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.
Shove in a hashtag. Plonk in a couple of capitals. Crowbar in a number or three. And you’ve got a secure password, right? Something like P4rR0t! (with a zero, of course).
Ugh. Coming up with one is enough to give you a migraine. Never mind remembering it.
Thing is, all that effort is a waste of time.
What’s wrong with these passwords?
They’re not actually very secure. Hackers might try and guess your password. But more often they’ll just get their computer to hash out every combination. And computers don’t care about the difference between the letter x or a question mark. So it’s length that really slows a computer down, not complexity.
And they’re a nightmare to remember. So you have to think of something like your favourite animal or number. (How many people probably have the password Dragon13?) Or you forget it over and over and have to faff and reset it.
The secret is stories
XKCD said it best. Use a few random words and you’ll make your password stronger, because it’ll be longer. And it’ll also be easier to remember.
The reason comes back to how we’re hardwired for stories. You don’t even need to try to give a password meaning and you’ll end up doing it anyway.
It’s like how you can’t watch a video of random shapes moving without assuming there’s some meaning behind it. Or how people remember the order of a deck of cards by imagining them around their house. If you pick a few random words, you’ll probably be able to think of a narrative to link them together. And it’s easy for us to remember stories.
So next time you need a new password: grab a dictionary, jab a pencil into it a few times, and think of a story.
There’s an internet phenomenon called tl;dr that I absolutely love.
If you’ve haven’t ventured onto Reddit or a forum recently, tl;dr (pronounced ‘teal deer’) is short for ‘too long; didn’t read’. It started off life as an insult to chuck at anyone who posted walls of text, but it’s eventually evolved into something far more useful. Now, if you notice a post you’re writing has rambled a tad, you just write tl;dr at the end and add a really short summary.
Basically, it’s anticipating all the comments from people moaning about the length of your post and writing a mini version for them. The only problem is that it’s at the wrong end of people’s writing – it should be up front, so readers don’t have to trawl to find it.
It’s nothing new
Journalists do this all the time. It’s called a nutgraph. It’s meant to sum up your whole article in one paragraph – but it goes at the top, not the bottom.
It’s a great way to start off a document, because you’re telling people what to expect from the rest, and saving them from wasting their time reading if it doesn’t interest them. (And it means they can skimread the first bits and pretend to have read everything in the news when they’re down the pub.)
So the next time you’re writing something – a long email say, or a report – try it out. Write a summary paragraph for the person who otherwise wouldn’t bother reading the whole thing. And bung it at the top.
You know, there’s a massive irony with the law. As lawyers try to cover all the bases, they often make it harder to understand what they’re talking about. Which creates loopholes and ambiguity. And that stuff bleeds over into Ts and Cs, contracts, and the nooks and crannies of business writing.
Who are you writing for?
But we don't need to cover every single eventuality every time we put pen to paper. Credit your readers with a little common sense.
My mum’s a lawyer. And she taught me about this guy: the man on the Clapham omnibus. In law, he’s the benchmark for a reasonable man (or woman). He’s how you can judge whether somebody has behaved, well, reasonably. He’s not overly educated – just reasonably. Not overly smart – just reasonably.
He’s just an average guy.
As long as he’s happy with what you did: it’s okay. Was what you just said offensive? Well, the man on the Clapham omnibus doesn’t think so. So you’re off the hook. Did you make sense? The man on the Clapham omnibus thinks so. So yes.
Write for someone with some common sense
To make sure people can understand you, you need to be simple and clear. And that’s easy: just get to the point. Stop confusing matters with extraneous words and caveats. Stop using passive sentences. Basically, if you’re writing a contract and you don’t want somebody to do something – just say so.
Don’t write like this (which I actually read somewhere):
All information regarding the employer, the employer’s family and the employer’s domestic or personal circumstances is strictly confidential and cannot be discussed with a third party without the employer’s specific permission, or in an emergency situation.
When you could just say:
Everything about your employer is private. So you can’t talk about it, unless they let you or it’s an emergency.
Everyone knows ‘talk’ means they can’t write about it, shout about it, whisper it, tweet it, video it or anything else. It’s straightforward. You don’t need to rattle off a list to explain what you mean. They get it.
The man on the Clapham omnibus would certainly understand. And that’s all that matters.
‘You know about computers, right?’
‘Yes...’ I say. And the dread has already started.
‘What do you know about SEO?’
Ah. I’ve had that question a lot, especially when friends I know are making a new website. Every time, they seem to think they need to do something special when writing for the web. That to make their site searchable they need to come up with a bunch of keywords and plonk them in their website willy-nilly. But it’s actually a lot simpler than that. It comes down to one very easy-to-remember rule.
It’s all about the reader.
It’s always been about the reader. It just got forgotten about because some clever-clogs figured out how search engines were looking for good content. But now Google’s announced it’s going to hide what you’re typing in from the world (if you’re logged in or make an effort to go to the right site). Which means site owners will get a lot less information about what words people are using. And that means it’ll be harder for naughty black hat sites (ones that try to cheat their way around search engines with lots of ‘keywords’) to abuse the system.
So how do you get noticed?
Remember that it’s people who are going to read your site. So when you design it, just think about what the most important information is and get that up front, on your home page. Make sure every page has a link to it. That your readers can share and comment without needing to trawl through a labyrinth. Make it so people can use it. Sort out your navigation.
When it comes to the words, you don’t need to do anything special. Just write decent content. Make it useful. Make it helpful. Make it something that people want to read, and will hopefully bookmark. If you want people to link to your website, write about the things people will actually want to link to. And if you write naturally, in the way you talk, you’ll inevitably do all the good things you need to.
‘Even if you do kind of brain-dead stupid things and shoot yourself in the foot, but have good content – we do want to return it,’ says Matt Cutts, one of Google’s engineers. ‘First and foremost we care about trying to get the stuff that people really will like – the good, compelling content – in front of them.’
So remember, it’s Google’s job to send their customers to the sites they want. Not yours. Yours is to make interesting content that people will want to share.
Pretty regularly I’ll get an email that makes me chuckle. Other times it’s just something I completely agree with. Whatever it is, I just want to clap the writer on the back and congratulate them on their stellar work.
They don’t ask me to – I just get the urge to let them know we’re on the same page. But weirdly, companies have this odd habit of asking us to applaud them.
Comedians don’t ask for laughs
If someone tells a great joke, we laugh and clap. ‘Ah yes, I acknowledge your intelligent quip, and it’s caused me mirth. Thank you.’ Or we all cheer and well up over a fantastic singer.
On Facebook we have the like button. When you see something funny or something that makes you think, you hit the thumbs up. ‘Yes, I like what you did there. Here is my appreciation.’
Sometimes we’ll go as far as to share, but that’s stretching it. You have to do something really awesome for me to litter my timeline with your words. (Otherwise you’ll bury all my witty posts.)
So why do businesses ask us for likes?
That’s why it’s so irritating when businesses have Facebook pages asking you to ‘like if you enjoy our product’. Or Twitter accounts asking for retweets. You’d never ask someone to give you a standing ovation or to laugh at your joke. So why do you feel the need to ask us to share, like or retweet? If we like you, we’ll do it anyway.
Sure, you’re trying to find out how many people read your post or tweet. But telling us what to do annoys the ones who might have ‘liked’ it anyway, and makes it arbitrary for the others. You skew the results. Instead of a conscious effort to praise you, it’s just a meaningless click.
Not only does it show you’re ignorant of the etiquette on social media, but it doesn’t give people a chance to genuinely show they liked what you did. You shouldn’t be telling us to appreciate you – you should be making us want to by giving us great content. You should be earning those likes.
So stop it.
Every year, The Bookseller gives an award for the oddest book title. They’ve just announced the shortlist and there are some real corkers. (We’d vote for God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis. Because we secretly love smut.)
While we were chuckling over that, we realised we’ve spotted a few odd titles ourselves over the years in books all about writing. Like these:
Write Good or Die – edited by Scott Nicholson
Then We Set His Hair on Fire – by Phil Dusenberry
Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This – by Luke Sullivan
“Shut Up!” He Explained – by William Noble
Come across any odd book titles in your field? Let us know in the comments. Or tweet us with the hashtag #oddwritingtitles.
Rhetoric: the lost art of persuasion
In all my years of education refining my wordsmithery – from GSCE to Masters – nobody ever mentioned rhetoric. It wasn’t until a chat down the pub with a stonemason that it popped up.
Rhetoric gets bad press. Probably because, like an inverted Midas touch, anything a politician touches turns to mud. But rhetoric isn’t bad. It’s what the Greek philosophers used to get their ideas across. It’s about proper communication.
So I had a gander. And there’s a lot we can learn from the Greeks. They knew their stuff.
1. Prove your credibility (ethos)
Your character is extremely important.
Why should someone believe your words? Do you have experience? If you’re a professor of physics, I’m going to believe what you say about the space-time continuum. But I won’t ask you which stocks to invest in.
2. Appeal to emotion (pathos)
Your reader needs to feel.
It doesn’t matter which emotion. It might be joy. It might be nostalgia. It might be pride. But feelings keep us interested. They help us remember what you’re talking about. They let us know you’re human.
3. Give reasons (logos)
Give evidence and be logical.
It sounds so obvious. But you need reasons for everything you say. Your reader needs to follow your thought process – so they can decide if they agree with you. All claims need evidence to back them up, not just wild ones.
Before I begin, let me set the scene: which word sets itself above all others?
I set off to find out.
Set your eyes on this
The largest set of definitions in the current Oxford English Dictionary is: set. It’s set apart by having 60,000 words devoted to it (or about half a novel’s worth).
A whole set of meanings
Set is pretty versatile. A hen might set on her eggs, but don’t confuse it for leaving a soufflé to set. Or setting it down on your plate. Or a heavy-set hen (set on finding her missing eggs) setting on you with her beak. Or how the setting sun is an ideal setting to set up your paint set. Okay. I’ve read set too many times now and it’s gone all weird on me.
Don’t just set pen to paper
It’s worth remembering how much meaning just one word can hold. Don’t set yourself up for failure by using something you overheard that sounded smart. If you don’t understand a word fully and the context you should use it in – don’t use it. There are plenty of other ways to say what you mean. And they’ll be a lot more natural.
We’re all warned that there are people trying to steal our information, and we’re scared. And then a new email pops up in your inbox. Is it legit or is it a phishing scam? And is that attachment safe?
How to tell if it’s a fake
Here are ten things to ask yourself before you reach for the ‘spam’ button.
- Is there a link? Check it’s actually sending you where it says. (Hover over it – if the address is different, it’s probably dodgy.)
- Are they asking for details they should already know?
- Does it look too good to be true? Then it probably is.
- Does it look like it was written by a machine? If it looks like a robot, assume it is.
- Are they using capitals or exclamation marks? THAT DOESN’T LOOK VERY PROFESSIONAL!
- Do the fonts keep changing? It’s probably been copied (and pasted). Lazy scammers.
- Are there silly mistakes? They shouldn’t make spelling mistakes or use apostrophes wrongly. Big businesses can afford proofreaders.
- Are they rambling? They should be saying what’s important. If they’re asking you to change your password, they should just tell you that.
- Are they hiding information? If you have to go somewhere else to find out what they could have said, be suspicious.
- Are they consistent? It’s not just the logo, everything should look the same. The words, the design, the spelling. Everything.
If in doubt, just delete it. Don’t risk your credit card details. That free tablet could turn out to be rather expensive.