Think about the commitment someone is making when they choose to read something you give them. It’s substantial. The act of reading is the act of giving your time and attention to someone else’s ideas, and we’d argue that time and attention are the two most valuable pieces of yourself you can offer up, precisely because you can’t put a price on it.
What’s more, giving your time and attention means you’re not only receptive, but also willing to share if it’s compelling enough to do so. The concept of sharing information is the power behind social media, and it’s the precursor to achieving “cred” — the more people speak about you, the more people know you, what you do and why they should care.
A good writer is keenly aware of these facts and makes for damn sure that whatever their reader is committing to is going to offer value in some way. Every scribe has their own way of measuring this. For us it’s the dinner party test.
“So listen to this…”
We love when dinner party conversations start this way because we know we’re about to learn something new. And illumination’s a great feeling, especially when it comes at an unexpected place like dinner with friends. In every piece we write we try to include something worth breaking out at a dinner party — an argument, a fact in support of an argument or a perspective that chops an argument down. Either way, we do the digging and wordsmithing to work it in. To us, that’s the ultimate value-add: something a reader can take away and use at a later date for their own purposes, in this case, to add to (or improve) a dinner party conversation.
The three qualities of dinner-parrty worthiness
Well-researched. Clearly articulated. Surprisingly different. It’s that simple. And it’s category agnostic. Whether we’re writing about sports gambling, investing in cultural programs, building circuit boards or chicken caesar pitas (FYI: we wrote about all of these this month), we go the extra mile to give our readers something they can break out at a dinner party. It makes our clients happy because people are talking about them. It makes our readers happy because it gives them something to talk about. And it makes the dinner party host happy because at a good dinner party, the conversation flows as freely as the wine.
We took a road trip to Ottawa for the Editors Canada conference and got a chance to walk around the city. It was a gorgeous summer day — perfect for a stroll. And stroll we did: through ByWard Market, by the Parliament buildings and up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was perfect.
It was also a reminder of how lucky we are to be Canadian. Good people are working for us in the government: people who believe in tolerance and equality. People with common sense and common decency. Canadians. This is the best country in the world because everyone is welcome. More importantly, everybody FEELS welcome.
If you’re a Law and Order fan like we are, you may remember this Jack McCoy summation. But check out what he says at 3:11. And think about it. Because it’s exactly what Canada is.
And if you’re a Law & Order fan like we are, you’re probably equally gutted by its absence. We still get our Sam Waterston fix on Grace & Frankie, but it’s just not the same. Ugh.
I’ve been running an email campaign for a few months and traction is poor. When people open the email, they do what they’re supposed to do, but not enough people are opening. But my subject line “Get a free 72″ TV with purchase” is strong.
Yeah, we see that a lot. And no, your subject line isn’t strong because it’s not benefit-driven. You’re telling people what you’re doing (giving them a free TV), but not what it’s going to do for them:
Get started on a new TV room
Turn your bedroom into a theatre.
See every ripple in Zac Efron’s six-pack.
When you have five to seven words to impress someone, make it about them.
The other thing is that you haven’t told me what I have to purchase in order to get that new TV. Is it a Ferrari I can’t afford? An outhouse I don’t need? A camel I don’t want? And what’s the benefit of what I have to buy to get my 72″ TV?
Remember that your subject line is THE most important part of an email communication because it’s the gate-keeper. If the recipient doesn’t buy in there, then the rest of it is meaningless.
If you want to see an organization that writes KILLER subject lines, subscribe to the Green Party of Canada‘s mailing list. We’re not terribly huge fans of their politics, but their messaging is on point to say the least. And what’s cool about their email strategy is that emails always come from a different person. One day it’s Elizabeth May; the next it’s Jeff Braustein, then Meaghan Dubeau. But no matter who it’s from, we can tell by the subject line that it’s from the Green Party. And we open it because it’s that compelling. And while we may not align with everything they say, we know what they stand for.
The best part of what we do is everything we get to learn about. This week, it was a naturally occurring extract that helps prevent inflammation in the body. For people with arthritis, Crohn’s and even Parkinson’s, a Turmeric Curcumin supplement offers a world of relief.
We also got to research a bunch of companies that produce Turmeric Curcumin supplements and learned a few more interesting things — most notably that Turmeric Curcumin has poor “bioavailability.” That means it’s absorbed by the body too quickly for it to have maximum effect. So they mix it with another extract to slow it down. Some manufacturers do it better than others.
As we researched, we found that Turmeric Curcumin is actually a by-product of Turmeric — that spice so many people have in their rack but rarely use. So we thought, why not give you a reason to use it? And we found a good recipe on PaleoHacks.
Spiced Zucchini Beef
14oz minced beef
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon ground paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
pinch of cayenne pepper
2 small-medium zucchini, sliced into rounds
1 tablespoon maca powder
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
pinch of ground turmeric
pinch of ground cumin
pinch of salt
Place the olive oil and beef in a skillet on medium-high heat, stir regularly until the beef has browned.
Add the paprika, turmeric, cumin and cayenne pepper and stir for a further 2 minutes.
Add the zucchini and combine, then cover and leave to simmer for 6-8 minutes or until the zucchini has wilted and most of the liquid has reduced.
Remove the pan from the heat for 2 minutes uncovered to lower the temperature of the beef, then stir in the maca powder and season with salt and pepper.
In a small bowl combine the sesame seeds, fennel seeds, turmeric and cumin. Season with salt to taste.
Serve the beef with a sprinkle of the sesame and fennel seed mixture.
You see the phrase “strong communication skills” everywhere: on resumes (I have strong communication skills), on job postings (strong communication skills required), on bios (she has strong communication skills).
But what does it mean to “communicate strongly”? And what “skills” do people who communicate strongly possess? We’ve identified five:
People who communicate well know what’s important and what’s not. They can sniff out superfluous or offensive information that obfuscates the main point and remove it. And they can do it instinctively.
Wanna practise your brevity: Get a Twitter account. Even if you don’t tweet to anyone but yourself, it cuts you off at 140 characters.
People who communicate well take the time to get their facts right. They don’t speak about what they don’t know — and if they don’t know, they say so.
Wanna practise your diligence: Verify everything twice, with two different reputable sources. Google makes it easy.
People who communicate well know their audience — not only what they’re looking for but what they’re thinking. They craft their communication for the head and the heart, making sure that people hear and feel what they’re saying.
Wanna build emotional intelligence: Picture the person you’re speaking to — not just their job but their whole lives. Where do they live? Do they have kids? What do they like to do for fun? Knowing where they’re coming from makes it easier to lead them where you want them to go.
People who communicate well know that others need time to process the information they’re sharing. They don’t wait until the last minute to share. And they make sure due dates and action items are clearly marked.
Wanna practise your timeliness: Bold every date you send or receive. They’ll stand out and you’ll know what’s when.
People who communicate well deliver everything with a smile — sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. They make bad news palatable and good news awesome.
Wanna practise your friendliness: Read everything you write aloud. If it doesn’t sound friendly in your ear, it won’t sound friendly in anyone else’s ear. And use conjunctions wherever you can (i.e., it’s vs. it is). It’s more natural and friendlier.
This is a perfect introduction to the bard for minor niners. It’s light, very funny and full of prepubescent jokes — especially from Sir Toby Belch (–>) who may have the best name in the entire anthology.
Twelfth Night also mirrors the difference in maturity levels between ninth grade boys and girls. The play’s females are smart, cunning and forward-thinking. The males are boorish, self-centred and lovestruck. Yup, sounds about right.
Grade 10 — King Lear
By the time you’re 15 years old, you’re well on your way to hating your family. So before you irreparably destroy that relationship, it behooves to see what that really looks like. The King’s two daughters, Regan and Goneril, exemplify this, as do the Earl of Gloucester’s kids, Edmund and Edgar. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for them.
The tragedy of it all is how the King’s descent into madness is essentially dismissed by his own selfish kids. This alone should give young people pause — especially ones with older parents.
Grade 11 — Romeo & Juliet
Most kids will lose their virginity in Grade 11 (16.9 years old for boys, 17.2 years for girls). But before they do, they should see what being lovestruck can do to them and how being blinded by love can affect everyone else in their lives. In this way, the Montague/Capulet story is a double warning: young love has consequences, and (spoiler alert) falling in love for the first time can cloud your judgement to the point of accidentally killing yourself for no reason.
On a related note, Romeo & Juliet features modern literature’s first wingmen, Benvolio and Mercutio, with the latter having one of the best lines ever written: “A pox on both your houses.”
Grade 12 — Hamlet
You’re 18. You realize you know nothing about anything. You hate your father. Your friends kind of suck. You’re questioning your entire existence. Oh, and the girl you love is a bit of a psycho. That’s the plight of Hamlet and almost every other soon-to-graduate kid out there. It sucks. It’s hard. And it’s refreshing to know that you’re just joining a long line of confused teenagers.
Interestingly, Hamlet’s most famous line, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” is a popular passage with grammarians. Change the punctuation around and it means something totally different: “To be or not? To be. That is the question!”
Ernest Hemingway said that, and he was right. Of course he was right.
The first draft of anything is purely conceptual. It’s about sending what’s in your head through to your hands and onto the page. You shouldn’t expect brilliance. And if you think it’s brilliant, you should check yourself big time because it’s not. It’s raw, unformed and probably full of mistakes — as it should be.
Your first draft is a jumping-off point. Be proud of it. But be honest about it.
Know to walk away
It’s hard for anyone writing anything to give it space to breathe, to marinate and percolate. It probably comes from that puritan pursuit of perfection we all have ingrained somewhere in our psyches. But more doesn’t always mean better. And in writing’s case, it never means better.
Give yourself time to mull over your arguments, constructions and calls to action. While it’s fresh in your mind, you’ll notice other pieces of writing in the digital and actual worlds that will make it better. When you do, take a pic of them or write them down, then go back to your piece and see if what you learned can be applied. Chances are it can be.
Know to ask for help
You’ll always be too close to whatever you’re writing to be objective about it. That’s why no one should edit their own work; it’s akin to giving yourself a rectal exam.
Show your work to your colleagues, your family and your friends. Get as much feedback as you can. The comments that come up multiple times are the ones to address. Then when you’re happy with where your second draft is, bring in a pro editor.
Pro editors are trained to be that objective set of eyes. They’ll tell you if something doesn’t make sense because they have no horse in your race. They’ll see things you don’t. They’ll call out things that make perfect sense to you but mean nothing to anyone else. They’ll be brutal and ruthless. And you’ll love them for it.
Know to apply these rules to everything
Emails. Presentations. Marketing materials. Dissertations. White papers. Web copy. Blog posts. A first draft can never be your best work. Sure, some lines from your V1 will wind up in the final — but probably not how you wrote them. And that’s okay. Old Ernest says so.
A few months back, a Canadian member of parliament found herself being scolded by one of her colleagues in the house for what was apparently a poor choice of words.
Whether you think the simile used was appropriate or not is up for debate, but how This Hour Has 22 Minute‘s Mark Kritch handled it isn’t. He’s brilliant, and so quick. Not to be outdone, MP Michelle Rempel matched him joke for joke.
5. You believe that bad publicity is good publicity.
You accidentally refer to Fort McMurray as Fart McMurray. First it gets picked up by the usual suspects: grammar nerds who have noting better to do than correct companies. But there’s a fart in there, so before you know it, Buzzfeed, Funny or Die and Vice have gotten wind. Now you’re front page news — and so what if it’s for the wrong reason. You’ve got people talking. Except by this point, Mayor Blake and Premier Notely are making noise, going on about how the people of Alberta have gone through enough over the past few years — and now you’re comparing them to flatulence. You’d think they’d just let this one pass, but why would they when this kind of stuff’ll get them at least a few hundred votes next time around.
4. You have a crush on your printer.
You love his voice; the way he says your name; the way the ink on his hands always has a hidden message in it just for you. So yeah, you don’t mind finding reasons to keep going back to him with reprint after reprint. And, of course, even the smallest thing is cause to make the trip and spend the money: something simple like Canadian vs American spelling or an “its” vs. “it’s.”
3. You want fewer customers.
Not proofing your work is the perfect fix for this. With one typo, you clearly demonstrate you don’t care about your reputation enough to put your best foot forward for yourself so there’s no way you’d do it for anyone else. So sit back and wait for the phone to never ring.
2. You like feeling stupid.
Hey, we don’t judge. People get off on all sorts of things. Maybe you’re into people mocking you? Maybe you’re the person who always sits front row centre at a comedy club so you get picked on by the talent?
1. You want to meet the Grammar Vigilante of Bristol.
A big-budget movie production with larger-than-life stars set up shop in a small New England town. That’s the story of State and Main (2000), and about a hundred movies before it, notably Sweet Liberty (1986) with Alan Alda and Michael Caine.
But State and Main’s different. Because of this guy.
This is David Mamet. He can write dialogue like this from Glengarry Glen Ross, a play he wrote that got turned into a movie. Amazing, right? But what makes Mamet such an incredible writer is his range. Sure, he can drop F-bombs with the best of them (and he does in GGR — 139 times to be exact). But he can go the other way too, which he does in State and Main. You’ll hear a few choice curses here and there, but it’s the restraint he shows from scene to scene that makes it sing. Because you’d expect the characters to be swearing like…
Baldwin. Parker. Macy. And the late Hoffman.
Of course, a screenwriter is only as good as the actors he has to work with and the director at the helm. Mamet had the second part covered in State and Main, as he directed it himself. But the talent he had was unquestionable. He had Alec Baldwin (a GGR alum) and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Hollywood elite, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the screenwriter, Bill Macy as the director and a wonderful performance by character actor David Paymer as the hot-shot producer who comes in halfway through as unexpected muscle — funny given he’s known in cult film circles for this little ditty:
Too many lines to choose
Some movies have a line that defines it. “That’s not a knife.” “You talking’ to me?” And “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” come to mind. But with State and Main, the whole script defines it. It’s almost impossible to pick the best zinger. Actually, that’s not true — it’s fairly easy: