Uncle Frank’s morning constitutional and other stories, in this month’s “Tell Your Story Newsletter”

February 2021 Vol 3 Issue 2

Tell Your Story Newsletter (TYSN):

Specializing in Entrepreneurial and Organizational Storytelling

Let me tell your story!

Welcome Mid-February, 2021!

Today marks the start of a reprieve from two weeks of unseasonable cold in Saskatchewan. The mind-numbing, bone-chilling temperatures, descending at times to –55C with windchill, have kept many of us indoors. As I write this issue, it is Valentine’s Day, and pandemic restrictions (on top of the inclement weather) mean that few couples are dining out and no one observing the holiday out-of-doors.

Local media have reported an unprecedented use of energy to heat our homes in Saskatchewan, during this “Polar Vortex.” We’ve also distracted ourselves by powering up Netflix (in my case, BritBox) in our leisure hours.

What are you “binge-watching,” this weekend, if the options touted on CTV’s supper-time news on February 12th, “The Notebook” and “Dirty Dancing,” do not appeal?

What about “Truly, Madly, Deeply” (featuring the late, great Alan Rickman) or the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North & South? Thought-provoking love stories that defy Hollywood’s “success” formulas.

And arguably more importantly, what are you reading, for leisure? I’m looking forward to delving into Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness, by Rick Hanson. In a very different vein, Eliot’s Middlemarch is waiting patiently for me, although there never seem to be enough hours . . . . .

This month’s articles features a surprising encounter at my local gym; and writerly thoughts from GrammarGirl, Mignon Fogarty, on using “person-first language,” when we discuss people with illnesses or disabilities.

If Valentine’s Day has left you out in the proverbial cold, you may be interested to know that we have just entered into Asia’s Lunar New Year! So much of the Eastern Hemisphere is celebrating the Year of the Ox: That animal predicts that 2021 will be a year requiring hard work and steady reliability. Just the thought makes me crave some Valentine’s chocolate!

Wishing all my valued readers a good month ahead,

Elizabeth

Principal, Storytelling Communications

www.elizabethshih.com

+++++++

IN THIS ISSUE:

ARTICLE 1: Uncle Frank’s morning constitutional and what it teaches us about writing good copy

STORYTELLERS’ CORNER:

On “person-first” language, with Mignon Fogarty

SHOP NEWS

ABOUT US

+++++++

Article One:  Uncle Frank’s ‘morning constitutional’ and what it teaches us about writing good copy

A few weeks ago, I witnessed an unusual scene at my local fitness facility. (Yes, it was open, but everyone there kept at least 10 feet apart and adhered to strict cleaning protocols. Those few of us “regulars” who still work out  during Covid, tend to do so out of medical necessity.)

After I finished my workout and just as I was leaving, one of the retired (70+) members, a 5 foot 5 inch ball of energy, caught the front door, as it swung behind me and exclaimed “Thank you!”

Surprised to find anyone so close on my heels, I stepped aside to let him pass. A sight–and a story–ensued!

“Uncle Frank,” as he is known to us, clad only in a long  green, terry cloth bathrobe and  barefoot in slingback “croc” shoes, cheerfully passed by, padding down the  sidewalk toward the back of the building,

“Clacketty-clack-clack,” his feet sounded, when his plastic crocs made contact with concrete. Although Saskatchewan’s current Polar Vortex had not yet set in, it was still a cold morning (-15 C), and with colder temperatures expected. When Uncle Frank’s feet met the snow and ice of the parking lot, his gait turned into more of a fast-paced shuffle–a sort of “swish, swish.”

Startled, I thought, “How far will he be going, dressed like that?” What about whatever health issues he may have?

But Uncle Frank, who by now was a good 15 feet ahead of me, continued to make his through the back parking lot, out onto the sidewalk, in the direction of the neighbourhood’s main thoroughfare. He evidently had no qualms of being seen in a bathrobe in high traffic.

Despite moving at a good clip, Uncle Frank, whose activity inside the gym I’d barely noticed, had an air of total nonchalance. He could have been enjoying an amble through his back garden in the height of summer. “Good Morning!” I heard him exclaim to a winter cyclist who was riding the wrong way, down the one-way street. The cyclist, a young man less than one-third of Uncle Frank’s age,  sped by in full winter gear, pausing long enough to do a “double take” at the older man’s dress.

A middle-aged African Canadian woman, who was waiting for a bus, was the next one to catch sight of Uncle Frank. Her eyes boggled, as she exclaimed (in her francophone tongue): “Il est vraiment fou!”

And yet, despite the oddity of Uncle Frank’s behaviour  that morning, he appeared to be firmly in control of himself and not someone I’d have thought an exhibitionist.  For as many months as I could remember, he had regularly and energetically exercised on machines in the gym without raising an eyebrow.  Now, however, he had let loose a quirkier side, making what some call a “morning constitutional,” in the out-of-doors. Instead of being satisfied with a routine “workout,” Uncle Frank engineered a  “breakout.”

Witnessing this reminded me of the nature of copywriting—or, as many Saskatchewanians prefer to call it, business writing. Most days, Uncle Frank uses machines like treadmills and benchpresses. But on this day, after completing that activity, he evidently craved a more “creative” finish . . .

In the world of copywriting, similarly, writers know the usefulness staying “safely tethered to the fundamentals of persuasion” (to quote Canadian copywriter,  Steve Slaunwhite). We think through questions when we start a  project and often apply “starter” formulas, as well as SEO or A/B testing, when we draft our documents. These procedures are like the calibrated weight machines at the gym. When writing marketing materials, copywriters often measure success rates by numbers.

We tend to consult copywriters’ formulas, such as  “the 5 Ps” (stating the problem; positioning one’s service as the solution; presenting the key features and benefits that differentiate one’s service; proving one’s claims by giving evidence; and proposing or inviting to act, via a call-to-action).

While such formulas help to structure our documents, good copywriters also know when to drop them, in favour of some quirkiness—a spark of insight or magic, some whimsy— that the standards alone do not allow.

Copywriting will only truly sing if we balance our use of standard, numbers and formulas with some creative play.

Did I mention that Uncle Frank took his “morning constitutional” that day, while sipping in his right hand from a dark mug of – water? Coffee? Something stronger? (No one seems to know!) Maybe he was shuffling his way toward the neighbourhood coffee shop, after he passed beyond my line of sight.

While other, more conventional athletes at my gym (me included) end our workouts routinely, Uncle Frank reminds us that writing (like exercise) only becomes truly interesting when we set conventions aside and open ourselves to something better.

And now it’s your turn. In the work that you do, how do you both adhere to standards and break free from them?

What do you do (in Covid times, no less) that reflects the spirit of Uncle Frank’s shuffle in his bathrobe and crocs?

+++++++

STORYTELLER’S CORNER: On person-first language with “GrammarGirl,” Mignon Fogarty

American “GrammarGirl,” Mignon Fogarty, wrote recently in her newsletter on English usage that “the way we refer to people with diseases or conditions has changed in the last few decades.”

She posed the question: “Should you call someone a Diabetic or a person with Diabetes?” A few short lines later, she says that “it’s better to put the person first rather than emphasizing the disease . . .  [So] ‘people with Diabetes’ is better than ‘diabetics.’ ” But she hastens to add that this is “not true for every group, and you should make sure you are referring to people the way they want you to refer to them.”

An unhappy correspondent challenged Fogarty to adopt this perspective, some months earlier, by complaining that people with cancer are not referred to as “cancerics” and those with colds as “coldics!”

I recall listening to another aspect of this debate, 30 years ago, when U of S

English professors Ron Marken and Terry Matheson (on CBC radio’s “Watch your Language”) decried how “politically correct” language used to describe people with disabilities could undermine the seriousness of these people’s experiences.

I distinctly recall one caller to that show saying that he was “BLIND, NOT visually challenged!” It was the early 90s, the heyday of political correctness, whereby garbage collectors were referred to as “sanitation engineers.”

So how do we separate “person-first language” (“people with disabilities”) from trivializing (and ultimately dehumanizing) political correctness? Use of the term “person-first language” itself began to rise between 1980 and 1990, after which “diabetics” was a still “more common [expression] than ‘person with diabetes,’ ” but was becoming much less dominant.

Fogarty adds that in 1990 in the US, the influential “Americans with Disabilities Act” (ADA) favoured the phrase “people with disabilities” above “the disabled,” further bringing “person-first language” into the mainstream. In some ways, these changes are positive.

But Fogarty rightly nuances the issue by saying that “person-first language isn’t as simple or black-and-white as it initially seems.” Identity-first language can, in one moment, reflect pride from a minority group; and other times, it can elicit stigma, as it implies that someone’s difference is a “problem” that needs correcting or controlling.

Some minority groups disagree with others on these issues, both inside and outside of their communities. For instance, some people who have autism prefer to be called “autistic” or “autistic people,” since they see their condition as part of “an identity in the same way that ‘American’ is seen as an identity (when you call someone an ‘American’ ).” Others find such terminology to be oppressive.

Fogarty’s conclusion makes sense: Simply ask people within a community what they wish to be called. If they are not available to answer you, then consult reputable online resources that reflect these people’s interests, to see which term(s) are in common use, today.

But, even more importantly, Fogarty reminds us, citing the Associated Press, “you should only mention a person’s identity if it’s relevant to the story.” Otherwise, it’s far more respectful–and appropriate–to “leave it out.”

And now it’s your turn: Do you use “person-first language?” How do you deal with the inevitable problems that can result?

Please send your comments to my “Contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear from you.                           

+++++++

SHOP NEWS:

I am particularly grateful this month to the Can-Sask Labour Market Services, Monica Kreuger (CVO and Founder of the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship), and alumni of Praxis’ staySMART program, who have called upon me to revise some of my colleagues’ website copy; to interview and write promotional articles on them; or to edit some of their blog postings.

As an alumna of the startSMART program, myself, I’ve joined forces in this work with Christina Cherneskey (CEO of Christina Cherneskey Communications) and with Megan Kent (Project Manager of Little Ox Film Company), to help alumni, who started smart, to “staySMART,”  especially in Covid times.

In this work, as a copywriter and editor, I have been delighted to interview entrepreneurs Ken Strohan (Your Own Way Residential, Ltd) and  Miranda Young (Alt Haus Interior Design) to learn about their stories and to strengthen their website copy. More clients are queuing up for the same.

It’s a joy to share a common background and training with these clients, so that traditional interviews give way to informal but deep  conversations about best practices, hopes, dreams–and, of course, the inevitable challenges and losses. These passionate, self-motivated individuals whose businesses were molded in the crucible of Praxis’ startSMART program, continue to thrive, while pursuing their livelihoods.

Special thanks also this month to Kanchan and Sona Manek of the Raj Manek Mentorship Program for organizing a thought provoking webinar on entrepreneurial “adaptability vs. extinction” by Brenda Nowakowsi of JNE Welding.

Brenda shared an intensive and inspiring presentation on how entrepreneurs must maintain a nimble attitude and forward-looking behaviours to seek “continual improvement,” if we want to stay ahead both of rapid digitalization and workaday challenges.

I’m very grateful, in other news, to exchange emails on starting to teach ESL, with Steve Cavan, pioneering craft brewmaster of SK (former director of Paddock Wood Brewery). Steve has also taught philosophy, classics and writing over many years at the U of S. His capacity to pivot in pandemic times inspires me, as does his sensible advice. Thank you, Steve!

On a related note, I recently  completed my certification as a TEFL teacher (teacher of English as a foreign language), through Tefl.org in Inverness, Scotland. Their excellent training materials, useful webinars and job board are helping me to develop this new arm of my communications services.

Another thanks this month (it’s been busy!) to Rev. Roberto DeSandoli, Martha Fergusson and other coordinators of “Kidz Klub,” at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (Saskatoon). They’ve kindly welcomed me as a virtual volunteer, so that I can immerse myself in working with children. This work is in part to give back to a remarkable faith community and partly to (re)teach me how to engage with children!

Another “shout out” to the very faithful staff at my local gym, who regularly prepare and (re)clean the spaces and equipment, making exercise possible in these deadening, Covid days.

As many Saskatchewanians know, the best way to shoulder the latest “Polar Vortex” is to keep one’s body moving, daily–and with it, increasing blood flow to one’s brain. Kudos and virtual hugs to gym staff Jackie, Fred, Val, Nima, Monika and other team members, who help us keep our endorphins flowing, and on a limited budget, too!

Special thanks, as well, to Delia, Anna and Abigail caregivers of an elderly relative; and the staff of the orthopedic division, SK Abilities Council (senior division); who support the elderly members of many families in Saskatoon, to live the best lives they can, in our community.

+++++++

ABOUT US:

Between 2011 and December 2018, Elizabeth Shih Communications chronicled the stories of B2B marketing and communications on the Prairies and across the country.

Effective January 1, 2019, I rebranded as “Storytelling Communications.” I now write marketing and communications documents and lead  workshops that help entrepreneurs and newcomers to Canada to strengthen their businesses or secure better jobs.

Interested in learning more? Please contact me through my CASL compliant website (www.elizabethshih.com).

After I receive your message, I’ll be pleased to discuss projects with you!

Please visit my website for more information (www.storytellingcommunications.ca).

STAY IN TOUCH: 

Follow us on Twitter  

Become a Facebook fan

Subscribe to my blog

 Contact us

Communicating about science in a skeptical world . . . . a webinar with science writer, Michael Robin

Although I’m occasionally asked to write on a scientific topic, I am not a science writer, per se—I haven’t read or researched enough in the field to make such a claim. But last fall, Saskatchewan’s best science writer, Michael Robin (Farm Management Editor at “Western Producer”), gave a great webinar for Ag-West Bio, discussing how to communicate about “science . . . in a skeptical world.” 

For more than 25 years, Robin has read and written a great deal about science and interviewed countless scientists; yet he remains a modest person and deep thinker on how to communicate science for laypersons.

In a webinar last fall, he stressed that belief “can be stronger than facts and lasts longer.” Some fears of the past 30 years remain, such as that microwaves ovens cause cancer, drinking water is unsafe, or herbicides cause “global warming,” “tinnitus” or even “hemorrhoids.”

Robin said that good communicators aim for middle-of-the-pack sources, avoiding “ALTERNet” (on the left) and equally, “Breibart” (on the right). More fact- and reason-based AAAs, Snopes.com, the Cochrane Library, Genetic Literacy Project, the Mayo Clinic and Environment Canada are more reliable, agenda-free sources. He reminds us that the risks of suppressing the facts are nothing new: Aristotle wrote that “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to consider a thought, without accepting it.” And remember that “listening is not believing.” And that “dumbing it down” is no goal, as it insults, offends and fails to educate the lay reader.

So what do writers and readers need, to be rational about science? Robin’s list includes these:

(1) Intelligence—we need to understand what’s under discussion. This is not only an IQ issue, but one of reading and prior education.

(2) We need valid knowledge (sources) to read, since “garbage in” means “garbage out.”

(3) We need to be willing to make the effort to think. Surprisingly, cognition is often left behind in contemporary debates around science.

(4) We need to keep open minds and to be humble enough to change our perspectives, when needed. When credible information is presented, we also need to preserve that away from manipulation by others. Robin cites the US psychologist Barbara Drescher who says people are irrational because they are “stupid, ignorant, lazy, arrogant or some combination of those.”

(5) There’s money in misinformation. Consider that American celebrities, Drs. Oz and Phil, earned far less in their respective fields of medicine and psychology than when they went online and on network television to “promote” their brands of health. Consider propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and political spin, on issues like renewable energy, whether to avoid GMOs and who is manipulating Western nations’ democratic elections.

Robin cited the “Dunning Kruger effect,” whose central tenet is “we don’t know enough to know what we don’t know.” And folk who think they know the most, know the least. One needs to be able to change one’s views when needed; and equally defend them, when needed.

Listening to an opponent is no easy matter, since cognitive dissonance uses the same part of the brain as pain does, so people tend to selectively reject scientific findings in support of values or perspectives they want.

In science communication, then, Robin advocates “aiming for neutrality,” but also reminds us of the “Information Deficit Model”– that there are limits on the extent to which some people will change their attitudes if presented with information that is neutral or easy to understand. The conversion or change will not be complete, because knowledge is no “silver bullet.”

Good science writing can inform the “moveable middle” of readers who need encouragement to get off the fence in challenging debates. Robin recommends these practices to do so:

(1) Talk to the third ear—talk as if you don’t know that anyone else is listening, but they are and you do.

(2) Be an active listener—be attentive, process what you hear and ask for clarification when needed. Don’t listen to others only enough to respond or fight back. Pointing out inconsistencies in others’ arguments encourages doubt, which in turn encourages deeper thinking.

(3) Combat misinformation with these factors: provide detailed but concise explanations; explain using alternate accounts, not leaving a hole open for someone else to fill in; know that the more familiar a topic may be, the more likely the opposite is true; repeat corrections, as they build belief, but do not repeat errors without correcting them; appoint a reliable communicator within your office or agency to act on social media feeds, since you have only 30 seconds (not minutes or hours) to correct misinformation, before readers accept it; and finally, use visuals and images in ways that readers can trust.

(4) Have publicists who are trustworthy and likeable to inoculate against misinformation.

(5) Encourage and support analytical thinking.

(6) Affirm an audience’s sense of self (since humiliation does not encourage a reader’s belief or learning). Allowing others to save face is crucial in debates.

(7) Use media that the audience prefers (e.g. it may be image sharing, like Instagram for millennials).

(8) Use language that is familiar to your audience  . . . and

(9) Use messages that your audience finds credible and relatable.

Robin’s reading lists are wonderful. In particular, he mentioned Carl Sagan’s 1990s book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, as being as relevant today, as it was 30 years ago.

Broader strategies for building a solid network of reputable science communication are to join organizations like the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada; to build a network of colleagues (e.g. “Café Scientifique” in Saskatoon); to develop international contacts among researchers and their communicators; to avoid developing a “filter bubble” of people who agree with you; and to remember, Robin stresses, that neutrality has many facets—sometimes there may be only one credible side to an issue. But you may face much opposition from the “lunatic fringe,” so that every good communicator’s responsibility is to find and use credible and reputable sources.

Realize also, he concluded, that the frustration factor in science communication runs high—it is a process that has always been with us (consider the “Flat Earth Society,” and other conspiracy theories) and always will be.

We’re fortunate in Saskatoon to have a vibrant community of scientists, many of whom are based at the University of Saskatchewan. Equally important, we need more, thoughtful science communicators, like Michael Robin.

And now it’s your turn: When you read and/or communicate about science, which points from Michael’s lists are most pertinent?

Please weigh in on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear your feedback.

Do you procrastinate? How to gain the upper hand, with psychologist Adam Grant

“I CAN’T!  I just can’t work on it, right now,” complained the daughter of a lifelong friend: “The deadline is still a week away. I’ll feel more like it, tomorrow,” she said, thwarting her mother’s efforts to get her to work on a major school project. 

My friend recently confided that “the hardest part of raising teenagers is getting them motivated to do their homework.” She described her efforts to discipline, cajole, even bribe her teens into staying seated, reading, thinking and doing the homework set before them.

Of course procrastination for everyone, and for teenagers in particular, has been exacerbated by our pandemic times: repetitive school closings, barriers to online learning, the effect of social isolation, and lack of a clear “end in sight” to Covid-19 could undermine the motivation and energy of the most diligent.

Procrastination, as discussed by psychologists for generations, is the crutch of people whose standards are too perfectionist to let them straightforwardly “get their work done.” While putting off work may seem to be an issue of time management, psychologists tell us that it’s really a striving to avoid unhappy emotions that arise from our work. By putting off work, procrastinators hope (delusionally) that the problem will go away or somehow later get easier to manage.

And of course that rarely, if ever, happens.  As Wharton psychologist Adam Grant wrote last spring, in The New York Times (NYT), procrastination is really a failure to manage our pain.

Grant cites the case of the sci-fi humourist, Douglas Adams, who in the early 1980s struggled mightily to progress with writing the fourth installment of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He took repeated baths, where he sometimes found that inspiration struck; and in desperation, went on a solo writing retreat at a country manor (where he got very little done). Eventually, his fourth book was only finished when his editor booked a hotel suite and sat with him, watching him type, day-by-day, until “after a couple of weeks, the manuscript was done.”

Psychologists Timothy Pychyl and Fushia Sirois have published their findings that procrastination is about “avoiding negative emotions” and not about being “lazy” or “avoiding work,” as people often assume. A task can stir up feelings of anxiety, confusion, even boredom. Escaping it may make one feel better today, but the task inevitably looks even worse tomorrow, “along with  the unshakeable (and accurate) sense that one is “falling behind.”

Procrastination is ultimately self-sabotage. Negative feelings are never dispelled by fleeing what triggers them. Grant refers to different strategies that people use “to end self-inflicted pain.” Douglas Adams, in Grant’s estimation, suffered from “neurotic perfectionism,” being his own “harshest critic,” editing and evaluating his writing as he composed it, throwing out drafts in production phase (although writers such as Daphne Gray-Grant have analyzed that practice as another process of self-sabotage).

Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, whom Adam Grant interviewed for his NYT article, has similarly allowed procrastination to take over. He writes: “For three years, she could not mark a page or screen when thinking about The Handmaid’s Tale,” telling Grant that its premise seemed to be a “mad idea” and that her avoidance was mere “laziness.” And the book became an international bestseller and secured Atwood’s reputation as one of the world’s leading novelists.

Grant distinguishes these “neurotic perfectionists,” from “productive perfectionists.” Why? The latter “aim high, based on their own standards, not out of concern about what others will think.” He writes that “when a draft disappoints [them], instead of beating [themselves] up,” they try “self-compassion: They remind themselves that they are human and that everyone procrastinates sometimes.” (I recommend psychologist Kristin Neff’s

groundbreaking work on self-compassion, discussed in an earlier posting.) Forgiving ourselves for our imperfections, and for escaping to procrastination in the first place, makes it easier to get back to work and to avoid recurrences of procrastination.

Grant teaches us two additional coping strategies, for when procrastination kicks in:

(1) We can be productive by working with our circadian rhythms (“night owl” or “morning lark”), so we tap into our most productive times of the working day. We’re better able to handle challenges when our minds are sharp.

(2) It can also help to ask a friend or relative to assist, even if they do no more than sit nearby and do their work. Grant reports that working close to a productive person has been shown to intensify one’s own productivity “by as much as 10 percent.” Part of the pain we flee when we procrastinate is that working alone can feel lonely and the work, deeper and greater than we are. Sitting near or imagining one’s reader, viewer, or interlocutor nearby “can bring focus and meaning.”

Trying to efface procrastination altogether is not, however, realistic: “There will always be undesirable tasks that conjure unwanted emotions,” Grant says. But “avoiding those feelings is a habit we can work on breaking.”

Shortly after my friend lamented her teenage daughter’s procrastination, her daughter asked her to sit with her, while the daughter started that school project–simply to listen to some of her ideas. Within about 20 minutes,  her daughter had found her own productive vein of thought that was far more interesting than the momentary distractions of Spotify and TikTok.

And now it’s your turn: When has procrastination gotten the better of your creative work?

Do you think Grant’s insights could help you to cope with the negative emotions we aim to avoid?

January 2021–Tell Your Story Newsletter (TYSN)

January 2021, Vol 3 Issue 1

Tell Your Story Newsletter (TYSN): Specializing in Entrepreneurial and Organizational Storytelling

Let me tell your story!

IN THIS ISSUE:

ARTICLE 1: Missing out on reading? Writer Christian Jarrett on how to get back to the books

STORYTELLERS’ CORNER:

On Janus words with Mignon Fogarty

SHOP NEWS

ABOUT US

Welcome Mid-January, 2021!

 

With Christmas now past, many of you have expressed relief with the mild temperatures the month of January has so far provided. Such mildness has made weathering the ongoing pandemic much easier. Compromising on the choices we make, so as to overcome the hold that Covid-19 has on us, we can, however, understandably feel weary with the isolation and loneliness brought by social distancing.

In this month’s issue, I highlight the coping strategy of reading, by visiting sensible ways to gain or reclaim it, if you have lost the habit, in our daily lives. Pandemic times make  the library and local bookstores as essential as grocery stores. And in “Storytellers’ Corner,” I visit Mignon Fogarty’s explanation of “Janus words,” which often confuse us with their double and contradictory meanings.

While we are mid-winter, with today (January 18) often described as the “bluest” day of the year, the appreciable lengthening of daylight hours offers us hope, as does the promise of a spring and summer that will bring vaccinations.

Meantime, I wish you the calm, patience (and if need be, downright escapism) that good reading can provide, even if we feel we are trudging along, keeping “one foot in front of the other,” as resilience requires.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth

Principal

Storytelling Communications

www.elizabethshih.com

+++++

Article One: Missing out on reading? Writer Christian Jarrett on how to get back to the books

One of the struggles for at least some creatives during the Covid-19 pandemic is that daily life can feel too frantic for books. Piles of both fiction and non-fiction lie stacked near my favourite reading chair, and yet often remain unread.

In a recent issue of “Aeon + Psyche,” writer and neuroscientist Christian Jarrett recommends habit-building strategies for pandemic-weary, armchair readers, who want to return to reading, for the self-improvement—and sheer joy— that it brings. I turn to those, below.

Like Jarrett, I envy heavy readers who can invest hours daily in the process. I find that a day spent without serious reading feels like a day misspent. I’m sorry to say that I’m not currently a heavy reader, not least because, as Jarrett writes, whatever is happening in the lives of heavy readers, “they’re never completely on their own—they always have their books.”

Twenty-first century life has many of us overwhelmed by the demands on our time, so we buy books with the intention of reading them, but often do not get there. Jarrett says that the Japanese even have coined a word for this condition, call “tsundoku.” A survey of adults in the US revealed that more than one-third wish they could read more than they do. Anecdotal evidence in Canada indicates at least similar, if not higher, rates.

He notes that editors, agents and book award judges—professional “super-readers”—manage to read (or to listen to audiobooks for) as many as 100 titles each month. While that’s not realistic for most of us, Jarrett emphasizes that we need to change our habits, if we want to restore the “attention and time” that reading deserves. Here are his six recommendations:

(1) Give up watching television or other screens for entertainment, so as to immerse yourself in good books—be they fiction or non-fiction. Jarrett observes that today’s reading of screens tends to “show you what’s happening; novels, by contrast, construct those fictions within your mind, allowing you to become anyone, and go anywhere.” Creativity and imaginative release can replace the mere distraction of screen based entertainment. Millennials, take note!

(2) Jarrett warns that those of us who have fallen out of the habit of reading more books can expect to make an effort initially, until the habit returns “without conscious effort and willpower.” Making reading into a habit, even for just “two minutes per day” (I’d recommend 10-15), gives you time to adjust to making reading an “entrenched part of your daily routine.”

Writer James Clear asserts that “a habit has to be established before it can be improved.” Piggybacking reading onto habits you already have (e.g. making it a bedtime ritual) can help you to keep it up. When you “reinforce the association” between reading and a time and place, you’ll become able to do it without thinking about it.

(3) Neuroscience has shown for decades that readers benefit from reading: “People who read literary fiction in particular tend to be better at reading others’ emotions and have greater moral sensitivity, possibly due to their simulation of the lives of complex characters.” He reminds us that reading non-fiction also provides cognitive stimulation that protects us from Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.

(4) Beginner leisure readers who do not have much experience should start with books they enjoy, Jarrett says, so they find the process “entertaining, calming, moving or intellectually stimulating and fascinating.” Trial and error and time may be required for newbie readers find a sweet spot of authors and genres that suits them. Some patience is needed, here, but there are obvious choices to begin with, such as Alexander McCall Smith and Louise Penny (detective fiction). You can always describe your interests to a librarian or local bookseller, who will happily recommend an appropriate author.

Jarrett cites author James Clear on forming a habit of reading: “Read whatever helps you fall in love with the act of being a reader or the habit of reading. And once you fall in love with the habit, then it’s easy. . . Now you’ve got . . . options, because it’s part of your life.”

(5) Jarrett also recommends that we quit reading the books we don’t enjoy and consider re-reading the ones we do. Reading time is too precious to invest in a title we do not like.

(6) Recording our progress in journals can also help, since reporting on the books you have read will deepen the habit. Some readers cultivate their “own sense of self and identity as a reader,” by attending virtual bookclubs, or by joining “Goodreads,” where they can review books they’re reading and learn about new authors whose work can interest them.

As a former academic reader, I enjoy reading or re-reading literary classics and then watching their film adaptations over streaming services like “BritBox” or “Acorn,” or on PBS Masterpiece Classic and Masterpiece Mystery. It can be fascinating to critique the interpretations that film adaptations provide.

While many of my readerly friends and colleagues listen to audiobooks and read titles on iPads or e-readers, I am partial to reading books in their traditional, “hard copy” format. Since I don’t want to grow an unwieldy library in my home (which would turn storage and moving into headaches), I happily use the local library system, with its excellent, online reservation service–and encourage others to do the same.

And now it’s your turn:

Amid these pandemic weary days, do you want to become more of a reader than you currently are? Do any of Jarrett’s recommendations inspire you to get started?

Please tell me about your readerly journey on my “contact” page: I’d be delighted to hear from you.

+++++

STORYTELLER’s CORNER . . . . 

STORYTELLER’S CORNER: On Janus words, with Mignon Fogarty

At the end of last year, “Grammar Girl” and writer, Mignon Fogarty, wrote a blog posting on “Janus words,” which are also called auto-antonyms. (The term “Janus” comes from Roman mythology, where the deity Janus had two faces, one looking forward and another, backward. In common writing, the term refers to something having two contrasting aspects; and, less commonly, to someone who is two-faced or deceitful.)

“Janus words,” then, are words that have two opposing meanings (i.e. “auto-antonyms,” or words that provide their own antonyms). A good example is the verb “to dust,” which can mean both “to add a light layer,” such as when one “dusts a cake with icing sugar,” and “to remove dust,” such as when one “dusts the tables and surfaces before company arrives”).

Fogarty cites “sanction” as another Janus word, as it can mean both “to approve or ratify something” and “to punish or penalize someone.” So too is “chuffed,” an English word that can mean both “pleased or satisfied” (more common) and “displeased or disgruntled” (less common).

Fogarty estimates that there are about 30 Janus words in the English language (others include “cleave,” “trim,” “seed” and “alight”), which add to the challenge of learning  the language for children and for non-native speakers. In most of these cases, one of the two meanings is far more common, but the second is still possible.

Janus words caused me frustration in childhood (verbalized in the 1970s and 80s to my family) that some words “don’t mean what they’re supposed to”–or at least don’t have a single, stable meaning.

They remain the delight of readers as well as literary theorists like Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Zizek.

And now it’s your turn: Do you notice Janus words in the reading and writing of your discipline? Why not share them on my “contact” page? 

+++++

SHOP NEWS:

I am particularly grateful this month to Monica Kreuger, Deanna Litz and Elaine Manytka for leading and running the staySMART cohort of alumni from the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship.

This group of entrepreneurs has been meeting since last fall, to strategize on how to make our businesses more Covid resistant. The 90 minute, weekly seminars, combined with 45 minutes of weekly coaching from Deanna Litz, have been fortifying and inspiring; and the contact with fellow alumni soothing, in these troubled times.

As a participant in this program, I’m delighted to provide editing services for websites and blog postings, for several fellow staySMART alumni. Special thanks to Monica Kreuger, for making this possible.

Meantime, I continue with my ESL training through Tefl.org and look forward to upcoming months, when I will unroll services of language instruction. Between writing and teaching, I will help new immigrant entrepreneurs and others “to tell their stories in English,” or “to learn  English to tell their stories.”

+++++

Hearty congratulations this month to Monica Kreuger for being named CTV Saskatoon’s Citizen of the Year. Monica’s 30+ years of leadership in entrepreneurial circles and her generosity, profound decency and genius all made it very easy to write in support of her nomination.

Special thanks to Lenore Swystun and Deanna Litz for spearheading that application process.

+++++

  ABOUT US:

Between 2011 and December 2018, Elizabeth Shih Communications chronicled the stories of B2B marketing and communications on the Prairies and across the country.

Effective January 1, 2019, I rebranded as “Storytelling Communications.” I now write marketing and communications documents and lead  workshops that help entrepreneurs and newcomers to Canada to strengthen their businesses or secure better jobs.

Interested in learning more? Please contact me through my CASL-compliant website (www.elizabethshih.com).

After I receive your message, I’ll be pleased to discuss projects with you!

Please visit my website for more information (www.storytellingcommunications.ca).

 

 

On SEO writing (a 2021 revisit to copywriter Henneke Duistermaat)

During a recent virtual networking conversation, a great marketing consultant mentioned that many Saskatchewan start-ups, across all fields, have naively paid (and then lost) thousands of their budgets to flashy, large marketing companies. These companies promise to get start-ups on “page one of Google” search results, without knowing the marketing that local clients genuinely need and that will work to secure real sales.

I write for humans, not primarily for bots. Having my copy appear on page one of Google’s search results, whether for myself, or my clients, would not secure sales. And yet the intrusive noise over high SEO rankings persists, even in 2021. On the issue of SEO, I sometimes worry about creative integrity and always refer my clients to the UK-based copywriter, Henneke Duistermaat.

In a recent blog posting on SEO (https://www.enchantingmarketing.com/seo-writing/), Henneke reminds us that the history of SEO writing began when writing for Google was supposed to be a copywriter’s strict aim. Online writing in those days (90’s, early 2000’s) was stuffed with keywords that made copy “almost unfit for human consumption.” In the 2010s, since Google “becomes smarter every year,” overlap developed between pleasing readers and meeting Google’s demands—but the overlap was still limited.

Nowadays, Henneke asserts, pleasing our readers “makes Google (mostly) happy, too.” Google “doesn’t want [copywriters] to try to beat its algorithm. It wants you to share your expertise, to create trustworthy, authoritative, helpful content—content that delivers what visitors are looking for.” She cites marketer Andy Crestodina who says, “To write for SEO, write the best page on the internet on your topic. If you make the best page on the web for your topic, there are 2000 math PhDs at Google trying to help you rank and get more traffic. If you don’t do that but try to take shortcuts, there are 2000 math PhDs at Google trying to stop you.”

Nowadays, then, Henneke says, if your “blog strategy is clear and reader-focused, you’ll fulfill the basic requirements for SEO, too.”

She shares five steps to write for SEO in 2021:

(1) Have a clear blog purpose, aiming for a topic that “fires you up,” so that you’ll “share your expertise with more enthusiasm.” Here your creativity can shine through.

(2) Use your audience as primary keyword research tool, writing about topics that matter to your readers (their aims, questions, problems, assets they seek), not to bots or to beat algorithms.

(3) Focus on tiny topics, instead of big questions, because the latter tend to be “vague and superficial or unwieldly and boring.” Narrower topics also provide more helpful content to readers. For a blog to be “valuable,” it should mix “a couple of articles about big topics and a lot of articles about tiny topics.”

(4) Write about each topic just once, since more than one post on the same topic compete and Google can’t tell which one to send traffic to.

(5) Write to help your readers “achieve a tiny aim, solve a tiny problem, answer a tiny question, or . . . present an inspirational collection of [resources]” and “optimize (a little) for Google” (www.moz.com/explorer is a free and useful tool to search keywords). Once you’ve identified a good keyphrase, include it in your headline, opening paragraph, in the main body of the post and in its conclusion.  Also, try to add some images in which, as in your URL, you can again insert the keyphrase.

Henneke writes: “the better Google becomes, the more important it becomes to focus on your readers and to deliver what they’re looking for. So use keyword research as a complement to, not a replacement of, understanding your audience and knowing how you want to help them.”

If you fear that SEO threatens to dominate your blogging, follow your curiosity and that of your readers to address their pain points or struggles, “so you know how you can help them.” By doing so, you’ll create valuable, interesting content that “Google’s house of math PhDs” will happily rank well.

Writing here, in Saskatchewan, means your blog posting should not aim to appear on Google’s first page, but instead to be noticed by your readers. Your posting will compel them to read your content closely and to identify you as a resource they urgently need.

And that’s an engaged client (and a likely sale) for you.

And now it’s your turn: Have you lost too much money and time chasing the elusive first page of Google’s search rankings? How might a revised method of SEO, based on original, focused copywriting, work to secure clients for you and your biz?