Much hoopla this week about the landing of a picture-taking, data-relaying thingmy on the back of a comet.
Am I alone in being left a bit cold by this? I mean, well done amazing scientists for working out how to fire the thingmy gazillions of miles into space and bump it down onto an object travelling gazillions of miles an hour.
But what’s it all for?
All I heard on the news was the technological achievement, or the ‘how’. Only after a good minute or two did the BBC’s David Shukman throw in any mention of the ‘why’. It seems the thingmy might tell us how the Earth got its water. Ah. Now I’m interested. Tell me more. Except Shukman didn’t. Shame. (Especially as I really like him, usually.)
This all reminded me a bit of something we tell people in workshops: talk about benefits, not features. Because people care more about how fast they can download films than how big the chip in their phone is.
I’m not averse to a science story. The Voyager probe transforming what we know about the universe. The boffins at Bletchley Park shortening WWII by cracking the Enigma code. But until someone tells me what use this thingmy really is, I’ll just think the money would have been better spent on developing an Ebola vaccine.
Once you’re a jaded 37 year old like me, it takes a lot for a bit of commercial writing to stop you in your tracks. But that happened to me on my walk to work last week.
I was sauntering round the Elephant & Castle roundabout (oh, the glamour!) and saw a billboard for HSBC. It featured a man with a little girl on his shoulders, but that wasn’t what got me. It was this line:
Raising a business.
The second hardest job in the world.
That’s it exactly, I thought to myself. As we’ve taken The Writer from three people in a chaotic serviced office to the slick multinational it is today (ho, ho), it’s been by turns exhilarating, frustrating, fascinating. So yes, like raising a child. It’s a simple idea, but one that I’d never really thought of, or put so succinctly. And even though I know how the ad writing game works, it really does make me think someone somewhere at HSBC knows what it’s like.
So well done to that copywriter. You gave an old hand a pause for thought.
Greek philosopher Aristotle reckoned he had this whole persuasion business nailed. His thinking was that if you combined logic, emotion and credibility, then there was no way your audience would disagree. In Aristotle’s opinion, it’s logic that’s the trump card, though. If your argument doesn’t make sense, no one’s going to care what you’re saying.
Except that logic doesn’t always do the trick, does it?
We might know that a bank or utility or supermarket or mobile phone company has a cheaper deal, but that doesn’t mean we’ll switch. Logic alone isn’t enough to persuade us. You need something else there too.
When it comes to writing at work, pretty much everyone needs their words to persuade. Marketing wants to sell more. Managers want to motivate. HR wants us to fill in some paperwork. Recruitment wants to convince candidates that their firm is a great place to work. Facilities don’t want us to park in a certain place next Friday. Good business writing is good sales writing. No exception.
Of course, the reality is that a lot of business writing – particularly the internal stuff – does a pretty poor job of persuading us, of selling an idea to us. And a lot of the time, that’s because the writers think logic’s going to make the case for them. They’ve forgotten about all the other ways that words convince us to do one thing instead of another.
We haven’t forgotten, though. When I run writing workshops, people always ask me for tricks and techniques to make their words work harder. So we’ve pulled them together to create win me over, our Academy workshop all about the art of persuasion. (In words, naturally.)
Despair mingled with hopelessness. That’s what I usually feel when someone fires up a PowerPoint presentation. Lists of bullet points, flow charts, process diagrams, more bullet points, graphs, and did I mention the bullet points?
But as I was leafing through the pretty pictures and wonderful words of one of my graphic novels, I realised something. A comic book is a template for a great PowerPoint presentation. Panels are just slides, each one advancing the story and telling the reader something new. The only difference is that comics are interesting. And I think it’s because they do four things that most presentations don’t.
Comics focus on the little things
The faster something happens, the more images you need. If your story involves a dramatic gunshot, you spread it across a lot of panels so it’s easier for the reader to digest. The finger squeezing the trigger. The hammer pulling back. The bullet leaving the barrel. So if you have a graph, for example, don’t show it all at once. Plot each point you’re talking about separately. Build it up. Spread it out. So your readers have a chance to take everything in.
Comics cherish the turn of the page
Flicking over a page creates natural suspense. It gives you pace and rhythm. And it’s a beautiful moment to have something suddenly revealed, whether it’s the punch line to a joke, something unexpected or a tah-dah moment. Don’t be afraid to do the same in a presentation as you switch between slides.
Comics use words lightly
The narrator in a comic will usually only have a few words for each panel. Sometimes none. Each panel is essentially just one idea that moves the story on. The same should be true of a slide; each one should make a single point.
Comics are illustrations
Pictures are what make a comic, well, a comic. True, with a presentation you might not always have a literal picture. You might just illustrate your point, maybe with a single word or a quote. Just pick something that shows what you want to say, then narrate over the top. When you use your slides to symbolise your point, instead of parroting the words on the screen, people will listen to you rather than read what’s going on behind your head.
Hungry for more presentation tips? Take a look at our PowerPoint course.
You might have heard us showing off about having Professor Steven Pinker round to ours the other week (well, okay, up a well-known London landmark).
Steve (as we can now call him) has written a book channelling all his years of experience and experiment in cognitive science and linguistics into advice for writers. And blow us down if the science doesn’t prove everything we’ve been banging on about for years. Phew.
But while we were hanging out in the clouds, our big-haired academic friend made a cute point about grammar.
There are two, you see. First, there’s grammar as linguists understand it: a set of rules in your head that tells you what you can say and what you can’t. That grammar tells you to say I’m having chips for tea and not *Having I’m for tea chips. (The asterisk is linguist for ‘no-one says this, it sounds bonkers’.) If you’re a native speaker, you don’t need to learn these grammatical rules; amazingly you just work them out when you’re wee.
Then there’s grammar number two (the way most people, especially ageing whiny journalists, use it): a set of ‘rules’ about how so-called educated people speak and write. Many of these rules are baloney: you really can start a sentence with and and split your infinitives like there’s no tomorrow. Despite what the old codgers say, these ‘rules’ are mere conventions, and they change over time, going in and out of fashion.
Professor Pinker pointed out that the things the sticklers get het up about can’t be fundamental grammatical rules. If they were, no-one would ever need to express them, just as you don’t need to ever tell anyone not to say *Having I’m for tea chips. The very fact the sticklers need a rule to say which bit of disputed usage is ‘correct’ proves that it isn’t a rule.
Neat, huh? Of course, following conventions can be useful to you. Menotfollowingspellingorpunctuationsconventionsmakesreadingdifficult. So if you want to know which to consider and which to ignore, either swing by our Grammar for Grown-Ups workshop, or download our swanky new app.