Breaking news: Donald Trump resigns presidency

Citing weariness with the sham he’s perpetrated over the past two years, Donald Trump has announced he will step down as President of the United States of America. The office will pass to Vice-President Mike Pence, effective immediately.

“I just can’t do it anymore. It’s been an unbearable, overwhelming weight on my shoulders, to maintain this pretense of helping the average American while continually taking steps and signing orders that clearly make their lives worse,” he said.

“Cutting the Environmental Protection Agency, deregulation of the financial sector, deregulation of industries, cutting taxes for the rich, and the new health insurance plan, all those measures are plainly transfers of wealth from the middle class to the richest one-tenth of one percent. That’s it. Deregulating coal won’t do anything at all, other than reduce some marginal costs. It won’t bring back a single job in the coal sector.”

“Another thing I found particularly difficult was pretending that I have the vocabulary of a seven-year-old.”

Then there’s all the measures that will do nothing at all, other than put yet more money into multinational corporations’ accounts, like deregulating coal. I mean, how could you not see through that

The announcement stunned commentators from across the political spectrum. It also clearly surprised Trump’s advisors.

Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, was caught off guard by the announcement. “Umm, yes, well, Mr. Trump, President Trump, I should say, former President Trump has stated what he believes. He clearly believes what he said, and I am now obliged to say that everything this administration has done since taking office has been designed to make things better for a few billionaires, like Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson, and their flunkies, such as, well, myself. And yes, everyone else was made worse off. For me, that was the biggest bonus.”

Mr. Trump had more surprises today, as well. For instance, he castigated the right-wing media that had supported him. “I think what really was the last straw for me was the way the sycophants at Fox News and other stations just swallowed everything I said, every outrageous statement, and started defending it. It was nauseating.”

Fox and Friends was completely unintelligible today, with all commentators and on-screen personalities babbling simultaneously.

Sean Hannity of Fox News and the syndicated Sean Hannity Show said “I, for one, would be proud to be made worse off by President Trump’s administration, and I say with confidence that tradition will be continued under incoming President Presumptive Mike Spence. I mean, Pants.”

Rachel Maddow, of the Rachel Maddow Show, who passes for a leftist in the United States, said “Wow. I … wow. Wow.”

Former President Barack Obama was reached on vacation. He said “No way. No freakin’ way am I coming back. I don’t care what you offer. Did you know that I actually managed to quit smoking since I stepped down? No way am I going back to that. Michelle would kill me, anyway.

“I knew he wouldn’t last,” the former President continued. “I’m not going to say ‘I told you so,’ because even in my wildest dreams, I never thought that an egotist like Donald Trump would resign. So yes, I am surprised.

“Put away the handcuffs. I am not resuming the office of President.”

In related news, the Breitbart so-called news site now shows only the picture of a mushroom cloud.MushroomCloud

April fool!

Knee injuries and communication

KneeBrace smallerIf you follow my communication on Facebook, you’ll know that last week, I injured my knee pretty severely in a mundane household accident. (My older son, The Blond Ravin’, says that’s proof that no one should undertake home improvements, but that’s another post I’ll have to figure out how to connect with “communication.”)

I ended up spending two days in the hospital — not two solid days, but two interrupted days, requiring several trips back and forth. The experience provided me with several observations about communication in action. And as you probably figured, ample time in waiting rooms, which afforded opportunities to get some writing done.

What happened

I simply slipped on the stairs as I was taking down some dangling glass plates, about 9 x 22 cm, in preparation for replacing a chandelier. I have taken down those plates for cleaning many times without incident.

But last Tuesday evening, when I had about five of the plates in my hand, I thought that was enough to carry down in one load for fear of dropping them on the stairs. I was standing on about the ninth or tenth step at the time. I turned, my heel slipped over the edge of the stair, and as I started to fall, all I thought was “Don’t drop the glass!”

I don’t know whether I went down one step or two. But when my heel hit the lower step, my right knee bent the wrong way. I felt a pain in my kneecap that made my vision go completely white.

And I dropped the glass plates, hearing at least two shattering on the hardwood floor below.

(“See?” my younger son, Super Nicolas said later. “That’s the trouble with hardwood. It’s super slippery, and it’s hard.)

The whole family came to see what had happened and my sons helped me down the remaining stairs. I limped to a couch and sat, as the family cleaned the shattered glass.

That was the end of my home renovation work for the day. And as it was already getting late, I decided not to seek medical attention at the time, as that would require going to the hospital emergency room. And you know what that means: hours of waiting.

So, I took some Tylenol and iced my knee, and then went to bed.

swollenKneeThe next morning, I saw just how swollen my knee was. I found a pair of crutches we had bought for Super Nicolas after he injured his ankle in some kind of sport (I don’t remember whether it was cross-country bicycling, rock climbing, hiking or what) and managed to adjust them so they were short enough for me. Then I went to work in my home office, interrupted several times:

  • the arrival of the contractor who came to replace the chandelier
  • his dropping and breaking of at least on more of the glass plates that I had left dangling on the old chandelier after my mishap
  • the arrival of a repairman for the clothes dryer
  • calls to and from two different IT specialists to figure out why a client’s computer would not connect to my home WiFi network.

As you can understand, I didn’t make a lot of progress that day. But all the limping across the house on a crutch sure didn’t make my knee feel better.

By the end of the day, despite aspirin and icing to reduce swelling, my knee wasn’t smaller. Super Nicolas compared it to a large grapefruit.

(Actually, he said “Dad, you should go to the hospital for your knee.”

“Why?” responded.

“Well, it’s the size of an apple.” He went to the kitchen to fetch an apple. “Oh, knees are about the size of apples. Okay, it’s the size of a grapefruit.”)

He was right. I resolved that if the swelling did not go down after another night of aspirin and ice, I would seek medical attention.

The next morning, the knee was no better. I managed to get an appointment in the afternoon with my family doctor. (She’s great. Shout out to Dr. Anne Fraser at the Westend Family Care Clinic!)

In the late afternoon, my wife drove me to the clinic. Using Super Nicolas’s crutch I limped in.  Dr. Fraser described my knee as “spectacular. The red colour and the size — spectacular!” She also said that in her 30 years of practice, I was the first to walk in, even using a crutch, with that kind of injury. (I told you I was badass.)

She advised me to go for immediate x-rays. On the requisition chart, she wrote “In case of boney trauma, send patient to emerg. immediately.”

Well, I decided to go home for supper first. Roxanne then drove me to the hospital for x-rays. I told her not to wait — I had my iPad, and I discovered that the hospital near me has gotten over its irrational fear of cell phones and actually installed a free guest WiFi network!

The x-ray area had no waiting, and the technician called the radiology doctor, the one qualified to interpret the results, at home right away. Within 40 minutes, the radiology department receptionist told me to go to emergency.

“Do I have boney trauma?” I asked her.

“I’m sorry. I’m not allowed to pass on that kind of information to patients. But your form says to refer the patient to Emergency immediately if any bone damage is found.”

In other words, add two and two, idiot. I mean, patient.

The communications lesson

In Canada, at least, and probably in the U.S. and most of the world that has adopted the Western medical philosophy, medical professionals seem to have a policy of not sharing information with patients. Have you ever tried to look at your own chart? I did once and the nurse in the ward yelled at me for it. (Not this time — that was some years ago, in a different hospital and a different city.)

Creative Commons

Non-medical people cannot dispense medical information in a hospital. And doctors are notoriously hard to talk to, because they’re just so busy. So the person with the least information is the patient — about his or her own health!

The next step was to crutch-walk to the Emergency department, which offered more observable moments in communication. But I see that I’ve rambled on for quite long already, so I’ll tell you that whole story in my next post. I will say here, though, that I was very impressed by the courtesy and care I received at the Queensway Carleton Hospital in Ottawa.

But I will end by saying that I spent long periods over the next couple of days sitting or lying in a number of different rooms in the hospital. I finished the last chapter of my next book, Dead Man Lying: A Lei Crime Kindle World novella. So something came out of it.

Kathleen Valentine, a wonderful writer and good friend, tagged me in a Facebook “7-7-7 Challenge,” where I post seven lines from page 7 of my work in progress. You can read that here.

A joke means so much more than the punchline

overstuffed-suitcase1Some communications pack a lot of information into a very few words. A skit on the CBC comedy program The Irrelevant Show last weekend is the best example I have heard in a long time.

A sketch started with a narrator explaining that in about the year 2050 (or maybe it was 2030—I’m not sure), humanity figured out time travel. Shortly after that, the people in charge of the time machines had to send an investigator to find out why so many people went back to 1972 but refused to return.

This is part of the conversation between the investigator and the escaper to 1972. Keep in mind that’s it’s reconstructed from memory, so it may not be precise, but it captures the idea:

Escaper to 1972: I finished my university degree. It cost me $1000.

Investigator: For books?Escaper to 1972: For the YEAR! And most of it was covered by grants. When I graduated, I applied to a Want Ad in the newspaper, and I got the job.

Investigator: A contract, right?

Escaper to 1972: Permanent, full time, with benefits. I have a bottle of scotch in my desk at work. My boss gave it to me! Last week, I got on an airline flight with a full bottle of shampoo in my carry-on!

HorselaughLater, I shared that with my good friend, who said “Yes, it was great to be a white man in 1972.”

Good point. 1972 was not as rosy for women, black people, Asians, Indigenous people, gay people—everyone we so casually lump together as “minorities.” But at the same time, have we lost something valuable that we used to take for granted?

I can accept the idea that large bottles of shampoo somehow pose a threat to airliners, and I’m not greatly inconvenienced by the restrictions against them.
The changes we have accepted in education and employment in Canada and even more so in the U.S. are much greater, have much more profound effects on everyone, and yet elicit far less complaint. 

When I began university, I think tuition was just under $800 a year. Not per course, for the year. I grumbled when I spent under $200 for all my books for the semester. And while I made around six bucks an hour in my summer job, it was enough to pay for tuition, books and residence. There wasn’t much left over, but I got used to living, and spending, like a student. 

Today, I have two kids in university. They’re both over 20 and still live with their parents, my wife and me. That’s typical today, whereas when I was their age, nearly all my friends lived apart from their parents. The few that still “lived at home” were the exceptions.

I don’t need to repeat the many reports already published about the economic straights of today’s university students

Why have we allowed ourselves to give up those things we once had? Jobs that paid living wages and the opportunity for an education and to give your children an education? WorkerToday

Things were not great for everyone

As my friend said, “It was great to be a white man in 1972.” I am very happy that our society has made the strides it has in sexual and racial equality, in human rights, in health care and scientific knowledge.

But is the cost of equal rights (which have not yet been fully realized, by the way) the elimination of the middle class, and turning an entire generation into debt slaves?

What do you think?

Writing tip: Don’t try to be a writer

Photo: Rubin Starset (Creative Commons licensed)

The most important writing tip of all is: Keep it simple.

Too many people try to be writers. They get stuck trying to construct new kinds of sentences, trying to shine or to equal Shakespeare or Fitzgerald. Or worse, they try to write like a business person speaks—or worst of all, like a politician.

Instead, try to tell your story or get your point across.

Some writers and editors recommend writing without any revising. Just get the words down, worry about grammar, spelling, tense, voice or anything but the ideas. That requires knowing clearly what those ideas are. (See my previous series of posts, “Get a GRIP” for more about making sure you have a clear idea of what you’re trying to write before you start writing). Just state as simply and as bluntly as you can what you want to say. Almost always, that’s the most effective—that is, that kind of writing achieves the goal you started with.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; you can always go back and fix them. Writing means re-writing. Once you have a draft, you can move sentences and paragraphs around, change words and clarify your expression. But you can’t do that until you have something written down.


Wherever possible, use verbs instead of strings of nouns and adjectives.

Instead of:

  • “On issues related to …”—write “about”
  • “in the six-month period” of “over the course of”—write “between March 1 and August 31”
  • “expressed discontent with”—write “were dissatisfied”
  • “taking a leadership role”—write “leading”
  • “relates to the fact that”—write “because”
  • “in recent years”—write “recently”
  • “would expect to”—write “expects”
  • “these measures enabled management to discern any areas in which improvements can be made by operations”—write ”management could identify improvements operations could make …”
  • “the regulated firm is typically given 30 days to respond”—write “the regulated firm usually has 30 days to respond”
  • “X achieved high rankings for new online presentation of resources and tools”—write “X revised its website, making online tools and resources easier to access.”

I recommend dropping the phrase “achieved high ranking,” because that focuses on the organization’s goals, not the reader’s. Why should they care about the company’s satisfaction rankings? What they care about is what it does for them. Yes, there may be some value perceived in the testimonial aspect of high satisfaction ratings, but still, what is important in that example is the new functionality of the website.

See how much shorter and clearer the revised messages are?

What are your pet peeves—what phrases or styles of writing bug you the most?

Get a GRIP, part 4: the Plan

While this is part 4 of this series of posts, this is the fourth step in pre-writing—the stages you have to follow before you start writing even the first draft of your brilliant document. If you recall, I call the process “getting a GRIP.”

G – goal or purpose—what you hope to achieve with your writing

R – reader or audience—the most important ingredient

I – idea or thesis—what you’re trying to say

Now, the Plan, or outline.

Creating an outline is the biggest favour you, as a writer, can do for yourself.

I know, there are a lot of writers who say they prefer writing “by the seat of their pants.” I’ve learned that approach wears out a lot of pant seats. With an outline, you can make sure that you have covered everything you need to cover in your document, whether it’s a memo, a report or a novel. An outline is like a road-map: it helps you tell, at a glance, whether you’re getting toward your destination or resolution, what are the obstacles in the way, and whether there isn’t a better route to follow.I have tried writing both with and without outlines.

Once, I interviewed a very interesting typeface designer. I thought he was fascinating, and I even thought I had a great lead. So immediately after the interview was over, I turned on the computer and dove right in. I wrote about a thousand words when I realized I could not logically go any further, and I had not written anything important, or even readable, yet.

So, I deleted everything and started over. I wrote a new lead and another 400 to 500 words. Got stuck. Deleted. Started over again. Eventually, I realized that I needed to figure out what I wanted to say with this article, and in what order. I moved away from the computer, took out a pen and a piece of paper (I know, I’m a cave-man) and wrote a thesis statement and an outline. You don’t have to write down an outline; if you can remember a lot of different ideas in the right order, you can do it in your head. But you still need an outline.

To put it another way:The time required to write an outline plus a good document is less than the time required to write the same quality of document without an outline.

Why create an outline

An outline helps you:

– make sure you include everything you want/need

– organize your ideas

– make sure you leave out information or ideas that don’t belong.

How to create an outline

I start by gathering all the ideas, information, facts, quotes, research and whatever else I’ve gathered in my research, then jotting it down (on paper or on screen) in the order I think of it. Someone else a long time ago called this the “scratch outline.” You might call it brainstorming, except that it involves just one person (usually). Write everything down. Some of these ideas are gold, and you might lose them.

Don’t write whole sentences, yet. Just jot or type single words or short phrases. You’re trying to get the ideas down as quickly as possible, while they’re still fresh and hot in your mind.

Once you’ve run out of steam and can’t think of anything else to write down, start looking for links. Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together.” Look for similar ideas and linked facts, and for categories as well as items within those categories. You’ll probably need to make another list after this.

Once everything is grouped, start looking for a logical order to put them in. Here, you have a lot of choice: chronological (for an incident report, for example), or most important to least important (like a newspaper article). Proposals often use the “problem-solution” approach: describe a problem, explain why it’s a problem, the show the solution and its ultimate effects. Advertisements do this, too: “Does the opposite sex run away from your bad breath? You need Moosebreath Away!”

Word processors have outlining tools or views that make creating and rearranging your outline easier.

Don’t worry about making it perfect. Just try different arrangements of ideas and facts. Move them around and imagine the sentences you can craft around the short phrases in your outline. You can fill them in now, if you think of something particularly good.

Don’t be afraid to add new ideas that you realize you had left out, and be even less afraid of taking things out if it seems that they don’t belong.

It really helps if you already have a thesis statement written; however, I sometimes find the main point comes out once I start massaging all the information I have. But a complete thesis statement is a must for a finished outline. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES GO BEYOND WRITING YOUR OUTLINE UNTIL YOU HAVE DECIDED ON YOUR THESIS STATEMENT. Think of it this way: if your outline is your road map, then the thesis statement is your destination. You don’t start a journey without deciding where you’re going, do you? Okay, so do I, sometimes—but when it’s something as important as writing, don’t do it.


Start with knowing your goal, identifying your reader, and writing your thesis statement (although it may evolve)

  • Make a scratch outline
  • brainstorm
  • generate lots of ideas
  • jot down short phrases or single word


Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together”


  • group similar ideas


  • look for general categories and specific items within categories
  • organize the ideas and information
  • choose from logical, chronological, problem-solution, geographical, etc.

If you’re having trouble deciding on which order to use, go back to the first steps: what are you trying to achieve, who is your audience, and what is the main idea you want to tell them?


I firmly believe in using an outline to write fiction. You need to know your characters and setting, and you need to know where your story is going. Otherwise, it doesn’t go anywhere and your beautiful prose does nothing but bore the reader.

Kirsten Lamb agrees with me (although she may not have heard of me). She has devoted several recent blog posts to the idea of structure of novels. “Novels have rules. When we don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.”

You have to know where your plot is going and why your characters are going there. I’ve read a lot of wannabe writers’ blogs, where they say they let the characters lead them. I don’t know if any of them have finished, let alone published a book.

Having an outline for your plot allows you to spot those plot holes, figure out your characters’ motivations and pace your plot developments so they don’t bore the reader, nor leave them breathless.

In future posts, I’m going to put in some exercises on outlining. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone who has been happy with the result of their document, whatever it may be, that did not have some kind of outline at some point. Remember, even if it was just in your head, it was still an outline.

Get a GRIP, part 3: the Idea

What is the one thing you have to say?

The third step you have to take before your write anything is to decide on the main idea of your document. No matter how long or short it is, you have to be able to sum up the point in one clear, complete sentence.

When U2 released The Joshua Tree, Time magazine quoted Bono as saying “Writing songs is easy. Writing good songs is hard.”

Writing anything is easy. All you need is something that leaves a mark on something else. A computer just makes it faster for your fingers to keep up with your brain.

But something worth reading has to be about something. In high school, we learned that “something” was called the thesis statement. It sounds impressive, but all it means is the main point.

A lot of people have trouble with this. They stare at the blank screen or page, or write sentences and paragraphs, then delete the whole thing and start over and over again.

Their problem is that they don’t know what they’re writing about. Before you start to write your document, write that thesis statement: one sentence that sums up the main point.

To do that, you have to go through the first two steps in the GRIP process: you have to have a goal or a purpose for writing—what you hope your document will accomplish—and you have to know whom you are writing for. Once you know that, write your thesis down: the statement that will motivate your reader to accomplish your goal. For this to work, as I have said, you have to know what motivates that reader.

Some books recommend the “hidden words” technique. Start with “The most important thing I have to tell you is …” After you fill in the blank, you delete the opening clause—“hiding” it.

Every good letter, memo, report or proposal has a thesis—a single sentence that sums up what it’s about. Short stories and shorter poems, too, have to be about a single thing if they are to succeed. Longer novels can be about several things, but there has to be a single main theme.

I just finished reading Too Big to Fail, Andrew Sorkin’s minute-by-minute telling of the 2008 financial meltdown. At 555 pages, plus index and list of sources, it has a single thesis statement: “In the end, this drama is a human one, a tale about the fallibility of people who thought they were too big to fail.”

However, you don’t need to write the thesis statement explicitly in your document. It’s usually best to get to the point immediately, but depending on your goal, your reader and the context, you might decide to put it at the end, or to imply it and let the reader come to that conclusion. That technique is occasionally used in sales and advertising messages, but it’s hard to pull off. Advertisers are very good at this. The thesis of every beer ad is “Drink this beer and you’ll get laid!” Of course, they don’t say that explicitly. But that’s the message.

Writing the thesis statement is not easy. It may not be the first thing that you do. But you have to do it.

First, have a clear conception of the goal of your document. Write it down in terms of action that you want the reader to take.

Next, make sure that you know your reader as well as possible, including whatever motivations might support that action in your goal statement, and anything about the reader that would work against it.

The thesis statement has to compel the reader toward the action of your goal. Take your time with it. Write several versions and think about them. Write down other facts or ideas that will go into your document. But before you actually start writing the body of your memo, report or proposal—or whatever it is—you have to settle on the thesis statement.

“A vote for our candidate will keep your taxes low.”

“The accident was the result of poor safety training.”

“A new copier will save money over a year.”

The thesis can be long, it can be a compound, complex sentence, but it has to be a complete, grammatically correct sentence. Often, the writing of it can crystallize your thinking; I sometimes find that I had a vague idea, but writing it down forces me to make it real and concrete.


Novels can be long and complex. They can be about a lot of different things. But there still has to be a central, main theme that links all the other subplots and conflicts.

Moby Dick: Captain Ahab wants revenge on the whale—other subplots include the growing of characters like Ishmael, questions about the existence of God and the nature of good and evil.

One of my favourites, Foucault’s Pendulum: Our imaginations drive our behaviours, even when we don’t know it—plus a lot about the foolishness of conspiracy theories and some touching observations about the different sides in war.

There are many more. Now, I’m going to ask you to enter in the Comments the main themes or thesis statements of your works in progress. Remember, each one has to be a single sentence. I’ll respond!

Get a GRIP, part 2: the Reader

What’s the most important part of writing? Right. The reader.

Consider the readers’ needs. Write for them. Keep in mind why they should care about what you have to say. What’s in it for them? How can you make their lives or work easier or better? Why should they spend time reading or watching or listening to you, when they could be paying attention to so many other things?

To answer those questions, you need to know as much about them as you can:

  • demographics – age, sex, education, income, where they live
  • occupation: what do they spend their working lives doing?
  • needs: at work, at home
  • desires: some are common: food, shelter, sex, belonging
    o more, however, are specific to each reader’s job, life, demographics
  • predispositions and attitudes
    – perceptions – how will they react to particular words?

Sometimes, it’s predictable: some people respond in a particular way to words like “tea party,” “capitalism,” “democracy.” We probably can all make reasonable assumptions about how the different sides of the Occupy Wall Street protests will react to those words.

What that means is that your knowledge of the audience should help determine the words you choose. You can use common social media slang for a teen audience, but it won’t make any sense to seniors. That’s obvious. You’ll have to work much harder than that, however, when it comes to your own specific communications.

When you’ve drawn a detailed picture of your readers or potential readers, connect it to your purpose (Goal, the G in GRIP): why should your readers do what you want them to do? To answer this, you need to have clarified your own goal. See the previous post.

For instance, if you want your audience to buy your product or service, what benefit will they get from it? Is that benefit enough to motivate them to get over the inertia required to make the change from what they’re doing (or not doing) right now?

For examples: your boss
What is he/she motivated by? Interested in? Biggest challenge right now? What has he/she responded to before?

If you want to get his/her approval on a new initiative, such as buying a new copier-printer for the office, first answer “Why should he/she?” How will that action make his/her life/job easier? What about the proposed purchase is similar to decisions he/she has made in the past?

Be concrete. “The new ABC model 123 copier/printer operates 12 percent more efficiently and uses less toner and paper. This means the office can save $1,200 per year.”

Maybe the boss doesn’t care about saving a small part of his/her budget, but just wants copies NOW. “The new ABC model 123 copier/printer has proven to operate 10 percent faster than our current model, and jams 15 percent less frequently. This translates to three fewer paper jams per week at our current volume.”

What motivates your audience?

There are thousands of books and other resources looking into that question. I’ll leave it with this rule: the more you know about your audience or readers, the better you can shape messages that motivate them. Your research does not have to be that complicated, however. Just talk to people. Find out what they like, what they don’t like. And remember, every reader is an individual.


What do fiction readers want? The biggest publishers wish they knew.

Do they want more of the same? Sometimes; multiple sequels and copycats of Harry Potter show that. How many book series about sexy vampires clog the bookshelves these days?

But the breakaway best-sellers, the trend-setters, are books and stories that touch their readers’ emotions deeply. There’s no secret that Stephanie Meyer’s work resonates with young women. Something about her characters and their struggles reaches those readers. I don’t have space, time, or inclination to go into that, here. The point is that these writers have, intuitively or otherwise, given their readers something they want. That something is motivating enough to get millions of people to go to a bookstore (physical or electronic) and pay 15 bucks or so for a copy.

Your challenge

Take out something you are working on right now. Then, on screen or on paper, write down answers to these two questions:
  1. Whom are you writing this for? Specifically: your boss? Your sister? Describe what motivates that person. What does he or she like, dislike, need, avoid
  2. What do you want that reader to do? Make this concrete. What specific action do you want your reader to do after he or she finishes reading your document?
Then, put that in the Comments section and I’ll respond.

Get a GRIP, part 1: the goal

In my last post, I outlined GRIP, which stands for the four steps that every writer should complete before starting to write:

– set a Goal

– know your Reader

– state your main Idea

– make a Plan, or an outline.

This post focuses on the G: setting a goal.

Communication as a tool

If your life or career is a journey, you can think of your writing as a vehicle to get you from where you are to where you want to be. What are goals of a written document?

– Advertisement: to increase sales or acceptance of a product, service, idea or maybe an electoral candidate

– Proposal: to sell a project or get someone to make a decision

– Incident report: to share information so that, for example, a problem can be solved

– Progress report: to show progress to someone in charge, and perhaps to remove obstacles to further progress.

It seems that determining your goal is not easy. A lot of my students used to have trouble with the idea of the “goal” or purpose of writing. “Why am I writing? Because my professor gave me this assignment.” Unfortunately, many people take this attitude into their working lives. “My boss told me to write a report.”

A goal is an essential element of any strategy. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t tell when you get there.

A goal or purpose statement is different from the thesis statement. The thesis statement is what the document or statement is all about. It’s the most important thing that you want your audience to understand. Deciding on your writing’s destination is the last chance that you, the writer, can focus on yourself. In writing down your goal, you focus on your own needs or desires. Ask yourself: what do you want to happen? What result do you want from this document?

After the reader has finished reading your document, what do you want him or her to do?

You have to make this as clear and as concrete as possible. You goal should not be: “to raise awareness of this issue.” Go further than that: “After reading this document, I want readers to donate $x to this specific charity.”

Goal examples

Instead of:
to raise awareness of X cause

to have readers donate $N to the X society today

Instead of:

to advertise my product

to increase sales in y sector by z percent in the next quarter

Instead of:
to increase my profile

Write: to reach up to 2000 Twitter followers by the end of the year

Have a specific, concrete goal so that you can tell quickly when you’ve achieved it. Once you do, then you can set another goal for another document. Every document should have its own goal or goals. Yes, you can have more than one goal for a document: to get the boss to respect me, and to get a bigger bonus at the end of the year.


What about fiction? Can a short story or novel have a goal?

Certainly. One of Dickens’ goals was to raise awareness of, and then affect the poverty in the England of his time; Orwell wanted to warn people about the insidiousness and direction of totalitarianism when he wrote 1984. To Kill a Mockingbird and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are two other very well known novels where the author had a definite social purpose in writing them.

You can also have a goal for the plot itself. What do you want your main character to do by the end? I know that some writers claim they “write by the seats of their pants,” but I find it much better to have a result or conclusion in mind before I start writing. A lot of great ideas for stories or novels begin as an arresting line or an interesting situation. We’ve all done those exercises in creative writing class where we take a picture as the set-up for a story. The question that causes “blank screen syndrome” is, “where to go from here?”

What should your story destination be? Answer this question: what do you think your main character can accomplish? Or at least, what is he/she/it going to try to do in your story? If you have a quest, it’s easy: the MC is going to try to find the holy grail, or recover the embarrassing photo-negatives, or save the girl next door from the biker gang. You might want to picture your end scene: girl and boy at the altar, or relaxing at the luxury resort, or hanging from the gibbet.

The point is, now you have an end point to drive toward. That makes it so much easier to figure out how to get your plot from your opening to the closing. You can have a lot of fun putting in a lot of detours and side-trips, but at least you’ll be able to tell whether a line of dialogue or a particular scene help advance the plot, or just get in the way.

Now that you know where you’re going, it’s much easier to figure out how to get there. But before you get to plotting your course with an outline, you have two other steps. Taking those steps require that you know the first two rules of communication:

– Know your audience

– Know what you want to say.

The next post will address the Reader, or audience.

Writing tips: Persuade by making it matter to your audience

Come with me.

Image credit:

You can’t persuade an audience with unproven ideas, nor can you fire one up without appealing to their values.

Read this opening to a seminar on secure information technology practices and then answer this question: do you care?

“Why is security important to us? Because the effectiveness of our programs, activities and services depends on the level of trust our partners have in us. Central to that trust is rigorous stewardship over our digital and physical assets…”

The statement is true, as far as it goes. But for the average worker, it’s not compelling. There are too many steps between the proposition and the audience’s own life.

Robin and Batman

Image courtesy Flixlist


Someone else, working for an organization that I don’t work for, won’t trust our website as much? Holy spam, Batman! Let’s get to that IT security seminar now!

Better: “Why is IT security important to you? Because without taking these precautions, you risk exposing confidential organizational or even personal information that could be used in fraud.”

Remember what people value

Whenever I have to write something persuasive, I like to recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you’re not familiar with it, follow the link, but basically, Abraham Maslow studied people and their behaviour, and organized common motivators into a hierarchy. The lower or more basic the desire, the more powerful. Maslow also stated that humans do not, generally, focus on higher needs until they’ve fulfilled the basic ones.

Pyramid of needs

Wikimedia commons


So if we want to motivate people, we have to make sure we’re evoking those basic, animal needs: food, warmth, security, belonging, esteem. A job may supply those things, so promoting the employer’s success can work. Anything that contributes to the bottom line is persuasive to the extent that the audience believes the employer’s success is critical to their own.

The incidence of fraud, identity theft and other crimes facilitated by the Internet proves that people feel IT security is pretty distant from their own needs — until they get stung by some kind of scam.

The path from the IT department’s guidelines to your own security isn’t obvious, but it is real. Our job as communicators is to clear that path.

How to make it matter

Here is a suggested outline you can adapt the next time you have to get a group to buy into something important, but new or abstract to them.

  1. Start with an example — like “Erica bypassed the spam filter and filled out this sensitive information on a website. Then the information was published and her employer fired her.”
  2. Explain the problem and summarize the solution — like “Erica did not verify that the form she filled out was actually on the website of the organization she thought it was. She should have made sure that the URL had a lock symbol and began with https://”
  3. Broaden or generalize the problem — use more examples from the audience’s own workplace or experience. Make them as realistic as possible.
  4. Explain the problem, the consequences and the solutions fully. Keep the language clear and simple. Use active sentences so that the audience can follow the guidelines.
  5. End with more realistic examples — “If you encounter x, do y.” Provide solutions that the audience can use right away.

Make change less scary and difficult

Facing down a tiger.

Image courtesy

Change is hard, because it opens us to the unknown. If you want to persuade an audience to change the way they work — or do anything, for that matter — you have to prove to the audience that it’s important to them (not to you), and you have to make accomplishing a change as easy as possible.

Do you have an experience to share?

Have you been to a seminar or read a document that tried to explain how important something was, but failed because you still didn’t care afterward? Tell us all about it in the Comments.

Onboarding, buying-in and re-skinning: Gerunds gone wild

Image courtesy NBC

Today’s hottest buzzword is: “onboarding.”

A group of corporate Internet professionals has “onboarding” an official part of a major, inter-departmental project, as in “The onboarding phase will continue until buy-in has been obtained from a significant majority of players in this space.”
Do you see what they’ve done here: defined one buzzword with another in a passive sentence that avoids telling the reader who or what is responsible for the action.
After I pulled my attention away from that disaster of a sentence, my next thought was “What’s the difference between ‘onboarding’ and ‘boarding’?”

Onboarding—also known as “on-boarding”—means committing to a process. If someone needs others to “onboard,” it means the success of the process or project depends on the commitment of those involved. In other words, you cannot just accept what’s going on—you have to contribute some effort to make the process work. 

You become a part of the process when you onboard. It suggests something more active than “buy-in.”
Buy-in has been a trending buzzword for a few years, now. “We have to obtain buy-in to the new paradigm.” I still prefer “accept” or “agree.” But of course, when you buy in—or even better, when you get someone else to buy in, you’re talking or writing like one of the cool kids.
But the best new jargon term I heard has to be “re-skinning.” It means changing the visual appearance of a website or Web page so that it matches an established look. The word revives the concept of “skins” from at least 10 years back—I remember being able to choose different skins, or combinations of colours and icons for various websites or programs.
The most interesting thing about “re-skinning” is that the current meaning is the opposite of the original meaning of the root word. “Re-skinning” means putting a new look, or “skin” over an underlying structure, while not so long ago, to “skin” something meant removing the skin, or outer layer.

So what’s wrong with buzzwords?

The trouble with buzzwords is that they lead to confusion. Usually, most people can glean the meaning of any new buzzword. However, someone whose first language is not English can get the wrong idea, especially with a word like “re-skinning” that reverses the original meaning. 
Worse, though, is the creeping application of buzzwords to new things. Take the term “off-line.” It means “disconnected,” typically from the Internet and other electronic media. At one time, it meant not operating, as a paper mill being off-line. But in meetings, people will often say “Let’s take that off-line” to mean “Let’s talk about those details just between the two of us, and not bog down this meeting for all these other folks.”
“Re-skinning” is an example, where to “skin” something is being applied to more and more things. I can understand using it to describe covering or decorating a physical product, but today it’s more often used for websites and apps.
And when a buzzword creeps into more uses, it gets used everywhere. Remember “busters” in the 1980s? After the movie Ghostbusters became a hit, dustbusters started advertising more and more. Then snack advertisers described their treats as “hunger busters.” The nadir always comes when politicians get involved, and the Progressive Conservative party in Ontario called themselves “Grit busters,” referring to the nickname for the Liberal party, “grits.”
I just dread the day when people tell me they’re on-boarding to getting re-skinned at the outlet mall.