Monday, May 16, 2011

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Friday, May 13, 2011

How to be a Better Talker: Six Strategies for Writers (Part One)

        Like it or not, most professional writers are also professional speakers.

        Do you talk with editors, clients, or interviewees? Do you interact with students? Or read your work aloud at conferences or public events? If so, then speaking effectively is part of your job.

        Some writers love performing. Put them in front of a crowd, and they blossom. But many of us are less than thrilled.

        “I’m a writer, not an actor!”
        “I’m shy.”
        “I get stage fright.”
        “I just communicate better on the page—my writing is what really counts, right?”

        The fact is, your writing may never get read at all if you lack the skills to market yourself orally.

        This two-part post offers you seven practical techniques to help you boost your speaking ability. Ready? Here we go:

1. Slow down. Our ears absorb information much more slowly than our eyes do. If you speak at the same rate that you read, no one will take in what you’re saying. Practice by reading aloud at what may seem like a crazy-slow pace. When you’re having a casual chat, be aware of how quickly you’re talking. See if you can control the tempo.

If you feel okay about listening to your own voice (for some of us it’s too stressful), make a recording and listen to it several times. How clearly are you speaking? Are you tripping over words or sounds?

Nerves make everyone speed up. Have you ever gone for a job interview and found yourself babbling? Know that this happens to all of us. Anticipate it.

Once you learn to change your speed at will, you’ll automatically sound more confident—even when you’re secretly sweating.

2. Listen and react. Writing is a famously solitary activity. Unless you’re chatting online, you won’t be getting reader responses as you go.

But talk is interactive. Even someone giving a lecture is constantly getting feedback from her audience in real time. Pay attention to what others are contributing, and let it influence you.

This may mean something as simple as listening to what your client is saying, rather than focusing entirely on what you need to tell him. Or noticing when someone laughs, and winning them over by joining in.

If you find yourself tuning people out a lot, grab a sympathetic friend and practice reflective listening. That’s where Person A talks to Person B, and Person B just reflects back what she’s hearing:

Person A: I got invited to a networking event this Saturday, and I can’t wait to jump in!
You: You’re going to a networking event this weekend, and you seem really excited about it.

Make a point of asking questions during casual conversations, and really hear the answers. See how many you can remember afterwards.

3. Breathe. I know—everyone’s always telling you to breathe. But it really does help.
  • Breathe into your belly, and your voice will instantly improve. You’ll sound more interesting. More energized. More connected to what you’re saying.
  • Breathe, and you’ll notice your tense spots: jaw, neck, shoulders…. You can start to let that tension go.
  • Breathe, and everything else gets easier.

Coming up in Part Two: “What do I do with my hands?”

 Freya Shipley is a freelance writer with a background in linguistics and history. For a free quote (or just to say hi), visit her at Follow her on Twitter: @freya_221.

The Joy of Curmudgeon-hood

           Yesterday I was heading over to Trader Joe’s to buy one of those massive chocolate bars with the whole hazelnuts.

There are lots of empty parking places, but this guy in a van in front of me decides he HAS to have this one, particular spot that he’s already driven completely past, and he starts backing up right into me as if I’m not even there. I move a little. He keeps backing. Finally he’s about to run into me, so I tap my horn. He leans out of his window and yells, “Back the **** up!”

I get out of his way as best I can, given the crowd of cars building up behind us. Mr. Van Guy gets his spot. My whole body is shaking, but I do nothing. 

              I had lots of ambitions when I was young. I wanted to be a great Shakespearean actor. Also a rock star. Before that I wanted to be a mail carrier.

Now, I realize, my yearnings have changed. I want to be a curmudgeon.

A real curmudgeon wouldn’t have let Mr. Van Guy push him around. He’d never doubt his own right to take up space in a public parking lot. If there was window-to-window shouting going on, he’d give better than he got. A curmudgeon is nothing like a bitch or a shrew, or any of those shrill feminine complainers. He is self-sufficient, grounded in an unassailable conviction of his own rightness. He probably subscribes to Indignation Quarterly.

The problem is, women can’t be curmudgeons. Curmudgeons are always male. Like geezers and dudes

Guys used to be exclusively male. Now, at least in the US, we’re free to address a group of women as “you guys”. (I tried this once in Scotland and met with a torrent of startled giggles.) We still can’t refer to an individual female as a “guy”, but the word is moving toward gender neutrality. Could we start a movement to re-gender curmudgeon? That splendid word, with its suggestion of bludgeoning in high dudgeon? 

Everything we say to each other—whether in writing or in person—includes a property that linguists call indexicality. Indexing means pointing—that is, a suggestion of some social meaning that doesn’t always follow logically from the words themselves, but that is nevertheless perceived loud and clear. Like the word curmudgeon indexes “elderly maleness”. Like raising your voice? at the end of a phrase? indexes “young femaleness”. It’s not a rational thing, but we all do it, all the time. 

On the bright side, I’m perfectly free to be an old bat. Bats are always female, oddly. The word suggests voluminous capes, probably tweed. Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple was a shining role model for aspiring old bats. The word indexes self-sufficiency, nosiness, and a refreshing lack of concern with one’s own sexual attractiveness.

Still I yearn for official curmudgeonhood. I want to be propelled through airports in a bath chair, laying about me with my walking stick as I go. I want to write fiercely irritable letters to the Times, complaining about taxes and weather and the flimsiness of modern paper napkins. 

I hereby declare the existence of female curmudgeons. Now move aside, damnit.

 Freya Shipley is a freelance writer with a background in linguistics and history. For a free quote (or just to say hi), visit her at Follow her on Twitter: @freya_221.

Five Essential Tips for Copy Writers

          The summer I was ten, I gave a one-girl performance of Romeo and Juliet on the lawn in our back yard.
I memorized the balcony scene, the potion speech, and (my favorite) the part where Jule is sobbing her heart out over Romeo getting kicked out of Verona. I reveled in the death scene, where she does herself in with her husband’s dagger. I ranted and screamed and wept. I leaped into the air and flung myself onto the grass. I knocked myself out (almost literally.) If there’d been any scenery, I’d have chewed it to splinters. My parents and their friends cheered and applauded. (It was a warm day, and the gin and tonics flowed freely.)

But the part I remember best came later. That evening, after he’d given me a thousand proud hugs, my dad said to me, “You know, Frey, you were a little hard to understand."

“Not loud enough?” I asked.

“No, no, it wasn’t that. How can I explain this? When artists perform, they’re doing it for their audience. Not for themselves. I know it’s exciting to have a big emotional experience, but you want your audience to be able to join in. Art is about connecting—not just expressing.”

Those may not have been his exact words, but they were close. I’ve never forgotten that moment. 

As a writer and editor, connecting with people is my job and my privilege. I have a friend who composes poetry in Klingon, and keeps all of his work private. For him, writing is a form of self-care—like meditation, maybe. But for me, it’s all about offering something to the reader—insight, companionship, a laugh, or information that may improve her life.

That’s why I like business writing. 

White papers and press releases may not seem as glamorous as fiction. But every one of them is an opportunity to help readers. Each time I sit down to work, I know I’m bringing people together with other people, or with information, or both. That’s what gives web writing its unexpectedly personal edge. It’s about empathy, and it’s about education. No offense, Luke, but I’d rather write one good case study than an epic poem that no one will ever get to read. 

With that in mind, here are my five top tips for copy writers:
  • Keep your audience in mind. What’s important to them? What can you do to guide them toward the best possible experience?
  • Pay attention to the language your readers use. Are they engineers? Marketing directors? Dental patients? Of course you don’t have to learn every bit of trendy tech jargon. But make sure your work sounds appropriate for your audience.
  • Be consistent. A lot of communication depends on expectations. Don’t promise Romeo and Juliet and then suddenly switch over to Dexter.
  • Make your work easy to read. Write clearly and precisely. If you have some control over the project design, learn how to create appealing visuals.
  • Whenever possible, learn from reader feedback.
 Great copy writing merits great respect. It’s time for us business writers to stand up and take a bow.

Freya Shipley is a freelance writer with a background in linguistics and history. For a free quote, visit her at Follow her on Twitter: @freya_221.

Why the “Birther” Movement is No Joke

(First posted 4/28/11)

     Donald Trump and his so-called “birther” movement radiate absurdity. Most of us blog readers—in fact, probably most folks who read anything at all—agree that the whole issue is silly beyond words. It is, as Whoopie Goldberg said, “the biggest pile of dog mess I’ve seen in ages.”

     And yet.

     Trump’s challenge to President Obama—prove that you really are one of us!—has attracted worldwide attention for reasons beyond the billionaire’s power to buy media time. Inane as his arguments are, they constitute a serious and sinister attempt to manipulate our perceptions. 

     Every time people communicate, we do it within the context of a  frame. A frame is a group activity. It’s what we’re up to when we interact. Some examples of frames:

  • going to a restaurant
  • getting a medical checkup
  • playing poker

Every frame is made of a bunch of interlocking roles, kind of like parts in a play. In the medical checkup frame, for instance, we expect a doctor, a patient, a receptionist, and maybe a nurse or a technician. Expectations, in fact, are what frames are all about. If you show up for your appointment and the doctor asks you to give her a CAT scan, you know something's gone wrong with the frame.

Roles in frames are connected to each other. Pick one up, and a bunch more come along for the ride like paperclips out of a jar. Mention a doctor, and everybody thinks of patients. “Waiter” automatically implies someone being waited on. If I can get you to accept my identity as a teacher, you’re halfway to seeing yourself as a student.

That’s the reason why so much of what Donald Trump says is about himself. He’s trying to sell us an image of himself as a heroic investigator, selflessly dedicated to uncovering “the greatest scam in the history of this country”:

  • “Somebody has to embrace it [the job no one else dares take on].”
  • “I have done a great service for the American people.”
  • “I'm honored. I have accomplished something really, really important.”
  • “I got him to do something nobody else could get him to do.”

If he can persuade us to accept him in that role, then the whole “heroic investigator” frame comes along with it. If there’s a noble sleuth dedicated to the cause of truth, then there must also be a villain trying to get away with fraud. And the person cast in that role is, of course, President Obama.

Yesterday’s events demonstrate how tricky frames can be. Obama chose to respond respectfully to Trump’s attack. He devoted time, attention, and money to defending himself. He published his birth certificate. By doing all that, Mr. Obama tacitly accepted the “villain” role in Donald Trump’s frame.

But surely the certificate clears him of the charge? Didn’t the president just shut down the whole “birther” circus by proving his innocence?


This is the amazingly sneaky power of frames. Merely by engaging with Mr. Trump’s frame, Mr. Obama validated it. In that sense it doesn’t matter whether he produced the certificate or confessed to being a closet Muslim born on Mars. Either way, he would still be accepting Mr. Trump’s right to question him: thus affirming Donald Trump's frame. This is the same mistake Richard Nixon famously made in 1973 when he told the world, “I’m not a crook!” 

Give people a new frame to think with, and you can change their minds. That’s why Mr. Trump’s accusations are not trivial. Yes, the “where-was-he-born” furore is absurd. But what really matters is that Mr. Trump successfully reframed himself in relation to Mr. Obama, and he maneuvered the president into publicly accepting the identity being handed to him. 

Trump won this round. Birth certificate or no, we haven’t heard the last of him yet.
Video: George Lakoff, UC Berkeley Professor of Cognitive Linguistics, talks about frames.

            Deborah Tannen (Ed.), Framing in Discourse (ISBN 978-0195079968)

Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (ISBN 978-0674316560)
Freya Shipley is a freelance writer with a background in linguistics and history. For a free quote (or just to say hi), visit her at Follow her @freya_221b.