Structuring a Piece of Writing

shutterstock_130726859Recently, I was on a conference call explaining to friends why I had suggested the changes I’d made to the article we were working on together, why I had moved some things around, re-written a few sections, and completely removed whole paragraphs.

I found myself talking about structure, about the overall structure of this article as if it were a building, using words like balance, flow, and parallel. And by the silence on the other end of the phone, I could tell my friends had no idea what I was talking about.

To be honest they are all pretty good writers; although, writing is just what they must do occasionally, not what they want to do or care much about. Sometimes they just have to communicate something in writing. So they attack it. They see a piece of writing as a container to be filled with many ideas—some coherent, some half thought through, and some still mostly jumbled.

They don’t approach it as a piece of writing having a visible and understandable form built on a set of rules and guiding principles aimed toward clarity and reader understanding. So my discussion of structure was rather useless. That’s why I seldom go there.

While it’s unusual for me to have a discussion about the structure of a piece of writing, it’s downright rare for the mainstream media to write about this subject. They may mention grammar or say a writer uses sentences that are too long (whatever that is) or too confusing.  But they almost never mention the structure of a whole piece of writing.

I’ve recently come across a few articles that, at least briefly, mention structure. Most recently was a Fast Company article on Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at Wharton. Just before that was a New York Times piece on writer Kate Atkinson’s new novel. And before that was John McPhee’s long piece in The New Yorker about the structure of some of his many books and magazine pieces.

For two reasons, McPhee’s article stands out from the other two and from almost all others I’ve read: First, it is printed in The New Yorker, a magazine noted for its coverage of intellectual topics, not the tactics of writing. Second, the article doesn’t mention structure as an afterthought in a paragraph or two as the other articles do; instead the entire piece is about structure, so much so, in fact, that the word is used in the article’s title: “Structure: Beyond the Picnic-Table Crisis.”

McPhee’s article is about how he chose the structure for several pieces he has written over the years. Some structures were (strictly or variously) chronological, particularly for pieces like “Travels in Georgia.” Others, such as the one about his trip in an eighteen-wheeler from a truck stop in Georgia to Tacoma, Washington, worked better with thematic structures, structures that spiraled out from the center starting point. Whatever structure he chose, he did so after much thought and long preparation as he worked out the best way to tell his story so it would be clear to his reader.

McPhee says in the article that structure has preoccupied him in every project he has undertaken since his high school English teacher first taught him about structure in the late 1940s. And he has “hammered it at Princeton writing students across four decades of teaching.” Driving home the importance of structure, he tells his students, “You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in a way that causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.”

It seems clear that the friends I was talking to about structure on my recent conference call had not learned McPhee’s important message, nor have many other people who think of themselves as PR or business writers or who, as part of their jobs, must occasionally turn out an article or blog post.

Photo: Shutterstock/Foxtrot101

05/11/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are eight recent communications stories of note.

The 10 Best Words the Internet Has Given English by Tom Chatfield, in the Guardian, April 17.

In this article, Chatfield, a self-described etymology addict, looks at the history of ten words that are gaining new life and, in some instances, new meanings on the Internet.

The New Look of Public Relations by Stuart Elliott, in The New York Times, April 28, discusses PR firm FleishmanHillard’s rebranding as an integrated marketing communications agency. The New Look of Public Relations—A Dissenting View by Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, in his 6 A.M. blog, May 8, looks at his firm’s approach to preparing for the future.

The PR business is in flux. And agencies everywhere are trying to determine their future role in the overall marketing space and in controlling their clients’ paid, earned, owned, and shared media mix. The best way for them to brand, or rebrand, themselves for this challenge is up for grabs, as these two articles show.

Solving Equation of a Hit Script, With Data by Brooks Barnes, in The New York Times, May 5.

Barnes writes that a former statistics professor thinks he can improve screenplays by comparing “the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success.” Vinny Bruzzese is not a writer. Instead, he’s interested in using data, which he gathers from focus groups and interviews with moviegoers, to suggest script changes. One screenwriter calls Bruzzese’s approach “my worse nightmare.”

Linguists Identify 15,000-Year-Old ‘Ultraconserved Words’ by David Brown in The Washington Post, May 6.

Some words are coined and then disappear in a matter of years. Even the strongest usually last only about 9,000 years before becoming extinct. But linguists have discovered a few words that have been around for 150 centuries, and they’re wondering why.

Grammar Rules Everyone Should Follow by Thomas Jones in the Guardian, May 9.

Jones says that although these “rules” are really conventions not rules, they’re worth following “in the right kinds of discourse” because they make writing clearer and more elegant. He is correct in eight of his suggestions, but I think he’s wrong about the use of who and whom.

Trying to Be Hip and Edgy, Ads Become Offensive by Stuart Elliott and Tanzina Vega, in The New York Times, May 10.

The authors say that advertising agencies and their clients may be trying too hard to reach millennials and “to create ads that will be noticed and break through the clutter.” The result: They are creating more and more offensive ads, leading to public outrage as well as embarrassment (and worse) for Madison Avenue and the brands being promoted.

The 30 Most Influential Bloggers in Public Relations on The CyberAlert Blog.

Today, there are more than 180 million blogs published worldwide on the Internet. Most have only a handful of followers, and their comments leave little or no trail. But a few bloggers are extremely influential, with thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of followers who can’t wait for their next post.

CyberAlert, a media monitoring service, has identified the 30 most influential bloggers who write about public relations and social media. PR and corporate communications professionals might want to take a look at what these bloggers have to say.

Learning to Communicate Clearly—from Alan Alda

shutterstock_121137493Who would have thought that actor Alan Alda would have anything to say about unclear language, especially anything that we in PR and business communications might want to consider.

We all know that jargon is specialized language associated with a particular industry or group and that when used with our peers, it sounds meaningful. But how many of us notice the jargon we use routinely in our external communications? More important, how many know or care that more often than not, jargon creates a wall between us and our outside listeners and readers who can’t understand the words we use.

Alda knows. And he is concerned about the miscommunication that results when scientists use unclear language. He’s so concerned, in fact, that now as a visiting professor, he teaches a course at Stony Brook University’s newly named Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. His goal is to help science students become better communicators, to teach them to speak clearly.

In his course, “He trains scientists to be more sensitive to their audience,” according to a recent Sunday Morning TV show, “so instead of speaking with what we might call gibberish (‘I study spatial planning and the valuation of ecosystem services to different stakeholders’), we get this: ‘I study ways oceans are used.’”

On Sunday Morning, Alda gives an example of clear communication that he claims saved his life when he was on a Chilean mountain top and would have died from a strangled intestine without proper treatment. The doctor, according to Alda, said “in the clearest possible way, ‘Something’s gone wrong with your intestine and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together.’  I said, ‘That’s Great. Do it.’”

That’s the kind of direct, clear language Alda hopes to teach his students and the kind of language he would like to see other scientists adopt.

All of us in PR and corporate communications could learn from this approach, whether we’re giving a speech to shareholders, writing a white paper as a marketing piece, or tweeting about a new business product or service.

Photo: Shutterstock/Sam72

My Blog: Celebrating One Year

shutterstock_85653580With this post, my 65th, I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary of my blog.

In my first post a year ago, I said this blog would be about business communications. But my goal then—as now—was to take more of a sidelong glance at this topic than a direct, in-your-face, view of it.

Many people focus narrowly on one aspect of today’s business communications, covering everything there is to know about, say, social media or blogging. Some do a really good job. But most just seem to copy what they’ve seen in someone else’s post. And quite frankly, I often feel I’m reading the same article over and over again, as the third person this week provides a list of the six things you must do to succeed online or the ten things you can do wrong when tweeting.

I chose, instead, to write about what I see as the whole communications process: “word usage, grammar, sentence construction, the structure of documents, communications tools, the strategies and tactics for communicating with specific key stakeholder groups, the execution of these strategies and tactics, and the evaluation of the success or failure of these efforts,” as I said in my first post.

So each week over the past year, I’ve written about whatever communications subject felt important or intriguing at the time, even if this approach produced what might seem—at first glance—to be an array of subjects unrelated to business communications.

Some posts make the connection more directly than others. For instance, my fourth post, from April, ties together a philosopher’s view of shaker furniture and Steve Jobs; a piece from November stresses the need for a company to really understand what its product is; and a post from earlier this month presents a Q&A on digital long-form content.

The subjects of other posts tie less overtly to business communications, but the link can easily be made: tattoos (two Olympians’ and my father’s) with business branding; Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon with the need to write clear business communications; and the different ways “Brussels sprouts” was spelled at the Farmers Market in Madison.

A few posts may require even more thought to find the link. Among these are the September post about my dog, Henry, and the joy he gave me; an October piece about the subconsciousness of writing; and this month’s post on U.S. schools deciding not to teach cursive handwriting.

I believe this circling of my blog’s key topic helps me—and I hope my readers—to think more broadly, and yet at the same time more closely, about the business of communicating about companies, their products and services, and their actions.

Photo: Shutterstock/Vesna Cvorovic

On the Wings of Brand, Marketing and Manufacturing

iPhone 5 photo by Eric Risberg, AP

Apple’s iPhone 5 does not go on sale in stores until Friday, yet the company has already broken records with the number of pre-ordered devices sold through its website. Customers bought out its initial supply in about 60 minutes and then bought more than two million devices in the first 24 hours the iPhone 5 was available online—about twice the number of last year’s iPhone 4s sold in a day, which was itself a record for the company.

Last week people started lining up at some of the company’s stores to be among the first to buy the new phone when the doors open Friday morning. Let me be clear: People were camped out eight days before the device goes on sale at the stores.

Why do people get so excited over yet another model of this smartphone that has looked so much the same since 2007 that most people can’t tell one version from the next?

It’s a combination of Apple’s brand, its marketing expertise, and its manufacturing details.

Few people would doubt that Apple has among the best—if not the very best—brand in the technology industry, a brand that still generates a feeling that the company makes products “for the rest of us,” as it stated many years ago when fighting for its life against all the Microsoft-based computers. That sense of being among the few who feel like an Apple insider and being among the “lucky” who own one of its products still exists—somehow—even though Apple now ranks as the largest U.S. company (measured by stock-market price).

We “lucky ones” must know there’s nothing unique about owning an Apple product; after all, it sold two million of them in 24 hours last week and is expected to sell nearly 50 million in the fourth quarter alone—enough to slightly move the overall U.S. economy forward. This reality sits in the back of our minds, but it can’t override our perception that runs clearly amuck in the front. It’s a lifestyle choice that we have bought in to—like owning a dog or driving a BMW.

That perception, embedded by brand, is driven by marketing and manufacturing.

It’s likely every company that makes cellphones introduced a new model in the past few months. In fact, some companies rushed their products to market just ahead of the iPhone 5 announcement last week, trying to gain some media coverage before being drowned out by reporters and bloggers loudly proclaiming the virtues of the new Apple device.

Yet, it’s unlikely you can name another company that held a major PR event for its new phone—especially one that drew hundreds of top tech reporters and bloggers from around the world, and then put a video of the two-hour event on its website where, one would guess, it was watched (in part or full) by thousands of consumers, and by an untold number of PR and marketing professionals trying to learn how it’s done.

These professionals (who consider such things in hopes of copying their effectiveness) also wonder how such a highly promotional statement as the following could work its magic yet again: “iPhone 5 is the best iPhone yet, the most beautiful product we’ve ever made, and we hope customers love it as much as we do.” This statement is used not only by Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, in the news release announcing the record-breaking pre-orders, but over and over again in the video.

And it works. Consumers believe it every time they hear it.

Then there’s Apple’s focus on trying to make the best product possible, a focus held dearly by Steve Jobs for his entire career (both times at Apple, at Next and at Pixar) and engrained deeply into the culture of the company. Whether Apple succeeds at this goal is debated—sometimes. But by trying, and then telling us and showing us that its trying, Apple goes a long way toward making the goal a reality in the minds and hands of millions of people.

A short iPhone 5 video on Apple’s website shows part of the manufacturing process and repeats language similar to that used in the Apple news release announcing the device: “Designed with an unprecedented level of precision, iPhone 5 combines an anodized aluminum body with diamond cut chamfered edges and glass inlays for a truly incredible fit and finish.”

Watching these edges being cut leaves some viewers amazed at the care put into the phone’s manufacture and leaves them knowing (before they’ve ever held the device) that it will feel like a piece of art in their hands—not a mere appliance on which to make calls and send texts. It increases their urgency to own one, an urgency like that felt by a rare-art collector bidding on a Gauguin or a Monet.

Each of those who have already pre-ordered the iPhone 5, who are now waiting in line to buy it on Friday, or who will be among those to have it before year end—each will feel that the device he/she will soon own will not be just one of millions of copies, but the only one. It will be masterpiece.