever studies his appearance, identifies a stereotypical Jew. And why else is his cat named Azrael?
I don’t want to burn my fingers on whether Buéno is right. In any case, I had never looked at the Smurfs that way before. 😉
One statement I do dare to make, is that you should watch out for Smurfs in your texts. To be precise: for what we call in Dutch ‘smurf words’.
Smurf words are generic words that can mean anything. They make your text abstract. Well-known examples are ‘to realize’ and ‘to facilitate’.
So please try to smurf an alternative for those kinds of words.
The name of the CEO
The housewife’s syndrome.
Betty Friedan first wrote about it in 1963.
Back then, when women got married or became pregnant, their careers usually ended. And often not because they wanted it.
The involuntary life as a housewife led to problems.
Loneliness, boredom, dissatisfaction. The feeling of not being part of society. And sometimes even alcoholism, depression or suicide.
Now, in 2022, things are different.
Are they indeed?
Of course, much has changed since 1963. But to say that the opportunities in the workplace are equal for both sexes…
For example, only 4.8% of the CEOs of Dutch listed companies are women. Reason enough to continue drawing attention to gender equality.
Recently, a remarkable fact was used as a communication weapon.
Dutch listed companies have more CEOs named Peter than CEO’s who are female.
This little fact is so powerful because it is specific. It’s not about 4.8%, but about one name. And thus it immediately evokes images and emotions.
It was therefore quickly picked up by the media. And around International Women’s Day, many Dutch women changed their first name on their LinkedIn profile to ‘Peter’. As a playful reminder.
Do you want your message to stick as well?
Be alert to specific facts.
Duel is one of Steven Spielberg’s first movies.
The main character, salesman David Mann, drives a small red car through a desolate landscape. It’s hot.
He comes to drive behind a huge, brown truck. He overtakes it.
Moments later, he sees in his rearview mirror that the truck is tailgating. Mann waves and lets him pass.
The truck cuts him off. But after that, it seems like nothing happened.
Mann stops to refuel. The truck stops as well. Mann drives on and again, the truck tailgates. Even when Mann accelerates and reaches high speed.
For a moment, Mann manages to shake off the truck. But the menacing metal monster keeps appearing. It becomes increasingly clear what it wants: to kill Mann.
At the end of the duel – spoiler alert – the two vehicles face each other on a dead end. The truck approaches Mann. Mann locks the accelerator with his briefcase and jumps out of the car.
After a collision, the truck rolls into a canyon.
As a viewer, you feel nothing but relief.
Duel is simple, but pure storytelling.
We get to know a main character with whom we identify. That main character has a problem. And in the end, that problem is overcome.
If you look closely, you can see this structure in many films.
And you can also use it to make communication about your work more interesting. Though that may sound farfetched.
They seduce the mamils
In the village Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, they’re not a fan of cyclists.
At least, that’s how I imagine it.The village is located south of Amsterdam and opens up a beautiful cycling area.
On a sunny Sunday, thousands of cyclists cycle through Ouderkerk, on their way to polders and ditches.
Most of them are ‘mamils’: middle-aged men in lycra.
Until recently, you couldn’t walk safely through the narrow Dorpsstraat of Ouderkerk on such a summer day. Left and right, the mamils raced by.
But now, the municipality has come up with something clever. A friendly sign to tempt cyclists to detour, and thus avoid the Dorpsstraat.
This is the sign:
This sign is clever because it speaks the language of the target audience.
Among cyclists, KOM stands for King of the Mountain. In the Strava sports app, you get the KOM crown if you’re the fastest in a segment – hilly or flat. ‘Kom’ is also the Dutch word for ‘come’.
I am a mamil myself.
Every time I see the KOM sign, I have to smile. And I am more than willing to change my route.
Do you want your audience to be more benevolent and understand you better?
Speak its language, use its words.
Little green man
‘Suppose a little green man…’
Stephen Hawking once wrote this sentence in a scientific paper.
The playful formulation didn’t make it to the final draft. An editor forced him to change it into ‘Suppose an observer…’.
I came across this anecdote while researching for an article on academic writing. I couldn’t find out if it’s true.
In my research I stumbled upon more little jokes from scientists.
At the time, I didn’t include them in my article. But today I’d like to share a few with you.
Scientists find, for example, room for humor in the titles of their papers:
Both have really been published.
The names of new animal or plant species sometimes contain a joke as well.
For example, there’s a mite that’s called Darthvaderum. And a mushroom with the name Spongiforma squarepantsii. Both because of their shape.
The names of the species come from an article by biologist Stephen B. Heard. Heard also wrote a Scientist’s Guide to Writing.
He argues that we should include ‘touches of whimsy, humanity, humour, and beauty’ in papers more often. Obviously, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of clarity.
How to create a group
You’re going to the supermarket for nine groceries.
Strawberries, broccoli, butter, raspberries, kiwi, cucumber, milk, tomatoes and white bread.
But you’re not allowed to make a list.
Remembering nine groceries is a lot for your brain. So it’s useful to create groups. Categories, clusters, silos…
But how do you create logical groups? Not only for your groceries, but also for structure puzzles at work?
A tool that can help you is MECE: Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive.
For example, the groups ‘dairy’, ‘fruit’ and ‘green’ are not MECE. Because ‘fruit’ and ‘green’ are not mutually exclusive. Just ask the kiwi.
The groups ‘dairy’, ‘fruit’ and ‘vegetables’ are not MECE either. Since white bread doesn’t fit into any of these groups.
Then what is MECE?
For example, the groups ‘red’, ‘green’ and ‘white’. At least for this collection of groceries.
In your work you can use MECE to analyze data or arguments, to get a grip on complex matters or to make a chapter division.
That’s why consultants love it.
The problem called template
Suppose I start a presentation like this:
I’m Arnaud from Analytic Storytelling.
Today I’m going to talk about templates.
By the way, I work at Analytic Storytelling.
A template is a standard layout for slides. Often with an organization logo and fixed colors.
I work at Analytic Storytelling.
According to communication expert Jean-luc Doumont (recommended!), many people do something similar in presentations. Maybe you do it too, without knowing it.
Obviously, nobody literally says their name after every sentence.
But people do use a template on every slide.
For example, the Kennesaw State University (Georgia) template looks like this:
This isn’t about me trying to bash Kennesaw State University. Because almost every organization has a template like this.
If you’re working on a presentation, a template might feel comfortable.
There’s nothing on your slide yet. But it already looks professional.
Jean-luc Doumont thinks very differently about templates.
According to him, everything on a slide should contribute to the message. Anything that doesn’t, is visual noise. And visual noise makes your message less clear.
Doumonts own slides are very minimalistic. I’m a little less radical myself.
But seeing your template through his eyes is stimulating.
By monkeys 🐒🐒
Your monthly internet costs are increased. By monkeys.
What does this sentence have to do with good communication?
One of the most important pieces of writing advice is to use the active voice. And to avoid the passive voice.
An example of an active sentence is ‘Joseph cooks the spaghetti’. The passive counterpart is ‘The spaghetti is being cooked’.
An active sentence is more direct and visual: it paints the whole picture. Active sentences are therefore usually clearer, more attractive and easier to read.
If you want to use the active voice, it’s important that you recognize passive sentences immediately.
You can do this by paying attention to the auxiliary verb ‘to be’. Cooking is taking place, decisions have been made, internet costs are increased…
But wait – it’s much more fun this way.
Check if you can add ‘by monkeys’ to the sentence. Possible? Then the sentence is probably passive.
PS I found the monkey trick on the website of Monzo. You can also use zombies, if you prefer.
Blood and milk
One day in high school, I passed out.
During geography, on my school desk.
The lesson was about the Maasai, a nomadic tribe in Eastern Africa. One of the Maasai traditions is bloodletting.
A Maasai selects a cow from his herd. He ties the neck with a belt. Then he shoots the cow in the neck with bow and arrow, causing the cow to bleed. He collects the blood in a gourd.
When the gourd is filled with about half a liter of blood, the Maasai pinches the wound edges together. This stops the bleeding. The Maasai adds milk to the blood and drinks it.
I had a teacher who expressed himself very visually. And I couldn’t stand blood.
Before the milk came in, I was knocked out on the table.
This anecdote shows how strong the effect of a good story can be. You’re drawn into a world and have an emotional reaction on what you’re picturing in your mind. And sometimes even a physical one. 😉
You probably don’t want your audience to faint.
But if you want to get your message across, emotional involvement really helps. You achieve this involvement with a visual description full of sensory details. With blood and milk.
What’s the fire?
Today I have a little exercise for you.
Storytelling often revolves around an opposition. The opposition between problem and solution, between before and after.
The opposition creates tension: we aren’t yet where we want to be.
Sometimes you’ve been working on a subject for so long, you forget the opposition. You’re no longer focused on the problem part. So you forget to talk about it.
In other words, you only communicate about the solution: your advice, proposal, research, policy or product.
Therefore, as an exercise: find the corresponding problem for each solution below. And take at least half a minute to describe the problem.
Here’s an example to get into it.
Is the solution ‘firemen’? Then say that annually, there are over 66,000 house fires in the Netherlands. In about 50 cases with a fatality. And with 800 people every year with very severe burns. This often leads to years of trauma. The average financial loss per fire is almost € 21,000. Etcetera.
Describe details, numbers, consequences and the associated emotions.
Here we go:
A reversing camera for your car
A website with medical information verified by specialists
A campaign for understandable government language
A quality mark for fair fashion
How do you convince a skeptic?
In my training sessions, participants sometimes ask difficult questions.
I like that.
One of the most difficult questions is: how do you convince someone who fundamentally disagrees with you?
For example, someone who doesn’t believe in climate change. While your story is about heat pumps.
Or someone who thinks that 5G towers emit dangerous radiation. While there is no evidence for that.
And I haven’t even mentioned corona yet.
So it’s a topical question…
It’s hard. Sometimes it’s impossible. But not always.
The most important thing is that you really start from the world, the knowledge and the values of your audience.
The best example I have found is in the book Made to Stick: about a campaign against the litter problem in Texas.
How do convince the stereotypical young, male Texan who occasionally leaves something lying around?
That Texan has a pickup truck and doesn’t care about seals. He is proud and independent and doesn’t let anybody tell him to clean up his mess. He’ll decide that himself!
The ‘Please no litter’ signs had little effect. 😉
In the campaign, Texan pride eventually became the deciding factor.
For example, there was a TV commercial with a tough, famous Texan baseball player throwing garbage in a trash can with a fastball.
The slogan? Don’t mess with Texas!
Is a question mark in your title a good idea?
Today I have something funny for you.
It’s called Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.
Betteridge’s Law states that to any headline that is formulated as a yes/no question, you can answer ‘no’.
Is this the new medicine to cure AIDS?
Is Algeria a paradise for renewable energy?
Are cryptocurrencies taking over the world?
If the answer were ‘yes’, the headline would be different. That’s the idea behind Betteridge’s Law.
A journalist would love to put in the headline that a cure for AIDS has been found.
That’s why headlines with a question have a bad reputation. A reputation of overselling and sensationalism.
Since I know Betteridge’s Law, it’s difficult for me to read headlines with a question in a neutral way.
More examples? There’s a dedicated Betteridge’s Law website with an extensive collection.
A much better slide (within a few minutes)
Today’s tip has just four words.
Use The Noun Project.
Use it for your presentations. And for your infographics and graphical abstracts, if you make them.
What is it?
The Noun Project is a database with icons created by graphic designers.
You can find an icon for just about everything. There are over 3 million icons.
Let’s take the following slide about police investigation as an example.
There are just a few sentences on the slide. But still, your audience has to concentrate to grasp it.
And it’s not very appealing, such a slide full of text.
Enter The Noun Project.
In a few moments, you’ll find an icon for every important word.
Sometimes you need to be a bit more creative. For example, with ‘common crime’, I used the keyword ‘pickpocket’. And with ‘serious crime’, I used ‘mafia’.
The result may look like this:
I’m not a graphic designer. And I’m sure my alignment isn’t perfect.
But I did make a slide that is much better than the one with just text.
In less than 15 minutes.
PS I don’t have any shares in The Noun Project. Just to make sure. 😉
Talk to me
A blogpost from 2005.
You can see from the layout that it was a while ago: MS-DOS vibes.
But it’s still one of the best articles on writing I’ve ever read. And I’ve read quite a few.
The title alone.
Author Kathy Sierra advises to write the way you talk. But then without the um’s and you-know’s.
Not only in blog articles. Also in books.
Even books on complex topics.
When you write conversationally, something strange happens.
Your reader knows he’s not having a real conversation. Yet his brain subconsciously thinks it needs to talk back. So it pays more attention.
Research also shows that people remember conversational writing better than formal writing.
You may know this intuitively. But most people have unlearned writing informally in high school.
Too bad, Sierra says. Your sixth-grade teacher was wrong.
Sierra ends her story with a nice one-liner.
If your brain had a bumper sticker, it would say: I heart conversation.
So, do you want me to pay attention?
Address me as ‘you’. Ask me questions. Use everyday words.
Just like in a conversation.
Advice from the art academy
In my twenties, I studied for two years at the art academy.
My specialization was ‘Image and Language’, and one of the courses was ‘Writing’.
I wrote a story that was set in Mongolia – I had been there. I have always remembered the criticism of one of my sentences.
Mongolia is a vast country, with magnificent, untouched nature and an authentic nomadic culture.
I wrote something like that.
I was still young. 😉
The teacher was resolute. Cliché formulations. Too much ‘tell’, too little ‘show’.
This is how I got introduced to the basic rule for creative writing: Show, don’t tell.
You can tell your audience that a country is vast. But it works better to show that. With images and details.
How do you see it?
For example, do the characters ride a horse for a day without seeing anyone? Do they buy two kilos of rice because they know they won’t see a shop for the next week?
Show, don’t tell is also good advice for professional communication.
If you want to say that your product is user friendly, of high quality or sustainable, for instance.
Does the phone have a four-year warranty, is it made from recycled materials, and can you repair all parts yourself (with a manual)?
How do you see it?
Baby, Werewolf, Silver Bullet
Never in my weekly tip has a werewolf passed by.
That must change.
Here it comes.
The SCQA-structure makes your story comprehensible and urgent. And I fully support the method.
The abbreviation is somewhat abstract. And maybe hard to remember.
Some time ago, in a blog post by biologist Andrew Hendry, I came across a more visual alternative.
Baby – Werewolf – Silver Bullet.
(The Q is missing, but that’s not a problem.)
Andrew Hendry says to start your story with a cute baby. A subject we find interesting or important. Like biodiversity.
Then explain that the baby is being threatened. So that the audience will start to worry. This is the werewolf part. For example, the biodiversity is being threatened by habitat loss.
Finally, describe the silver bullet you use to make the werewolf (more) harmless. For example, designing ecological corridors in a new way. A way that limits the impact of habitat loss.
Can’t remember the abbreviation SCQA for a moment? Think of Baby – Werewolf – Silver Bullet.
That’s hard to forget.
How Can I Make This About Me?
Are you on Twitter?
I am, although I rarely post. I mainly look around for input and distraction.
An account I enjoy following is ‘How Can I Make This About Me?’. HCIMTAM shares messages from people who put themselves a little too emphatically in the spotlight.
Like Prof. David Pinto:
Renowned psychologist Prof. Dr. Willem Hofstee passed away. Sad. Prof. Hofstee was a member of the reading committee of my Dissertation and he wrote about me: “The greatest possible respect is due to the contributions the author has made to civilization and humanity.”
Another fun HCIMTAM example is Instagram model Natalie Schlater.
She posted a picture in which she stands prominently in front of a rice field, in underwear. Caption: ‘Thinking about how different my life is from the man picking in the rice field every morning.’
HCIMTAM shows extremes of narcissism and vanity.
But the tendency to relate something back to yourself is not extreme in itself. It is human.
And your audience has that tendency – consciously or unconsciously – as well.
Therefore, it’s best to ensure that your story is already explicitly about your audience. Because people find themselves most interesting after all.
You overestimate your audience
Everyone knows this!
Do you ever think that when it comes to your subject?
Many experts know this experience. You think you’re explaining something in a very simple way. And yet your audience looks at you questioningly.
The mechanism that plays a role here is called the curse of knowledge.
As an expert, you’ve been trained in your subject for years. And the knowledge you’ve gained, determines the way you perceive the world.
An ornithologist recognizes a merlin, while a layperson only sees a falcon, a bird of prey or just a bird.
An ornithologist has all kinds of associations with the word ‘merlin’. How it looks, that it’s rare, that it’s small, that it doesn’t hover, like a kestrel.
And many more.
Such associations are important for your work as an expert. But when you communicate, they just get in the way.
Because your audience doesn’t have those associations. So they don’t automatically draw the same conclusions as you.
Are you unsure whether you should explain a basic term of image from your field?
Then the answer is probably ‘yes’.
Grumpy Old Man
‘The first rule for a good style is to have something to say; in fact, this in itself is almost enough.’
This is a quote by the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
As a former philosophy student, I can’t help but share such a snippet of wisdom with you every now and then.
Schopenhauer was popular among my fellow students.
This was partly due to his provocative, pessimistic view of life. He was a grumpy old man. Selections of his work have been compiled in Dutch as De wereld een hel (The world a hell) and Er is geen vrouw die deugt (There are no good women).
Schopenhauer was also popular because his work is so easy to read. He has an elegant, attractive, literary style.
But according to him, the basis of a good style is that you have something to say.
He is right.
And it also applies to communication about your work.
Sometimes I see people worrying about form early on. Sentence length, passive sentences, spelling. Fonts, colors, and alignment on slides.
But not the essence.
Make sure that first, you know what you want to say. What your message is. And pay most attention to that.
Only then, worry about form.