I am guilty of these sorts of things. Also known as “Anthems” — but if Sam Eliott narrates it (“Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner) then it rocks.
I love Gmail because of the Exclamation Point button. This is an icon that I push a few times every day when some email marketer hounds me to “please point me to the person in your company who handles Account Based Marketing” or wants to find some time to talk about my “content management attribution challenges in the coming year.”
I know these emails have code embedded in them that tells the sender when I’ve opened them. I know that I will never respond to them. Never take their phone call. Have no guilt over ignoring them.
But the Exclamation Point — well it’s basically the email marketing equivalent of dumping the Alien Monster out of the airlock into the vacuum of space where no one can hear them scream. Not only does a quick click of the button block the sender from ever landing in my inbox again, it reports them to some unseen power as a spammer.
Aww.Poor email marketers with their “lovable marketing content.” Try it. It’s fun.
It riles me up to no end to hear some bright-eyed know-it-all declare “what we really need is some engaging story telling to ignite our flaccid content marketing strategy.” There are an abundance of douche marketing “storytellers” ready to sell us a breathless how-to book, or charge us a hefty consulting fee before they tuck us all in, sit on the end of our beds, and crack open the white-paper edition of Go Dog Go! and put us to sleep with some nighttime fable of how to create lovable marketing content that will engage and connect us to the thought leaders that will flip our funnels and turn us from faceless users to loyal brand advocates.
But I digress.
Digression is what I’m here to write about today. Digression is a maddening art and a truly guilty pleasure that squanders time. Taken too far it can be worse than oral surgery. Done right it can delight and leave us begging for more. Who among us hasn’t sat stupefied in the presence of some absolutely horribly pedantic story teller who just. can’t. seem. to. get. to. the. goddamn. point? Yet, who can argue with Lord Byron’s brilliant epigram, about his lover, Caroline:
“Caro Lamb, Goddamn”
Or the shortest, sad story ever told, attributed to Hemingway:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
While brevity is the soul of wit, and short words always win out over longer synonyms, our Ritalin society can be tagged with the depressing acronym: TL;DR — “Too Long; Didn’t Read.” The art of spinning a yarn, telling a tall-tale, being a true raconteur (a person who can tell an anecdote in a skillful and amusing way) just doesn’t seem to fit when declaiming on a four-part framework for calculating the ROI of website personalization.
After all: story telling is the original entertainment medium. Think of Homer sitting around the fire and telling the story of brave Ulysses to a crowd of illiterate Greek kids. The heart of the story-tellers is the spoken word — not the written — and it would do us all well to remember that stories were invented around the campfire, delivered from memory by a story teller, and is the origin of the theater, the novel, film and ultimately the place from which the music of language was tested and perfected. Digression in a story is a way to build suspense, foreshadow events, explain and provide background, and show off one’s erudition. How to weave a footnote into a narrative is a delicate balancing act that few can pull off.
In this era of TED talks and the Moth Radio Hour, Podcasts, personal reminiscences, and self-indulgent blogs such as this one, this is no surfeit of stories to consume. Headlines beg for our limited attention, we get seduced by clickbait and listicles, A/B tested by algorithms to see what reptilian part of our hippocampus will cause our right index finger to flex and click. So in our quick-twitch, Adderal-amped lives, let’s consider the luxury of digression; of stretching out and letting a story teller take their time, hook our attention like an angler sets the barb in a fish’s lip, and hold us for 1,000 pages from one sentence to the next, always wanting more. Let’s follow the footnotes, spend sometime looking up a word, chasing more information, and realize we live in an age of amazing possibilities when it comes to digressing and falling down the rabbit hole of digression where incredible discoveries might be found.
My late friend Jimmy Guterman was fascinated with the impact of hypertext — links embedded in text — which could be followed by the reader down different paths. He would have laughed at the concept of corporate storytelling and punctured the conceit with some droll bon mot. He quoted, in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company founder Alan Webber, opening a conference about content and context by saying “…Webber began the two-day event by arguing that storytelling is overrated….”
Before HTML came on the scene in 1994, Jimmy and I experimented with a hypertext project using the engine behind Microsoft’s help engine — the name escapes me — to digitize the rules governing yacht racing. Jimmy took it further into fiction, but I can’t find any examples on his blog. Experimental fiction has played with alternative plot tracks — Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch has two different possible chapter sequences. Video games — the most lucrative entertainment medium extant today — represent one of the best manifestations of interactive story-telling, the hype that was touted around “interactive television” in the 1990s, when viewers could pick different plot lines or camera angles.
Two writers embody the beauty of digression for me me. Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace in nearly all of his books, but especially his masterpiece Infinite Jest. In 2005, Wallace wrote a profile of a right-wing talk radio host for the Atlantic Monthly. The print edition, which I read on an Acela to NYC, was a masterpiece in taking the principles of digital hypertext and linking onto the printed page. The editors at the Atlantic reformatted the digital edition, using color cues on words to designate footnoted material.
“Navigating the baroque structure of footnotes within footnotes on either the original manuscript or galleys would have been nearly impossible, so we worked on a printout of pages in the ingenious design of our art director, Mary Parsons.”
Here’s a link to their explanation of how they edited and formatted the piece. It presages some amazing examples of interactive journalism and storytelling such as the iconic New York Times piece on an avalanche tragedy, Snowfall.
Here’s the text as it is formatted online:
And here is what the reader sees when they click on the colored words with the [+] prompt:
For me the revelation has been reading William Manchester’s three-volume epic biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion on a Kindle. While e-books are a bit of a tragedy in terms of substantial additions to one’s physical bookshelf, the developers at Amazon have introduced some amazing things in the decade they’ve been perfecting the Kindle interface. For example, any Kindle user is familiar with the ability to look an unfamiliar word up in a sentence simply by highlighting the word and seeing a pop-up definition appear. That in itself is an amazing service to readers like me who are guilty of skipping past some obscure word and missing the opportunity to add something new and amazing to our vocabularies. But it’s the addition of Wikipedia that takes things to a whole new level. Consider when Manchester talks about Churchill’s relationship to the Royal Navy in the years between the two world wars and introduces “Lord Chatfield, Admiral of the Fleet.” Well, my middle name is Chatfield, I have a personal stake in finding out who the hell Lord Chatfield is, and thanks to the Kindle I get right to his entry on Wikipedia, share it with my brother Henry (who also has the Chatfield middle name), and we both get a good laugh and begin referring to each other as “Admiral of the Fleet” whenever we pull our skiffs out of the harbor.
I read Wallace’s Infinite Jest through the first time without taking the time to follow each and every foot note to the end-notes. When I finished the novel — a serious door stop at 1000 plus pages — I started to read those notes and realized what I had missed.
What we have before us, to go back to Guterman’s piece about Alan Webber, is “context within our content”, the ability to stay in the narrative but take a digressive detour out without losing our places. I think it’s incumbent on any writer to indulge their reader’s with some detours, to walk them down a side-path to some hidden spot. In all our wheel spinning in search for optimization and algorithmic textual perfection, take off your shoes, kick back, and get lost down the rabbit hole of digression. Who knows what surprise you might stub your mind on.
Written on vacation, while deep in the final volume of Manchester’s biography of Churchill, a master of the English language who despised doublespeak and verbosity:
During my five years with Lenovo, the personal computer company born out of the acquisition of IBM’s PC division by the Chinese computer company, Legend, the experienced IBM executives who came over with the acquisition used to engage in something they called “straight talk.” I found this term a bit off-putting because it made me question what I was hearing the rest of the time, but it mainly referred to a mano a mano conversation in which one person told another person some blunt truth in unvarnished terms with some scatological obscenities mixed in to underscore the point. The official term for straight talk is, I suppose, “Plain English” and while I’m sure anyone would agree simple-and-direct beats jargon and clichés, it amazes me how quickly we all lapse into wordiness and meaningless pomposity.
In corporate communications, indeed in any organizational vocabulary from governments to religions, the insidious creeping effects of bureaucratic doublespeak inevitably begin to infest the words and messages of the institution. George Orwell wrote the definitive essay on this phenomenon in his 1946 piece, Politics and the English Language. Dickens satirized it in Little Dorritt with the invention of the “Circumlocution Office.” For centuries, indeed as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, guardians of the language have railed against its pollution by double-speaking, pedantic bloviators who refuse to follow the canon of simple, clear communications.
As a corporate communicator, a so-called “content marketer,” I have a conflicted view of the disease as both a carrier and critic. Without casting stones inside my own house, let me just say that I fight a constant, daily war against the forces of derivative babble-speak, and think, after over a decade within the walls of corporate communications (after two spent in journalism), that I understand the source of the pestilence.
Its name is Google Search.
In technology marketing, language is defined by a three-way symbiotic relationship between the technology press (who are on the wane and not nearly as influential as they were in the 1980s), technology analysts (who are like the press in many regards, but carry the responsibility for creating the taxonomy of categories that define markets, such as “Marketing automation” or “Platform as a Service” or “Web Content Management.” Because technology and governments need acronyms to survive, these analyst categories lead to “WCM” and “PaaS” – and if the press adopt them, which they often do unwittingly, then two legs of the three-way relationship are set and it is only left to the corporate side to adopt them and try to define themselves within those terms.
The analysts rank the companies within a market category, issuing reports (sold at high cost to corporate subscribers) which are used by customers to select the technology that best suits their needs.
So where does Google come in? Simple. The best book on the topic remains John Batelle’s 2005 definitive work: “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” It’s essential reading for anyone in digital marketing, but it does the best job of explaining the impact Google had on the language by using the citation system of academic journals to make a value-judgment of which links it returned on a search would be ranked first. This gave us the sordid world of search engine optimization and search engine marketing, and before we knew it words and links had been, to steal a phrase from Doc Searls and David Weinberger, “weaponized.”
Now, in corporate communications, when you put pen to paper so to speak, you need to wonder “how will this rank in search?” If a competitor seems to be doing well with “The Internet of Things” or “Big Data” and making claims to analysts and the press as well as on its own website and ebooks that its products are the best for “IoT” or “Big Data,” well then by golly why not us?
Technology doublespeak moves quickly and has no pride, more quickly than teenagers inventing new slang like “420” or “Netflix and chill.” If some “thought leader” says a startup needs to “pivot” to meet new opportunities and become “agile” then suddenly LinkedIn and Twitter are awash in other wannabe thought leaders jumping on the “agile pivot” bus. The end result is perfectly good words –words Orwell or Strunk & White or Ernest Gowers would approve of – suddenly start to get worn out like old coins that have had their embossing erased by so many fingers over time. We know that old dime means “ten cents” but poor old FDR is just a ghost and the date is barely legible anymore as we hand it over for a stick of gum.
The old Dudley Moore movie Crazy People is about an advertising executive who suffers a nervous breakdown and winds up in an asylum. This scenario leads to a hysterical extreme of “straight talk” taken too far. Moore, unable to let go of his workaholic ways, enlists his fellow patients to help him develop some campaign concepts. This yielded the memorable copy line: “Metamucil: It Helps You Go to the Toilet. If you don’t use it, you’ll get cancer and die.”
I’m not railing against the corruption of corporate communications and public relations. No one wakes up in the morning thinking, “I think I need the Freedom to Innovate” but yet we can easily toss that phrase it into some boilerplate and move on, having checked off some of the magic buzzword bingo words we want Google to rank us on. I’m not proposing we all move to some Hemingway-esque model of short declarative sentences with short declarative words. But I do believe that if a message is ever to truly standout, then it needs to leave the pack and be scrutinized for any bombastic, verbose, sesquipedalian tendencies to use the incomprehensible to blow a smelly fart of vaporware and its friend, fear-uncertainty-and doubt over the poor reader.
The challenge isn’t knowing how to write, it’s persuading other people that good writing is better than bullshit. All I can say is good luck. It’s a lonely place to be inside any organization in love with the smell of its own verbal farts and try to open a window to clear the air. It can be done, but it is a constant battle, always rekindled as new carriers of the disease float in from some other plague town, spouting their theories of “lovable marketing content” that is “engaging, authentic” and spread like dandelions over the fields of social media. Just stick to your guns, remember the admonition printed on every reporter’s notebook: “Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity” and take heart that great men like Churchill railed against the insidious, pernicious infection as loudly as the greatest writers ever known. Heck, Churchill won a Nobel Prize for Literature, so I take that back. The man saved England with the language of Shakespeare, Gibbon and Kipling.
Let me conclude with George Orwell:
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
And for you lost souls toiling in the coalmines of jargon, a brief reading list:
Steven O’Grady is the co-founder of Redmonk, a developer-focused tech analyst firm, and a very smart analyst at that. I first got to know him in 2006 via my old boss at Lenovo, the CMO Deepak Advani who had a deep interest in Open Source and developer relations from his days at IBM. O’Grady and his co-founding partner James Governor gave us invaluable insights into the Open Source market, something that was unexpectedly crucial to Lenovo’s digital marketing focus as unbeknownst to us, one of the iconic Thinkpad laptops had been embraced as a reference platform to simplify hardware driver development for new distros.
Steven is also a great fan of all things Red Sox (his blog “Wicked Clevah” is one of the few I read) and is a striper fisherman up on the coast of Maine where he works and lives. So our orbits have overlapped on a few vectors.
This past spring he published with O’Reilly Media a very compelling argument that developers are the “new kingmakers” in contemporary IT and corporate digital strategy because of their crucial role in building value, defending against disruption, and making the technology decisions formerly reserved for procurement teams and the CIO. The result is a complete over-turning of the way organizations select and deploy technology, putting the developers in charge of the tools and standards that govern IT-enabled innovation and operations. We intuitively figured that out at Lenovo under the premise that when anyone makes a technology decision — “what phone should I buy? what laptop? what software?” — they turn to the most technical and expert person in their network. For those of us trying to build an influencer model online to sell computers, that audience was comprised of developers. Make them happy, give them what they need in terms of information and content, and they in turn will be the ones who declare if your technology is crap or not.
O’Grady nails the impact that the developer community is having on tech — from standards to commercial software to the way companies hire and retain the best coding talent they can find. His point is going to be very bleak new to the marketing teams at B2B tech companies. All those white papers and conferences and drive to get to the CEO and the COO and the CMO and the CIO ….. guess what? Developers could care less and they are the ones who matter.
“In the latter half of the 20th century, developers were effectively beholden to their employers. The tools they needed to be productive — hardware and software — just were not affordable on an individual basis. Developers wishing to build even something as trivial as a website were confronted by an unfortunate reality: most of the necessary building blocks were available only under commercial licenses. Operating systems, databases, web and application servers, and development tools all required money. To get anything done, developers needed someone to write checks for the tools they needed. That meant either raising the capital to buy the necessary pieces, or — more often — requesting that an employer or other third party purchase them on the developer’s behalf.
“The new century, however, has ushered in profound and permanent shifts in the relationship between developer and employer. No longer is the former at the mercy of the latter’s budget. With the cost of development down by an order of magnitude or mode, the throttle on developer creativity has been removed, setting the stage for a Cambrian explosion of projects.
“Four major disruptions drove this shift: open source, the cloud, the Internet, and seed-stage financing.”
Basically, the point is that the company may buy one set of technology but developers will be developers and build stuff with the tools they want to use, not the tools the CIO negotiated a good price for out on the golf course. Rather than put up with “official” technology, developers just get stuff done with the right tools — generally free tools — that get the job done.
“….the balance of power began to tilt in favor of developers. Developers, not their bosses, became the kingmakers. Technology selection increasingly wasn’t determined by committee or bake offs or who played golf with the CIO, but by what developers decided, on their own, to use.
“MySQL salespeople used to walk into businesses, for example, only to be told that they were wasting their time because the business wasn’t using any MySQL. At which point the MySQL salesperson would reply, “That’s interesting, because your organization has downloaded the package 5,000 times in the last two years.” This was and is the new balance of power. Not for every technology sector, of course, but for more every year.”
This is a very concise and accessible book — aimed at the marketers and executive management of companies who rely on developers to build their success. In my bookshelf of tech books that matter, this one will have a long shelf life. If you’re managing digital strategy, evaluating tech vendors, or trying to market hardware and software, this book can be digested in less than two hours and will, trust me, have an impact on how you see the new world.
GigaOm has published an opinion piece I wrote at the suggestion of Om Malik about the poor prospects for the present digital advertising model. I went off on a screed in my first draft against the protests of the Internet Advertising Bureau who have been attacking people like me who turn on ad-blocking software and turn off third-party tracking cookies.
I’ll let the column speak for itself.
The recently departed Al Neuharth — the man who gave the world McJournalism when he created USA Today in 1982 — was famous in my mind for two things (no, make that three, because this is a post in part about the magic powers of “three”):
- Always publish the tits above the fold
- Bulleted lists are better than paragraphs
- Infographics that twist statistics and invoke the Royal We into cartoons are engaging
People love lists. Decades ago there was a bestseller entitled “The Book of Lists,” a classic toilet-side tome in many a household. There are management books about the power of to-do lists. I must have at least three or four list apps on my phones and tablets and PC. Most horrible is the tendency of the lower life forms in online journalism and especially digital marketing/SEO/Content marketing bloggers to use lists as linkbait. There are so many headlines about “Three Ways to Increase ROI” and “Four Ways Content Marketing Can Engage and Delight Your Customers” that I have to wonder what’s driving this obsession with numerical sequence. I know that if I click through to actually read the stuff I’m going to read some airhead social media/digital marketing “guru’s” rehashed airheaded jargon twisted bloviations.
Working off off my feeds this morning I found this actual set of … oh hell, let’s just call them “ListLines™“, e.g. headlines promoting lists:
- 13 Smart Podcasts That Will Feed Your Hunger for Knowledge and Ideas
- The 45 Best Restaurants in America (BusinessInsider is a huge fan of ListLines™, generally cutting up the content into slideshows to pump up the pageviews). They have a daily list which is semi-useful called …..
- Ten Things You Need To Know
- 10 Habits of Remarkably Charismatic People
- We Try 4 New Electric Hot Water Kettles for Coffee and Tea
The king of the numbered ListLine has to be the Content Marketing Institute, which on its home page has the following headlines, and all save one has a numeral in it:
- 4 Truths About Content Marketing Clients
- 6 Tips to Start Creating Content on Tumblr
- 3 Tips for More Effective Content Marketing Visuals
- 9 Questions to Help You Prioritize Content Creation
- 12 Roles Essential to the Future of Content Marketing
- Thought Leadership Strategy: 3 Ways to Leverage Live Event Content
- 3 Tips for Keeping Your Buyer Personas Fresh and Alive
- How Enterprises Handle B2B Content: 6 Key Insights From Our Research
McKinsey, the organization that lives on PowerPoint, had an unofficial Rule of Threes during my short stint– as in no slide should have more than three bullet points on it because that was all the typical audience member could hold in their head during the time it took the expensive consultant to present the slide. McKinsey was into numerology in general and the place should have had the Pareto Principle inscribed over the door as its motto (the “80/20” rule). I admit I stick to the Rule of Threes to this day.
My theory about the abuse of the numbered list in online headlines is the corruption of editorial good sense by the scuzzy underworld of Search Engine Optimization and the Tyranny of Metrics. Let’s turn to the experts at the Content Marketing Institute, enter in the search term “lists” and what do you know? In a post entitled “Content Strategy: 9 Secrets for Awesome Blog Post Titles“, Tracy Gold writes in item number 5:
“We all groan about numbered lists in blog posts. But the truth is, they work. In our research, titles that began with a number performed 45 percent better than the average.
“Another approach is to start with a keyword and include a number later in the title. Take “Content Marketing Checklist: 22 To-dos for SlideShare Success,” for example. We tested both title types, and when the headline started with a keyword, it actually performed slightly better.
“While one approach to this method is to work more numbered lists into your blog content strategy up front, you can also use a numbered list in a post after it’s written. Is the post split up into sections? Can those sections be numbered? Boom. But again, don’t mislead your readers — make sure a numbered list format actually fits the content of your post.”
Now we know the secrets of the masters. My theory is by announcing ahead of time how many pieces of b.s. the reader will have to digest, they figure they aren’t in for a reading of Procopius History of the Early Church and can snack on the info before their Adderall buzzing brain clicks them away.
Before closing, let me digress back to USA Today and my indoctrination into the art of the list.
I worked at a newspaper — The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune — that rented its color presses to print the New England edition USA Today at night, receiving the pages via satellite and then churning out the colorful McPaper so familiar to residents of the Marriott Courtyard Suites. This close relationship unfortunately colored the judgment of Eagle-Tribune editor-in-chief Dan Warner, who decided that Al Neuharth was a visionary genius and that the Tribune’s staff would learn to write lists instead of stories and develop “infographics” about Why We Love Ice Cream,” complete with a cartoon of a melting ice cream cone, a gushing thermometer and some made up statistic about what flavors “We” preferred.
This was strictly enforced to the point that every story opened with a classic lead (my favorite lead of all time, courtesy of Edna Buchanan, the legendary police reporter of the Miami Herald is cited below*), a standard second paragraph, and then an inevitable list of bulleted items before the jump to an inside page. I would pile into the newsroom after a scintillating evening covering the Salem, New Hampshire board of selectmen and pound out some lifeless copy (“This ain’t a short story about your dead grandma bub, so get over it” my editor, Al White, told me after taking a machete to my first story about a sewer bond hearing) that always had a bullet list up high where Dan Warner would be sure to see it. Hence:
“In other actions, the board voted to:
- Ban pit bulls from playgrounds
- Postpone a hearing on bingo licenses
- Authorize door-to-door cigarette sales by Brownie Troop 5
- Commend Police Chief Nickerson for Sunday’s arrest of undercover Massachusetts State Policemen harassing Bay State liquor and fireworks customers
At first the mandate to use bullet lists offended my delicate Strunk & White sensibilities about prose composition. One of the joys of great writing is a well-written list, contained in a single flowing sentence, ordered just so to delight the ear and paint a picture in the mind’s eye, but alas the world has become addicted to the staccato stack of one-liners preceded by the bold typographical dot and so I have given up all hope of resistance.
But I know in my heart of hearts that William Faulkner never wrote a bullet list in his life or worried about SEO.
*: Calvin Trillin, profiling Buchanan in the New Yorker: “In the newsroom of the Miami Herald, there is some disagreement about which of Edna Buchanan’s first paragraphs stands as the classic Edna lead. I line up with the fried-chicken faction. The fried-chicken story was about a rowdy ex-con named Gary Robinson, who late one Sunday night lurched drunkenly into a Church’s outlet, shoved his way to the front of the line, and ordered a three-piece box of fried chicken. Persuaded to wait his turn, he reached the counter again five or ten minutes later, only to be told that Church’s had run out of fried chicken. The young woman at the counter suggested that he might like chicken nuggets instead. Robinson responded to the suggestion by slugging her in the head. That set off a chain of events that ended with Robinson’s being shot dead by a security guard. Edna Buchanan covered the murder for the Herald—there are policemen in Miami who say that it wouldn’t be a murder without her—and her story began with what the fried-chicken faction still regards as the classic Edna lead: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”