A Great Pro Writing Technique: Utilize Examples of Behavior that Show the Subject’s Personality and Character

We often forget to use examples that illuminate the nature of the people who populate our writing.   Using such illustrations is a simple, powerful, and immediate way to cement the connection between you and your reader.

I once worked for a publication edited by Dr. Rushworth M. Kidder, the former features editor of the Christian Science Monitor who went on to found the influential Institute for Global Ethics.  Kidder had a rule that every profile piece he edited include a brief physical description of the room or environment in which the interview was conducted, a description of the person being interviewed, and some action on the part of the subject of the piece.  (Not all at once, of course, but sprinkled throughout the profile.)

That’s a good rule, and I’ve occasionally imposed it on students and journalists whose work I edit.

The physical description of the locale makes the piece seem more real in the theater of the mind, and sometimes it adds some insight into the person or situation who is the subject.  For example, it’s interesting to note the former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg worked in an open office at City Hall, a desk in the middle of a sea of other desks, a setup that resembled a stock trading floor more than a mayor’s office.   You can’t read too much into it, but the environment he created does speak to his background and management style, and perhaps to the image he wants to project to constituents.

Describing the subject of the piece is a no-brainer, but I’ve seen some pretty brainless writing where there is not a word of description and the reader is left in a vacuum.  One piece I edited actually featured a subject with an androgynous name – I think it was Jamie – with no hint as to whether the subject was male or female.  Such detachment makes the piece seem distant and second-hand.  A brief phrase – “a trim man in his fifties with short, grey hair, cut military-style” – provides the reader with a picture of who is talking and cuts away some of the fog and distance.

As to actions: Does the person you are writing about habitually stand when someone comes into a room?  Speak with low intensity? Interrupt others constantly? Make sweeping gestures?  Focus intently on one person while screening out hubbub in the immediate environment?  Drum fingers? All are gelling actions and gestures.

Here’s an example of how actions can provide insight.  It’s from a young writer named Kalyce Rogers, who publishes on the blogging platform Medium, which has evolved into a venue for some truly outstanding writing by emerging authors:

 I know he’s got at least some money, because he’s buying Grey Goose. People with money don’t buy cheap vodka, or cheap rum, or cheap whiskey. They invest in the good stuff, like Grey Goose. Three bottles of it.

His suit radiates “expensive”, the kind of expensive that involves several tailors and a high-end store in Manhattan. We aren’t in Manhattan, though. We’re in a fluorescent-lit Ralph’s in a suburban city that sleeps from 10 PM to 6 AM. Men who belong in Manhattan look out of place here.

“How are you doing tonight, sir?” The woman working the register asks pleasantly enough. My eyes are fixated on her hands, veins prominent through tired skin, as they scan bottle after bottle. His own fingers drum on the register wall impatiently. A gold band catches lights and gleams from his ring finger.

“Fine. Now, if you wouldn’t mind speeding up this damn process, I’ve got places to be.” He snaps, taking a black leather wallet out of his jacket pocket, a shiny credit card protruding from the top. It looks like it’s made of silver. He holds it gingerly between his index finger and middle finger, and now that his hands are busy, he begins tapping his foot on the linoleum. There is a faint, distinct rhythm, but I can’t place where I’ve heard it before.

Example, example, example!  The behavior, more than the description, gives the piece reality and vibrancy.


From the Arsenal for the Articulate: Anomie

Here’s a powerful word that gets across a sophisticated point in short order.  I came across it recently in a Charles Krauthammer piece in which he warned:

We must now brace ourselves for disquisitions* on peer pressure, adolescent anomie and rage.

Here’s my short course on anomie:

Anomie (ANN-uh-mee)

What it Means: Unrest or instability brought on by a breakdown of ethics, standards, and values.

How to Use It: “The anomie and anger of the German people after World War I gave rise to the fascist power-grab.”

About the Word: “Anomie” comes from a Greek word meaning “lawlessness,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean insurrection.   It’s an expressive and precise word because it conveys the idea of festering alienation that could gradually lead to a social breakdown; you can also use it to apply to uncertainty, purposeless, or aimlessness stemming from a lack of ideals.

*I covered disquisition in a previous post

Consider Adding Podcasts to Your Business-Presentation Repertoire – A Ground-Zero Primer

Are you in the type of job where you call meetings to announce and/or explain developments related to your enterprise? Do you invite guest speakers to add perspective or expert analysis? Would you be interested in reaching that same audience, with the same material, at any time convenient for them – including when they are driving or jogging?

If so, consider distributing an audio file.   The audio file is commonly known as a “podcast,” although technically a podcast is an audio file distributed through a specific type of syndication method. (Don’t worry about this; I’ll explain in a moment and use the word “podcast” generically from here on.)

Let me start with the basics. First, know that podcasts are incredibly popular. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who have listened to a podcast in the last month has nearly doubled since 2008, with one third of Americans 12 years of age and older having listened to at least one podcast. In 2014, the most recent data I am aware of, more than 2.6 billion podcasts were downloaded. [i]

Podcasts do not require a lot of expensive equipment and can be distributed for free or at a very low cost.

A podcast is usually somewhere between five and thirty minutes long, and often, though not always, includes an interview with a guest. The audio is recorded by the producer of the podcast and the podcast is uploaded to a site where it is “hosted,” meaning that listeners can download it or automatically subscribe to new installments, which are delivered automatically to their computers, smartphones, and MP3 devices.

An MP3 is a highly compressed audio file that because of its small digital size is easy to distribute. MP3 is an abbreviation for “Motion Picture Experts Group Layer 3 Audio,” meaning an agreed-upon method, established by a professional group, for compressing the audio. An MP3 file hosted on a serve that makes is available for subscription is actually what makes an audio file an official “podcast.”  So there. Now you know.

Well-known podcast hosting firms such as SoundCloud and Libsyn are easy to navigate and provide clear explanations of the process. You can also find literally thousands of tutorials for podcast creation on the web.

I mentioned earlier that you don’t need expensive equipment, and that’s true. If you own a laptop you can pretty much engineer the whole process for free using the built-in microphone. You can’t count on audio being recorded in one take, so you need some sort of software to allow you to record and edit the audio. You have many options, and probably have software that will edit audio already installed on your computer, but I would strongly recommend that you download a program called Audacity. It’s free, and while not the simplest program around, it is very powerful and you can generally find the answers to your questions about using it on a variety of Internet forums.

Why do you need an audio editing program like Audacity? Two reasons: First, you need some sort of software to capture the output of the microphone and turn it into the type of file you can use, and second, you need to have the ability to cut, paste, and mix audio to fix flubs, take out extraneous sound, improve the sound quality of what you have, and perhaps add some theme music or other audio effects.

Learning to record and edit audio is an excellent investment of time and (a limited about of) money. What’s particularly appealing about the process is that setting up your own audio studio is the first step in developing your own multi-media mini-empire.   If you venture beyond audio into video, the skills you learned in editing audio will be immediately adaptable to the somewhat more complex video-editing process.

Additionally, good audio is the foundation of good video.   In general, people will tolerate low-quality video but will not countenance poor audio.

In terms of good quality, you can actually produce professional quality audio at home with a modest investment. I produce a variety of audio presentations in a retrofitted closet  and the sound quality passes muster for even the most demanding clients. My Edited Photo of Podcastmicrophone is, in my opinion, one of the best made, and it cost me only about $350. (If you’re interested, it’s a Shure SM7B, and was the microphone used to record the Michael Jackson “Thriller” album.) The computer is a standard Mac laptop, the acoustical padding was a couple hundred dollars, the boom about twenty, and I sunk another $200 or so into amplifiers and cables. That’s less than a grand, total, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that the audio produced here is of better quality than from studios were I did voice work in the pre-digital era – setups that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

You don’t need this level of equipment for a podcast, although the added quality helps. A headset microphone designed to cancel noise works perfectly well for most applications; in addition to having a highly directional microphone close to your mouth to cancel out room noise, the headset allows you to move around freely and not have to maintain a consistent distance from the microphone.

If your podcast includes interviews, you can use Skype or Google Hangouts to make the connection for free and you won’t have to bother patching a phone line into your system, but wiring in a phone is not a particularly complicated process.

Podcasting is not exactly simple, but it’s not cripplingly complex, either. Developing skills and expertise in this area is an important part of a presenter’s arsenal, I believe. The Harvard Business Review reports that about one out of five business-to-business marketers use podcasts.[ii]





Use the Bounceback Question to Put Troublemakers in the Audience Back on their Heels

In last week’s post we looked at using the ricochet question (where you take someone’s question and refer it to others in the audience) to handle a skeptical or difficult questioner during a presentation or speech.

Basically, you just refer the question to someone in the audience or the audience as a whole.

Before I answer that, does anybody in the audience have any [thoughts, direct experience with the issue, etc.]?

This technique has a dual benefit of getting the audience on your side and buying you some time to think. But if the ricochet question doesn’t defuse the situation, and you sense that the questioner is simply intent on continued disruption, you have to ratchet up your level of control.

Moderately hostile questioners can sometimes be put back on their heels with a bounceback question.  It can be as simple as asking for a name:

“Sorry, your name is….?”


“Sorry, I missed your name….”

Many disruptive audience members are in-the-flesh versions of Internet trolls: courageous only when anonymous. They often will shut up when dragged into the sunlight.

Another bounceback technique: Simply ask the hostile questioner what he or she would do in the situation. Most won’t have an answer, or if they do it is likely to be ill-reasoned. And even if your heckler does provide a semi-coherent response, you have steered the conversation back to a landscape of facts, where you presumably have an advantage.

If the actions of a hostile audience member escalate to the level of actual heckling, there are some excellent techniques you can employ to gain the upper hand. We’ll cover those in a series of posts over the next few days. Stay tuned.



Use the Ricochet Question to Handle a Hostile Audience Member

One of the unpleasant aspects of giving a presentation is encountering the occasional malcontent. I have a series of methods to handle hostile audience members in my forthcoming book, Present Like a Pro.

Here’s one method:

Use the Ricochet Question to Divert a Troublemaker’s Question to Someone Else in the Audience, a Technique that Defuses Hostility and Buys You Time to Think

A ricochet question (where you take someone’s question and refer it to others) works best in a venue where you know some of the other audience members. It differs from a bounceback question, which will be addressed in my next post.

You can’t always use the ricochet question but when it’s appropriate the technique not only takes the focus off you momentarily but also increases audience involvement — and in the process may actually enliven the presentation.

It works like this:

Question: Our numbers each quarter keep going down. What can we do?
Answer: It’s true that sales are a challenge in this economy, but some departments are holding their own or actually improving. Alyssa’s department had two good years in a row, and she’s been active in training throughout the company. What do you think, Alyssa? What are the options you can identify?

Be careful, because you don’t want to anger people by putting them on the spot, and you don’t want to appear to be ducking questions, but executed correctly this technique can move the audience over to your side.

You can ask an audience-wide ricochet question, too.

Before I answer that, does anybody in the audience have any [thoughts, direct experience with the issue, etc.]?

If the malcontent crosses the line and becomes a heckler, there are several techniques you can employ.   They’ll be posted over the next two weeks.


From the Arsenal of the Articulate: Rebarbative

Looking for a great word to elegantly dismantle your opponent’s argument? Characterize it as…

Rebarbative (ree-BAR-ba-tiv)

What it Means: Irritating and repellent; aggravating because of abrasive behavior or objectionable appearance.

How to Use It: “Like a pugnacious drunk, he kept up a rambling and rebarbative soliloquy, hoping to goad someone into a fight.”

About the Word: It originally meant standing “beard to beard” in a confrontation, and comes from the same Latin word for “beard” from which we derive “barber.” The exact origins are lost in antiquity, but one possible story I really hope is true (because I like it) is that French fishermen were known to be particularly obnoxious and argumentative and had a habit of wearing beards and thrusting their chins out when they argued with each other. You can almost smell the snails on their breath.

When to be Sesquipedalian

As communication professionals, most of us subscribe to the notion that in speech or writing clarity comes first. The most elegant turn of phrase is wasted on someone who doesn’t comprehend it. As a result, we pare down the complexity of our sentences and the intricacies of our vocabulary. Those of us in the business of teaching journalism, advertising, or public relations regularly admonish students to “keep it simple.”

Having said that, we can’t help but admire great writing even if it sends us scurrying to the dictionary. For example, here’s a gem from syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer:

We must now brace ourselves for disquisitions* on peer pressure, adolescent anomie* and rage.

            (*Hold off on your dictionary run…I’ll get to them.)

And another from Mattathias Schwartz, writing in The New York Times:

Does free speech tend to move toward the truth or away from it? When does it evolve into a better collective understanding? When does it collapse into the Babel of trolling, the pointless and eristic* game of talking the other guy into crying “uncle”?

So, what’s the difference between someone employs challenging but powerful words and someone who is merely sesquipedalian? Well, “sesquipedalian” means “characterized by long words” and in my mind it’s a good example of a complex word not to use. It’s just as easy to say “someone who just uses a lot of long words,” and when I hear or read “sesquipedalian” I can’t help but think the user is simply trying to show off.

Not so with “disquisition,” “anomie,” and “eristic.” They are powerful words with unique, specific, and impactful meanings that communicate a point with precision elegance. Here’s how I define them; I know there are other meanings but what I’ve used here are what I believe are the most common and useful:

Anomie (ANN-uh-mee)

What it Means: Unrest or instability brought on by a breakdown of ethics, standards, and values.

How to Use It: “The anomie and anger of the German people after World War I gave rise to the fascist power-grab.”

About the Word: “Anomie” comes from a Greek word meaning “lawlessness,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean insurrection.   It’s an expressive and precise word because it conveys the idea of festering alienation that could gradually lead to a social breakdown; you can also use it to apply to uncertainty, purposeless, or aimlessness stemming from a lack of ideals.


Disquisition (dis-qui-ZISH-uhn)

What it Means: An elaborate and highly detailed analysis of a subject.

How to Use It: “The senator responded to the question of how much money would be spent with a half-hour disquisition on the budgetary process.”

About the Word: “Dis” is Latin for “apart” (as in “disassemble) and “quaerere” means “seek,” so the word evolved from the idea of seeking and analyzing all the separate parts of an issue. (Interestingly, “analysis” comes from Greek words meaning to break into separate parts.) Sometimes, “disquisition” is used in a negative way to imply a needlessly elaborate explanation. Thus, you can employ it to express your exasperation with someone (“perhaps this isn’t the best time for a disquisition of your political views”) without being openly dismissive.


Eristic (err-ISS-tic)

What it Means: Intended to cause controversy, usually just for the sake of causing controversy. It can also be used as a noun to refer to someone who displays these tendencies.

How to Use It: “The talk-show host discussed very little of the real substance of the issue, preferring to launch eristic attacks on some of the wording in the candidate’s recent speech.”

About the Word: Eris was the beautiful but disagreeable Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and contention; her parents owned a restaurant near me and I briefly dated her in my youth. Her namesake word often implies not only creating disputes, but also invoking illogical or irrelevant arguments in the process.   As a result, using “eristic” subtly impugns both the motives and substance of someone’s remarks. (As a side-note, you may remember that Romans appropriated Greek gods into their belief system but changed their names. Eris became the Roman goddess Discordia, the root of our present-day word “discord.”)


What’s your favorite power word? Let me know: My next book project is titled An Arsenal for the Articulate: 500 Explosively Eloquent Power Words that You’ll Actually Use and Remember. I’d love to have you do my work for me. I’ll follow up with some reader-contributed words in a forthcoming column.


Use Memory Tricks to Keep Yourself from Confusing Similar-Sounding Words

Everybody mixes up words. It’s a rare day when I don’t encounter speakers and writers using “infer” (to deduce) when they mean “imply” (to hint). Or “disinterested” (impartial, with no stake in the outcome) when want to say “uninterested.”

I mix up words like anybody else. For example, before I developed a good system to remember them, my brain used to routinely slip a gear when it came to “complement” and “compliment” and “discrete” and ”discreet.”

How do you remember the differences between evil-twin words? I believe the best way is to develop a memory trick to aid recall, a device defined as a mnemonic. (The “m” is silent; it’s pronounced neh-MONN-ick) A mnemonic can be a word, rhyme, an image, — whatever works for you. Think “lefty loosy righty tighty” – the standard remedy for recalling which way to rotate the screwdriver.

We were all taught mnemonic tricks in school, such as remembering that, “the principal of your school is your pal,” a device that reinforces the concept that a school principle is a person, rather than an abstract idea expressed by a “principle.” And the distinction between “affect” and “effect” centers on the memory device reminding as that “a” is for “action.”

But the best device is the one you make up yourself. To cure my “complement/compliment” binary brain-freeze I invented this memory device: “When you want to use complement to mean ‘add something extra,’ use the ‘e’ for ‘extra.’”

I also tended to mix up “discreet” and “discrete.” I solved this by reminding myself that in the version of the word that means “separate” the letter “E”s are separate from each other.

It’s my view that the human brain remembers associations and stories more readily than anything absorbed by rote memorization, and the more vivid the association the better – so go crazy and make up an outlandish and mind-sticky scenario.

Those of us of a certain age will remember memory guru Harry Lorayne, who was popular on the Johnny Carson Show in the 1960s and 70s. Lorayne would sometimes memorize the names of the entire studio audience — hundreds of people. How? By picturing each person in a situation or image that jogged his memory. If a woman was named “Beth,” for example, he might picture her sitting in a bath.

Want another example of a memory association? An Internet memory guru who identifies himself only as Douglas provides this hint for remembering the capital of an Eastern European nation: Picture a bull named Gary — it helps if he is wearing a sweatshirt with “Gary” emblazoned on it — relaxing on a sofa. A “bull named Gary” relaxing on the sofa will unavoidably stick in your mind. And so will the fact the Sofia is the Capital of Bulgaria.

If you can’t come up with your own story, maybe the bones of the plot already exist in the root of the word. You can look up “criticize” and “ostracize” several times and not remember the difference if they happen to be words that fall into your personal brain-gap.

But let me tell you the story of the words:

“Criticize” comes from the Latin word “criticus,” meaning a judge. You know the word anyway, but the image of a judge saying disapproving things is now permanently and visually implanted in your mind. But “ostracize” — meaning to shun or cast out – comes from a Greek word meaning (roughly) “tile.” The citizens of Athens would write the name of people they they didn’t like on pieces of tile and when the pieces were collected and tabulated the unpopular folks would be banished for five or ten years.

Now, try to forget the proper usage of “ostracize.” I dare you.




Taming the Big Document: How to Use Labeled Source Documents and an Outline to Simplify the Writing Process

Long writing projects are intimidating not only because of the amount of work involved but also because it’s challenging to manage the mass of materials you have gathered in the research process. Worse yet is confronting the dilemma of what goes where when you are constructing the piece.

I have a two-step system that has seen me through several hundred articles and more than a dozen books.

The first step is to get all your source materials organized in a manageable and accessible collection. The second step is to write up an outline of your project and then key it to your source material – labeling what part from your source material goes where in the outline.

Here’s what to do for step one: Type up your handwritten notes neatly on however many pages you need and print them out. Do this quickly after you take your notes, because if your handwriting is like mine what looks legible today won’t be so clear tomorrow and in a week it will look like hieroglyphics viewed in a mirror after a pitcher of vodka martinis. Transcribing your notes also allows you to edit out unnecessary or superfluous material.

If you have pages from a book or magazine, photocopy them onto standard-size paper. Print out the relevant parts of web pages you want to cite.

Now, instead of a heap of books, magazines, notebooks, scrawled-upon napkins and matchbook covers, you have a neat sheaf of pages. I like to hole-punch them and insert them into a binder. Number the pages at the top in red marker.

For step two, make an outline of your document. Try for ten main points, hitting on what you think is important and the proper sequence in which you want to address the topics.

For example, the beginning of your outline might look like this…

1. Introduction

2. Explanation of why the issue is important

3. First example

…and so on.

Print your outline.

Next, put your source documents in one pile your left and your outline to the right.

Now, the magic happens. Go through your source documents and pick out the good parts. Underline (or highlight) and label them. Let’s say on Page One of your source document you have a quote that you think is powerful and evocative. Underline it, and then take your red marker and label it “A” in the right-hand column of the page. The quote is now coded as Page 1, Paragraph A.

A little farther down on Page One of the source documents you may have some statistics that you believe will back up an important contention in your piece. Label that paragraph as “B.”

Do this throughout all your source pages. All the good parts will be identified: Source Page 1, paragraphs A, B, C, D, Source Page 2, Paragraphs A, B, C, D, E, and so forth.

Now turn your attention to the outline. Look at it carefully and think about what information from your source documents should go where. Under each of your ten main points in the outline, write in the code for the sections of your source documents that you want to use.

Using the hypothetical “Introduction” section in the outline as an example, you may wind up with something like this:


(Use this information from the source documents…)

Page 2, paragraph C
Page 1, paragraph A
Page 8, paragraph D
Page 1, paragraph F
Page 1, paragraph G

You can create this outline/road map on the computer screen if you want, but using printed copies works best for me and doesn’t tie up valuable monitor real estate. If I have a quote I want to copy and paste from my source documents, I can always go back to the electronic version of the source documents and copy it from there.

Give this method a try. It really does make the task physically and psychologically easier – making writing a long article or report more like responding to essay questions when you already know the answer.

Three Steps to Overcoming Writer’s Procrastination, If You Can Get Around to Trying Them

Procrastination is a particularly difficult problem for writers, which is why I have been putting off writing a column about it for a long time.

Everybody has a natural inclination to postpone a tedious task, but writers face a particularly onerous set of obstacles because we not only have to slog through the job, but be creative at the same time. We are compelled to prod our minds at bayonet-point to come up with an intriguing lead, cover the requisite facts in a coherent fashion, and produce what is often a dauntingly large chunk of prose.

Here are some techniques to overcome the inertia that keeps us from starting and progressing on a writing project:


Begin with the Second or Third Paragraph.  We wordsmiths demand of ourselves the unrelenting ability to craft leads that are inventive, compelling, and, of course, excruciatingly clever.  And then we beat ourselves up when we can’t deliver and subsequently dither and procrastinate while we wait for our muse.

Here’s a cure for that.  Instead of sweating out dozens of false starts and freezing in fear and frustration while you await the arrival of a creative thunderbolt, begin with the second or third paragraph Then go back and write the lead.  It’ll probably be a better lead, actually, because you’ll have had time to see how the content has developed and you’ll now be able to creatively preview it.


Instead of Sitting There Bleeding onto the Keyboard Trying to Figure out What to Say, Write Yourself a Memo About What you Want Yourself to Say.

For example, if you are assigned to write a major report, don’t start writing it.  Instead, assume the guise of your own editor and write a set of instructions to yourself.  (“Open with an anecdote showing how email miscommunication has resulted in a major account blowing up for us, and then move on to figures from the studies I’ve collected showing how this is a near-universal problem.  For example, in the study from the University of Toronto… .”)  If you follow this approach, three things will happen: 1) you’ll take a lot of pressure off yourself, because giving instructions is a lot easier than actually doing the task, 2) after some tinkering, you’ll come up with a logically ordered outline of the piece when you write the memo, and 3) you’ll probably find that your “examples” are well-written and you can just drop them into your draft.


Start with anything, but start now.  Once you’ve started, you become a person who has started.  It’s like no longer being a virgin; you can’t go back.  It’s much easier, psychologically, to motivate yourself to keep pecking away at a project once it’s underway, even only symbolically underway.  Do you have a major project due in two weeks?  Overcome your instinct to put it off until the night before the due date by writing one paragraph today.  Write a sentence if you can’t manage a paragraph.  If you’re really stuck, create a blank folder for the project.  Anything! Having accomplished at least something today, you’re facing a much less onerous task tomorrow because you’ll be continuing the work, and not starting it.   And don’t be too fussy about what you write.  You can always go back and edit it later.   To paraphrase Churchill, insisting on perfection in your prose is a prescription for paralysis. Moreover, a day’s thought and perspective on even the roughest of rough drafts can produce some pretty exciting insights into how the piece can develop.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this article, but I fully realize you are doing so only to avoid writing.  So get back to work.