Stories are built into how our brains process information. We use stories to remember things and to convey things that we want people to remember. We also use stories to build the relationships and make people care. Shane Snow is an award-winning journalist, a celebrated entrepreneur, and a bestselling author. He is co-founder of the content technology company Contently which helps creative people and companies tell great stories together. Shane shares how to unlock the power to get better at telling stories to build the relationships in regular life and in business. It’s hard to be that good at writing. Dr. Laura Brown, author of How to Write Anything: A Complete Guide, says getting the little things correct like grammar and punctualization can prevent misunderstandings. Over the past 25 years, Laura has taught writing to just about everyone, from CEOs to high school students. Laura says talking about what you believe and putting emphasis on self-expression is great, but technical skill is also very important and you need to learn grammar and structure to better you can express yourself.
We have Shane Snow and Dr. Laura Brown here. Shane is a journalist and urban explorer. He is the Founder at large at Contently and he’s the author of Dream Teams and The Storytelling Edge. Dr. Laura Brown is an expert business writing trainer. She’s a coach, consultant and bestselling author of How to Write Anything.
Listen to the podcast here:
Creating Content with Shane Snow
I am here with Shane Snow, who is an award-winning journalist, celebrated entrepreneur and bestselling author of Smartcuts and Dream Teams as well as coauthor of The Storytelling Edge. He is the Cofounder of the content technology company, Contently, which helps creative people and companies tell great stories together. He also serves on the board of the Contently Foundation for Investigative Journalism. His writing has appeared in Fast Company, Wired, The New Yorker and dozens of other top publications. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and recipient of the Columbia University’s Innovative Award for Furthering the Cause of Journalism. He’s been called a Wunderkind by New York Times, Digital Maverick by Details and his work, “Insanely Addicting” by GQ. It’s so nice to have you, Shane.
Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
You’ve worked with Joe Lazauskas. He’s a marketing and technology journalist and you guys came up with a recent book and you’ve got two books. That’s an interesting year for you.
People look at that and they say, “You must never sleep.” Both of those are the culmination of many years of work. They just happened to come out the same year. The book that Joe and I wrote was meant to come out that was based on about seven years of work we’ve done together on storytelling for business and in the sciences stories. Then my book I had been working on for about four years on my own, about the science of human collaboration, they tied together in many ways, but it was just my personal project and then my work project both happened in the same year. I hope that doesn’t expect to that next year because that’s what will happen.
Let’s start with the cowritten book then because they’re both very interesting to me. I’m sure Joe’s waiting for us to discuss that. I was watching him talk too. He was pretty interesting to watch on something I saw on YouTube. He was telling a story of Thomas Edison. Do you know what story I’m talking about? That was pretty fascinating.
Yes, when he would do the Steve Jobs thing and debut his new inventions in the big theater hall.
I’d like to know what you guys talked about the power of storytelling. That was an interesting story, comparing what Thomas Edison did to what Steve Jobs does and how they present things. What were the most interesting stories that you included in it and why?
I like to take tours of history to look for patterns and stories that show us what hasn’t changed and what has changed. I like to use that as a way to get into science and research that can be helpful for regular, everyday life or for business. The thing about stories is they’re built into how our brains process information. We use stories to remember things, we use stories to convey things that we want people to remember. We also use stories to build the relationships and then make people care. There’s a lot of interesting brain wiring that’s set up for that. That’s what the book is about, how to unlock that power and to get better at telling stories in regular life to build the relationships and in business.
That story there with Edison is an example of the power of storytelling for leadership. One of my favorite stories that’s from slightly before that era that we discovered in writing the book is actually the story of the very first media company. It was during the renaissance time. It was the 1550s, maybe the 1650s. Sometime during renaissance Italy, in the city of Milan, there basically was this group of gossip writers that started their own little media enterprise. What they’d do is they’d run around the town and collected the gossip of what was going on in politics and then the church and in the commerce centers, and who Leonardo was having an affair with, you can just imagine the gossip. Then they would print that with the brand-new technology, the printing press. They print out these newsletters and they’d hand them around town.
They discovered very quickly that gossips made people in power angry. If you wrote the wrong thing about the wrong person, you’d get your head chopped off. They quickly adapted and strategy to leave their names off of these newsletters and then they would post them up at night instead of handing them around town out in the open. That became the secret gossip newsletters. Then they discovered that there was another group of gossip writer who instead of using the printing press, which took about a day to set up, they would just quickly have an army of people hand copy these newsletters, just pen and ink and hand them out and they beat the other gossip writers to the news. It turned out that what people wanted were the stories, not the prettiness of the stories.
The technology was getting in the way of what people wanted. The whole gossip industry, for lack of a better word, reverted back to handwriting. It took many years. It took until not too long before Edison for the printing press technology to catch up, that it was faster than hand copying so that the technology was actually helping get people the stories that they wanted. I love stories like that in general. That one to me is this great dramatic illustration of what people care about most of all is not how high quality the YouTube video is but whether the story inside of it is good or not. We use that as an entree to get into the elements of what makes for a great story and all of that. At the end of the day, if you have nothing else, it’s a story that matters to people.
That reminded me of a Big Bang Theory episode where they did the memes of how fast gossip traveled. When you’re talking about the storytelling ability, it makes me think of all the speakers who’ve been on my show and the ones who really do great are the ones who were able to really tell great stories. You can go listen to people speak, and that’s what moves you, don’t you think? TED Talks, they always say start with a great story. Some people just say they don’t really tell stories of their own personal experience, but you do. How do you learn how to get those out of you?
You don’t get moved to action by statistics and charts on a PowerPoint. You get moved by the story either behind that chart or without that chart. I like to say that the civil rights movement didn’t happen because we expose them to statistics on injustice going on in America. We knew about the injustice because we learned the story of a woman who wouldn’t give her seat up on the back of the bus, and stories like that. People who were willing to be brave and make sacrifices and that illustrated the injustice through their stories. That’s something that’s really powerful and really real. A lot of people will say, “I’m not a good storyteller,” or most of the time I hear, “I’m not a good writer,” which is what we associate with storytelling. I’m not a good public speaker. To that I say, if you’re a human being and there’s nothing wrong with your brain then you are a storyteller. We’re all built for it. This is how we survived together. How we got people to care. There’s some really interesting features of our brains that are just made for this. Our brains pay more attention when we’re hearing or experiencing a story. More of our brains light up. That’s why we remember more of the information, our imaginations activate, all of us have an imagination.
If it’s a story that is an emotional story or taps into an emotion that we can relate to in some way, which is one of the key things, then our brain generates this chemical called Oxytocin, which is basically the empathy drug. You get it when someone gives you a hug, you get it when you give birth to a child. You get it when someone shows you kindness and it turns out you get it when you experienced a story or view a story or hear a story out of someone that has an emotion that you can relate to. Your brain is basically mirroring that emotion and generating this empathy chemical and they can actually measure this now, which is super cool. If anything else, telling stories, even if the story is not that good, if you can identify how you felt that’s going to get at people. This is why a lot of times when people tell joke story and it ends up being not that funny. Then they actually say, and it was funny and that’s when people are like, I feel better about the story. I don’t know if you’ve notice that.
I had a guy on recently who told a joke that fell flat in front of a group and he goes, “Thank you to the six of you who clapped.” Sometimes it’s funnier if you point out that the thing in the room that’s an elephant and you’re just looking at them. You’re trying to get a story across and sometimes they don’t all work. Sometimes you can really test them out and find out which one works. I found when I speak, people seem to laugh the most at stories that I share with more self-deprecating things, especially when you’re in sales groups. You’re telling horrible sales experience of stupid things you’ve done. Do you find that that’s something people want to feel like you’re not the only one?
Yes, absolutely. It’s also being vulnerable, which is telling stories that are vulnerable. It lets people in and that gets more of that oxytocin, makes them care more. Also, stories in general about yourself where especially if you’re in person or you’re hearing their voice. Even, written down, are extremely powerful because that’s the ultimate way to relate to someone is opening up your personal stories. In the book we talk about the four elements of great stories, not just good stories but great stories. The first element is relatability, which means that the characters in the story, whether they’re human or not, have to be characters that you can relate to. Somehow you have to start in a place where you understand something about them so you’re onboard with whatever journey they’re going to go on.
Relating to everyone has felt subconscious at some point in their life. Telling a self-deprecating story or even telling the joke and then pointing out basically the joke flopped. Everyone can relate to that in some way and that suddenly you’re now on the track or you’re on board for whatever story is going to happen next a little bit more. That is very important. The relatability not just with the hero of the story, whoever it might be, but also the villain. When we talk about Star Wars, how it’s such a great story because the good guys turned into bad guys in some cases. You can actually see yourself in that or you can see that the guys that you relate to, they could become this thing which mirrors a very human story.
We all have that potential to go to the dark side. The more that you can have that subtle part of the story, that’s the way that you get someone hooked. Then after that you want to take them somewhere novel. You want to tell them something they don’t know or bring them on a journey into the unknown. The other two elements of stories as we define them as great stories. One is fluency, which basically means it’s easy to track it. You understand what’s going on. It’s not like the vocabulary is getting in the way or it’s too confusing that you can’t get it. Then tension, which is basically the gap between what is and what could be. What the characters have and what they want. That tension, Aristotle was the one who came up with this model that a great story as you establish a gap, what is, what could be. Then over and over and over again, you have the character that try to close that gap and maybe there are new ones that open and you just go through that roller coaster until you end up hopefully in a spot where the world has changed. Your life has changed and you feel happier. Not always, but that’s what makes a great story.
You brought up something that reminded me of the movie, that latest Avengers. The bad guy, Thanos, how you can look at what he’s doing from a couple of perspectives. At first you think he’s this horrible thing and then he gives us reasoning for why he’s doing something and then you look at the fine line between the good and the bad. I just heard someone, it was a disc jockey talking about we’re related to the bad thing. It’s good. It brought up a conversation. It brought up something in his mind more than anything.
You’re going to remember that you’re bordering on good versus evil or whatever it was that we were trying to stay on at. That’s really important and that there are so many people that can learn to tell better stories. That’s a great book for a lot of people because it helps in business. It helps in speaking, it helps in so many ways. You’ve also written this other book, Dream Teams, and that’s more about collaboration. You said human collaboration on that one. Tell me a little bit more about that book.
This has been my little personal odyssey. I was really interested in this paradox, which basically you see everywhere once you start to think about it. Which is that when human beings come together, we either make magic and we make music, we invent things, we build things. We invent or we make chaos or we slow each other down. When it comes to working in a group, we all know that there’s the promise of the two heads will be better than one and that the more of us, the better, the more the merrier. Actually, the bigger group is slower it takes to do things and communication gets harder and there’s more potential for fighting. Then you look at the world too and we have all of these different people in leadership who are seem bent on foiling each other.
You see they’re making progress together and then you zoom out even more and you look at nations full of human beings whose leaders have nuclear weapons pointed at each other. It’s the same thing. I was really interested, fascinated and horrified by the fact that my father worked in nuclear engineering. Growing up, I had this storyline of how all of these scientists of all these different disciplines, men and women, old and young. From Russia and America and New Zealand and Germany and France, all had to collaborate and build off each other’s work and share labs so that we could harness that power of the atom so we can make this a cleaner form of energy. I grew up with that storyline and then realizing that those very same countries turn that energy into a bomb and now have it on the ready to blow each other up for the very same reason that they were able to invent it, which is because we’re different and we want different things even though the number of things that are different about us are so small compared to the number of things that are similar about us as human beings.
I was interested in that and then I started seeing that analogy everywhere in my work, in my company, in my collaborations. I basically came up with the personal theory that it was the very friction between our different ideas that gave us the potential that it wasn’t, we talk about how we should tolerate each other for different or maybe celebrate the things that are different about us, as different kinds of people. Then I thought it seems like we should be trying to leverage the tension between our different brains because that’s where innovation happens and where invention happens.
That was the initial kernel of what became this book, which is a tour of history and science about the dynamics of what happens when human beings are trying to work together. Some of our myths about that. I go through every era of history you can think of. A lot of fun stories about buddy cops and pirate gangs and things. I actually tie it together with the storytelling edge in the chapter about social movements where I talked about, if you want to make something big happen, you have a big company, you’re striving towards a purpose or you want to change something in your community or society that requires a lot of people. You can’t do it on your own. If you get a lot of people on board and a lot of people who are different than each other in many ways.
If you want to harness what everyone can contribute to a cause and you want to get people on board with a cause, the most powerful thing you can do is use storytelling as a mechanism to get all those people to care about the one thing that they can all contribute to. For this, I actually went to some neuroscience labs and got my brain scanned. Basically, to see through real science that’s just like in the last couple of years. Then we’ve just been able to do what actually happens in our brains when we hear a story, we learn a story and what kinds of stories can actually make us care enough to do something that requires bravery. There are some businesses that are actually using this research to get their employees who fight to get along.
BlackRock is an example of one of my favorites that I spent some time with. They have these interventions where if you’re not getting along with someone, that means you have potential energy between your different opinions and viewpoints and potential to find a better third option, but you need to depressurize that relationship. The ways that you can be depressurize the relationship include; one is humor and play, making people go to improv comedy classes together and make a fool of themselves and have fun. It actually is very effective at making people feel like they’re on the same side. The other is sharing personal narratives and identifying the emotions that you felt you can’t equate. I can’t equate my struggles in life with your struggles in life and certainly with many other peoples who had it much worse, but we can all relate to the emotions that we felt at a time when we’ve been excluded from a group or when we felt embarrassed.
Sharing those stories helps us to see each other as humans, as people, which then makes it easier for us to argue without it being personal. We can make the arguments about ideas and move forward. I’m rambling at this point, but that’s the capstone of it. It was nice that I was able to tie all this research on human collaboration together with the storytelling stuff and realize just how big a part of humanity that thing is, the stories. It’s a good thing because I like going to the movies too, what stories are part of what help us to work together better.
You did bring up a lot of things that were interesting to me because I teach ethics. A lot of ethics courses actually and I talk about some of the things you were talking about with it. Creating something good that turns out to be not so good. We often discussed that. We talked about Agent Orange and different things. Good intention sometimes turns to something not so great. I often ask students; would this keep you from wanting to create something? How do you know what it’s going to turn into?
Then you also brought up all the team buildings which I’ve been in sales for many decades. You don’t always work with people with whom you get along wonderfully. You sometimes have to learn to find things you like in people or maybe you don’t know until you do some of these team building activities. Remind me of what you have in your book. You have something about the Wright brothers’ daily arguments can teach us about group problem solving. What were they arguing about?
They recognized that they grew up together. They’re brothers, so they have a lot of similar perspectives. They recognized that they had a good chance of converging on the same kinds of ideas and perspectives and that that would be detrimental to their process. They wanted to break new ground, not just tread over ground that was already in their heads. They had this process that was funny, but maybe a little scary for their neighbors, which was they’d have something that they were working on that they couldn’t figure out. They wanted to figure out a better way to do it. If there was something better to be done with it. The one in particular, that’s my favorite, is the propeller of the airplane. They were trying to figure out what’s the best way to push an airplane forward. They’re arguing about this, where should this spinning fan blade go and which direction should it spin and how do we make it so it doesn’t flip the plane over.
What they’d do is they’d start these arguments and they purposely get really heated and they could do this because they knew that they were brothers and they would always love each other, but they’d get really heated because that would help them basically explore more intellectual territory if they got a little extreme about the argument, even expressing ideas that were too far out to make sense. They’d raise their voices and getting these really heated arguments and then at lunchtime they would stop the argument, each takes break and eat lunch and then they go right back at it. What they would do is they would switch sides of the argument, Orville had to argue Wilbur’s side. It was great for a few reasons, but the main one is that, at the point where Orville was like, I’m going to murder you, Wilbur and Wilbur would be like, okay, time to switch side.
It kept the arguments from that ideas and it forced them to separate their ego from being right, because they knew they were going to switch sides, so they had to be about ideas and not about anything personal and they couldn’t veer into, “You did this at one time,” or anything that veers into logical fallacy. They couldn’t do that because they were going to get that argument on the reverse. They were going to have to argue the other side. It was really clever trick for them to amp up the cognitive friction while keeping things from blowing up.
It’s great though to build empathy and understanding of any opposite side of an argument though. I shave done that in my ethics course. I had them be Ken Lay for Enron and to give me this thought process of why he did what he did and then have him put himself on the other side. I’ve done that with students and it’s an effective. A lot of them can’t grasp what I’m asking them to do sometimes. It’s really hard to explain it sometimes because they can only see it from one perspective that why would ever look at the other side. You need to look at it both sides and it’s helpful.
What you’ve written about in both of your books is helpful in a lot of the courses I teach. I teach so much leadership and some of these things that we’re discussing here is great. I’m sure my students will be listening to this because I post a lot of stuff in my classes from the show to help them, so that they can take advantage from everybody’s perspectives. You’ve got these two books and you’ve got all these people listening. I want you to be able to share how they can find out more about you and get your books and everything that you’re doing. Can you share that?
This has been great, Shane. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Thank you. It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
How To Write Anything with Dr. Laura Brown
I am here with Laura Brown, who’s the author of How to Write Anything: A Complete Guide. That’s an Amazon number one bestseller in business communications. She’s under contract for a business writing book to be published in 2018. Over the past 25 years, Laura has taught writing to just about everyone from CEOs to high school students. She provides customized training and business writing and consulting on business writing projects. Her expertise encompasses instructor led training, individual coaching, classroom teaching and eLearning development as well as audio, video and webinar training. This is going to be fun because I love anything eLearning, anything writing, all this stuff. We’re going to have plenty to talk about, Laura.
Your book contains nearly 600 pages, which is a pretty heavy-duty book to write advice on writing at work, at school and personal life and everything else. Can you give some background on how you became an expert in how to write anything?
It’s been an indirect career path. I thought I wanted to be a Shakespeare professor. I came to Columbia University in New York to do a PhD in English and I’ve got partway through the program when I thought I love Shakespeare, I love literature, but I don’t think I’m cut out to be an academic. I love teaching, but I’m not sure about the rest of the academic lifestyle. I finished the PhD because I had started it and I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t finished. I took a different course in life while I was a graduate student. I started doing editing for professors at Columbia Business School, editing some of their academic papers that turned into writing for the professors there. I learned a lot about business writing.
I’ve ghost written twelve books by this point, mainly marketing and management titles. While I was working for them, I also started helping them with some other daily writing task. Somebody to write a thank you note or a congratulations letter of somebody’s kid was applying for college. This is New York city; somebody’s kid was applying for nursery school. We needed to write an application for that. I ended up over those years writing everything and helping people write everything. I parlayed that into this book. I worked as a ghost writer for a long time. I’ve done a lot of freelance writing in a lot of different areas. Eventually I just thought I could do this. This would be a useful resource for people to have and I can do it
It’s hard to be that good at writing. It’s such a very complicated thing, the grammar, the structure. Grammarly helps a lot of my students and they have done a little bit of that, but it doesn’t catch everything for a lot of people. They have to know the basics but not everybody gets that education. Do you share tips with people? As far as what you can do. Do you have to start from scratch and build a foundation of understanding prepositions and why they’re there? How do you learn to be a better writer?
I am a big fan of grammar and I realized that not everybody is. What I do, in a practical sense, working with clients because it can be intimidating, and it can be a little technical. What I see when I’m working with clients is that their particular areas where they need some support, where they need some help. Nobody knows what a semi colon is for. People are not sure what commas are for. They tend to punctuate by ear. In my experience, this can erode your self-confidence if you’re writing along and you’re thinking, “Should I put a comma here? I don’t know, should I put a comma?” you begin to feel like, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” What I recommend with people in what I do with people that I work with is target questions that you have and just solve them. There’s a total of nine cases where one might use a comma. I have a resource that I give to my clients. Here’s where you lose use a comma, look through it, look through your writing, learn how to do it, and then you won’t have to worry about it anymore.
Can you explain what serial commas are to people?
If you are writing a list of things, “I need to move the kitchen table, the chairs, and the island,” the question is, “Do you put a comma before the ‘and’?” The serial comma is the comma that goes before the ‘and’ and it is optional.
They didn’t make it optional when you’re writing your dissertation. You had to have it.
I’m an advocate of it. It can prevent misunderstandings.
I always thought it’s optional, if everybody’s doing it. Now I totally use it all the time because I beat it in my head that you have to have it. That’s not just an APA thing, that’s the thing that everybody should do.
The serial comma is also known as the Oxford comma. I have a friend who works at Oxford University and she says they do not use the Oxford comma.
There’s got to be some things that you find particularly annoying. I worked with people and it’s so funny because I used to sit in meetings with a friend. We were so bored by the meetings, we’d count how many times people would say I when they’re supposed to say me. How many people will say just between you and I and how much does that drive you crazy? They think it’s sounds proper to say that, but that isn’t correct. Will you tell everybody what that is?
It is incorrect and people are doing it because their mothers told them when they were kids, “Me and joey are going to the park.” Mother would say, “Joey and I.” That’s where it came from. People say, just between “Joey and I”, I don’t think we should. The correct form is “me”, it’s “between you and me.” The reason is that it’s the object of the preposition. We’re getting a little technical here. “Between” is a preposition and it takes the “me” form of the pronoun.
It’s easier to teach people sometimes when they use, “Laura and I did this or that.” If you take the person’s name and out the two words and I teach that to students a lot. Do you want to give an example of how to do that? To help people know when to use “I” or “me.”
That’s exactly the way to do it. Just take the other thing out, leave the preposition and leave the reference to yourself and leave the pronoun and the reference to yourself and then it’s very natural. Then you can totally do it by ear.
This X generation, I have PhDs say “Her and I did this” and I’m just stunned by how many people begin a sentence with “Her and” or “Me and.” Where did that come from?
I don’t know. I haven’t heard a lot of that. I’m not sure how well I would deal with that.
I do think this comes from not drilling grammar. This is a little bit of a hobby horse of mine. I have friends who teach writing in college and their friends who came out of my same PhD program and from a fairly rigorous background. What they see in a lot of college writing courses is an emphasis on self-expression. Talk about how you feel. Talk about what you believe. Those things are great, but writing is also a technical skill and you need to learn grammar and you need to learn structure. You need to learn how to build a paragraph. We’re getting probably too much into the touchy-feely stuff and abandoning some of the technical requirements and I don’t think teachers are doing their students any favors by doing that. The more you understand about the language, the more control you have over it. The more you understand about grammar, the better you can express yourself.
I didn’t realize I did certain things until I had the Radio Show because I write it correctly, but then I say it differently, which was surprising to me. I would use that instead of who when I would speak, but I knew to say who when I wrote it. I hear a lot of people do that and I catch myself and I could hear a lot of past episodes. I’ll start to say, “That,” and I’ll correct myself in the middle and say, “Who?” I know I’m doing it now. I love it when somebody corrects me. I’ve had people correct me all the time. My dad was an English teacher. He got an English teaching degree. My daughter, my sister, they all love to correct my grammar and I love when I get to correct my sister’s grammar once in a while. I catch her. I love it when people correct me because you don’t know what you don’t know until somebody tells you and I want that.
It gives you more control. It gives you more power to know.
What I hear a lot of people make mistake is the abbreviation versus acronym. People think that things are acronyms that are actually abbreviations and that one comes up a lot. Just because it’s initials doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an acronym. If it doesn’t sound like the word radar would be an acronym and byob would not be an acronym because you can’t pronounce it. You have a writing spinner tool now. What is that? I’m curious, you’ve got some tools within your book. What does that do?
The writing spinner. There’s a story behind that. It is a tool that appears in my book, How To Write Anything. It’s very clear within context, but I’ll tell you where it came from. I was teaching an adult ed class at Columbia University one night. It was a class for adults who were coming to do a certificate program and they didn’t have a college degree. They hired me to teach study skills and I thought, “I’ll do a writing component because I like to teach writing and because there’ll be writing exams, so this will be useful for them.” At the beginning of the lesson, I said to them, “I’m going to teach you about writing, and I’m going to teach you this process and I know you’re not going to use it, but I’m going to teach it to you anyway.”
I’ve heard my self say that and I thought, “Why would you do such a thing?” What I was about to teach them was a six-step linear process for how you write something. The first step is you analyze your reader and then you analyze your purpose and then you brainstorm content and then you write an outline, write a draft, and then you revise your draft. If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ve seen this process laid out step by step, one, two, three, four, five, six. I went home that night and I thought about it and I thought, why did that seem wrong to me? I realized I don’t follow that process. I teach that process because I’ve been taught to teach that process and you see this process in every writing book, but that’s not what I do.
It launched me on this quest for understanding what the writing process really is. I talked to a lot of people. I thought about my own process. I realized there are a lot of good ways to write. There’s not a single good way to write. There are a lot of good, effective ways. What I do is I start by writing a draft and a teacher might tell me, you mustn’t do that. You must write an outline first, but I don’t. I have a PhD in English and I don’t, and it’s okay. I talked to some friends. I always start with an outline. I always start with mind map. What I realized was that it’s not that helpful to teach the writing process as a linear process because not everybody’s brain works that way.
What if you look at it as a circle? In each of those steps is a useful thing to do and should be done, but they don’t necessarily have to be done in that order. I created this thing that I call the writing spinner and it’s like one of those spinners that you’ve got in in games from childhood, like twister, you spin the spinner and twister and it tells you what color and which hand or which foot. It’s just a device. You can start anywhere. You can start by writing a draft. You can start by thinking about your purpose. What exactly do I want to achieve with this document? It doesn’t matter. This is one of the key things that I worked with and everybody that I worked with. You don’t have to force your process to conform to anything in any book anywhere. What you need to do is figure out what works for you.
That’s so interesting because I’ve got a qualification for Myers Briggs and there’s the difference between the intuitive and the sensing personality and there’s the different personality dichotomies and certain people depending on their type, prefer to think linear. They have to read the book first chapter, second chapter, they go in order, but the other type can read this one and then they could go back to that one. People do it different based on what their preferences are for learning and getting information. I’ve worked with other people while I’ve done my book to help me either organize it or whatever and just to see how everybody’s process is so different.
I agree with you. You’ve got to find what works for you. An outline can be really helpful in writing a book just because you eventually have to get the outline, whether you do it first or not is the question. I find that I changed things a lot and I know when I write papers for courses in the past, when I’ve written them, I’d write it all and just dumped my brain out and then I’d go back and just start all over again and the I add introductions and conclusions. I had to get the content out first. I still do that when I write email because I’m not fluffy enough. I’m not nice enough in the beginning and it comes across as cold and I don’t mean to be because I want to just get out what I want to say. Do you find that happens a lot?
That’s exactly the process that I use. I’m working on another book right now and I’m doing a brain dump and I know that I will go back and I will have to organize and I will have to think analytically about what does my reader need? What am I really trying to provide here? I will need to touch on each one of those steps. I just do a brain dump because frankly I get excited about something and I just start writing about it and as you say, I want to capture it while it’s in my head. Jump out of the shower and run to my desk and write down what I’ve got in my mind. Your process can differ a little bit depending on what you’re writing.
You need an outline for a book, but the book might have started as a very excited few paragraphs that will eventually be in the middle of the book. I do the same thing with emails. I tend to just write out what I want to say and then go back and revise. I’ve got a PhD in English. I like to say I have a lot to say and that’s not always very effective in emails. I will write out an email and then I’ll go back and say, what’s really your point? I’ll find a point and I’ll bring it up into the first couple of sentences because that’s the best approach for the readers.
It’s so challenging to write everything these days because everything’s out there permanently. I look back at some of the stuff I’ve written in the past. Nobody really wants to be reminded of the bad things they’ve written, but I never have said that that’s my strongest thing to see. I write like I speak, which is it correctly, I don’t even know. I don’t like the fluffy writing. That’s why I don’t read fiction because I just sit there and stare at all the adjectives and start getting distracted. It’s hard for me and that I’d like to read things that get right to the point, but other people love all the fluff and the other stuff.
I’m thinking about email though, right now because we had mentioned that before and in the workplace. I know some people with whom I’ve worked who would send these emails with just paragraph after paragraph and then you’d respond with, “Yes,” “Fine,” or “Whatever,” and then they’d send new back, another paragraph after paragraph. How can we teach people not send overly long paragraphs of content? Do we need to communicate that much in an email or should we be more succinct?
We should be more succinct. What I tell my clients is, “That’s fine, you can send a seven-paragraph email but nobody’s going to read it.” What I always tell people to do is if you need to include seven paragraphs worth of content, if there’s some reason you need to do that, make sure that the real point is within the first three lines of the email because that’s all you might get in terms of your reader’s attention. You can’t do this inductive thing of leading the reader to finally get to the point at the bottom of the email because you’re going to lose people. To me, that’s the bottom line, do you want your readers to read this or not? Do you want them to respond or not? Very often people don’t. You’re very conscientious in reading through these long emails that you get from your colleagues. Not everybody will do that. People will start reading and then they’ll get an instant message or the phone will ring or something else will explode and they’ll never go back to it.
You don’t want to hurt their feelings. It’s really hard, especially if there’s not somebody who reports to you and you want to help them. There are so many writing things that really could help people. Your book is really helpful for that. Now you said you’re working on another book. What’s your other book titled? Do you know it yet?
I’ve got a couple in the pipeline. I have the next book that’s coming out is called The Only Business Writing Book You’ll Ever Need because apparently, I don’t do modest titles. There are lots of business writing books on the market and shockingly, a lot of them still think that email is a new-fangled innovation and they’re written by English professors and out of touch. I’m sorry to say that but I wanted a very brief concise handbook that is in touch with electronic communication and instant messaging and all the ways that we communicate now because the world has changed tremendously through technology. That’s what this book is going to be. It’s coming out from Norton. There’s a seven-step process that you can use for everything that you have to write and it’s all very common sense but a very quick, easy reference.
That’s the one that’s next. The one that I’ve started working on is actually for people whose first language is not English. With globalization, we’re working so much with people from all over the world and for better or worse, American business writing has become the global norm. Currently, I’m calling the book American Business Writing for Global Executives and I’m writing about what are the characteristics of American business writing. One of them is it’s very concise. It’s very direct. It’s very good to the point. Not all cultures communicate that way. Some cultures are very much more personal, “How is the family?” We don’t do that in the States. People from some other countries think were quite rude because we’re very blunt.
It’s not that we don’t think that we care about the family, it’s just how we’ve always communicated. It’s a different way. I could see that that would be really helpful, especially at universities that have global programs. When I ran the MBA program at Forbes, I would have loved to share that as a resource. You should contact universities if you haven’t already.
I’m still in the process of developing it. I was thinking universities and there are business schools all over the world.
That’s an awesome addition. What you do is really fascinating. I’ve got a couple who want to know your opinion on since I have you. I have the expert. How about titled versus entitled for your book title? Would you say my book is titled or entitled? Because I see people make that one.
Either one is okay.
They say that both are okay when I looked it up. I don’t know if it’s right or not, because others were saying, “No, it has to be just titled because entitled means you’re entitled to it.” How about bestselling as one word or best-selling? Because you see that all the time, written both ways. They will say both are correct. Which one do you prefer?
I prefer the single word. This is probably one of those words that’s in the process of becoming correct, be standardized. Another one that I’m dealing with a lot lately is copy editing. Is that two words or one word? I think of it as one but if you type that in to Microsoft Word, you’ll get the squiggly red line. I did look it up and either one is correct, but that the language is always shifting. In twenty years, it will just be one word and nobody will think about making it two words, but words.
I’m so glad that you were able to share all these tips in helpful writing issues with everybody because so many people could use your advice. For somebody wanting to find out more and get your books and connect with you, how would they do that?
My book, How To Write Anything is on Amazon and people keep sending me photographs of it in bookstores all over the country. I guess it’s in bookstores as well and you can also buy it on my website, which is HowToWriteAnything.com. If there’s anything I can help people with, you can certainly email through the website, learn more about the corporate training that I offer, the one on one training that I offer. HowToWriteAnything.com is the best way to reach me.
This has been so fascinating. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Thank you for having me. It’s been a lot of fun for me.
Thank you so much to Shane and to Laura. This has been such a great show. If you’ve missed any of our past episodes, please go to DrDianeHamiltonRadio.com and you can find so much on the site from everything, from my speaking to consulting to the radio show to our blogs. Everything’s there. Please go to DrDianeHamilton.com or DrDianeHamiltonRadio.com and please join us for the next episode of Take the Lead Radio.
About Shane Snow
Shane Snow is an award-winning journalist, celebrated entrepreneur, and the bestselling author of Smartcuts and DREAM TEAMS, as well as the co-author of The Storytelling Edge. He is co-founder of the content technology company Contently, which helps creative people and companies tell great stories together, and serves on the board of the Contently Foundation for Investigative Journalism. Snow’s writing has appeared in Fast Company, Wired, The New Yorker, and dozens more top publications. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and a recipient of Columbia University’s Innovator Award for furthering the cause of journalism. He’s been called a “Wunderkind” by The New York Times, a “Digital Maverick” by Details, and his work “Insanely addicting” by GQ—though he wishes they had been talking about his abs.
About Dr. Laura Brown
Dr. Laura Brown is the author of “How to Write Anything: A Complete Guide” (WW Norton), Amazon #1 bestseller in business communications, and is currently under contract for a business writing book to be published in 2018. Over the past 25 years, Laura has taught writing to just about everyone—from CEOs to high school students. She provides customized training in business writing and consulting on business writing projects. Her expertise encompasses instructor-led training, individual coaching, classroom teaching, and e-learning development, as well as audio, video, and webinar training.
- Dream Teams
- The Storytelling Edge
- Contently Foundation
- Joe Lazauskas
- YouTube – Joe Lazauskas video
- @JoeLazauskas – Twitter account
- Dr. Laura Brown
- How to Write Anything: A Complete Guide