ESL learners and teachers: Do you think you know the English language? Ten eccentricities of our West Germanic tongue

English language learners, teachers, bloggers and other wordsmiths, do you think you know the English language well? English is spoken as a first language by over 400 million people. And it’s a second or third language to over a billion people, which amounts to one-seventh of the world’s population (, 2022). Many people internationally have already learned English or are currently doing so.

But should we assume that many users are experts? English as a language has an interesting and “quirky” history, the blogging team at writes, in its fortnightly blog:  English is “sometimes frustrating, often confusing, but never boring.” The language is West Germanic and derives a lot of influence from Latin (using the Latin alphabet), French and Old Norse.

While it might appear that English has been standardized in common use, Tefl writers say that there are actually many variations, dialects and accents that cause English to vary between places where it’s used (spoken and written). Tefl recently shared 10 fun facts that many native speakers do not know about the language and which I adapt for today’s blog posting:

  1. English has words with contradictory meanings, called “contronyms.” For instance, you can have a “variety” as a particular type of something, and also, distinctly, as a “great number of something.” So there are many “varieties” of the Haskap Berry, while a “variety” of different fruit are studied at the University of Saskatchewan’s Fruit Breeding Program.

Similarly, we can “dust” a tabletop (to remove something from it) or “dust” (i.e. add) a layer of icing sugar to a dessert. Both are very different activities.

Newcomers need to rely on context to guide them on which way a specific word is being used. This takes much practice.

2. Shakespeare, as a poet and playwright, is credited for adding more than 1000 words to the English language! He created words like “swagger,” “uncomfortable” and “bandit,” as well as phrases like “break the ice,” and many more (as undergraduate readers of his oeuvre often discover for the first time).

3. English has “ambigrams,” words that look the same from various positions on the page and looked at from different angles. For instance, the word “swims” reads as “swims” even if you turn the page upside down! So too with “big,” and, depending on the handwriting involved, “awesome” and “blessing” may look the same, either way up!

4. Our alphabet used to be longer. Over history, letters like “ash” (æ) and “ethel” (œ) have been dropped, although they are still used in Scandinavian languages. Currently, our alphabet has 26 letters, but it once had more than 29 letters.

5. In 1066, the Norman Conquest of England permanently changed our language. The Normans added new words and phrases to English, from the old French. Many words with French origins (e.g. “niche”) are common to English (writing and speaking), including “parliament” and “banquet.” Many of the words we use to communicate about food, and the game of cricket, actually derive from Norman French.

6. We have some very long words in English. Tefl reports that some may think the longest word in the language is “antidisestablishmentarianism.” But in fact, it is “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.” Even seasoned learners might do a double-take at that! The world is the name of a lung condition that comes from inhaling sand or ash! Try that at your next, post-Covid dinner party!

7. The most commonly used noun in English is “time,” which outranks other, heavily used words like “person,” “year,” “way” and “day” (who round out the top five).

8. Some words that appear simple have very complex meanings. For instance, the word “set” has an entry in the Oxford English dictionary (OED) that is 40,000 words long and has over 430 definitions! As Tefl’s writer writes,” you can set a table for a set time, you can complete a set of something” and so on.

9. Other words have surprising origins. British English refers to people lining up in “queues,” which sounds French to some users. But it comes from the tail of a beast in medieval art, so that a queue (what Canadians call a “line” or “line up”) resembles the tail of such a creature, in “either single-file” or “snaking around bends.” 

10. Do you know what is the most commonly used letter in the English language? It’s the vowel “E!” “E” can be used as many as five times in a word, such as in “beekeeper,” “effervescence” and “teleconference.” Try combining those words in a single sentence!

These quirky eccentricities about English make it easier to see why non-native English speakers can sometimes get confused. And there are variations of English, including American, Canadian and Australian English. But it has become popular internationally and is often named as the “language of business worldwide.”

New words and phrases are added to the OED yearly, whereby pop culture has a strong influence on new words, idioms and terminology.

Sharing some of these truths can help learners to recognize that English is not only complex but also fascinating; its character cannot be contained within even our best dictionaries or grammar guides!

And now it’s your turn: Did you know some of these eccentricities of the English language? Please share your word wonders in English:  I’d be delighted to use them in an upcoming posting.  

Find interviewing tough? Veteran British journalist Simon Hattenstone shares how to elicit (and share) stories

Ask any writer (whether journalist, copywriter, content writer or other) how they experience interviewing, and, if they’re honest, many will express deep ambivalence or even distaste for the process. Whether an issue with  approaching an interviewee, conducting an in-person or online meeting, or trying to anticipate how a story will unfold,  interviewing is usually anything but easy—for me, included.

Over the years, I’ve sought out explications and advice for the process, such as in books like Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists (by Mike Wallace and Beth Knobel,  2010). But it (and they) barely broach the subject. anxiety and interview

Members of my writers’ group have bemoaned everything from the anxiety as to whether recording devices will work (in pre-Covid interviews) to the agony of transcribing the recordings themselves, as they try to fill the gaps in the messy notes they’ve scrawled during the intensive time of the interview. Even when the interview is over,  writers can’t celebrate, as much work remains to be done.

So imagine the excitement last January, when I received an email promoting an interviewing “masterclass” by Simon Hattenstone, a 30-year veteran features writer for arguably the world’s best English language newspaper, The Guardian.

With more than 1,235 articles archived on The Guardian’s website and having interviewed everyone from rapper Snoop Dogg to Boris Johnson, Sir Desmond Tutu, Greta Thunberg, footballer Marcus Rashford and many in-between, Hattenstone can elicit good stories of folk from any conceivable walk of life. While he has written about many celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, he has found the most meaningful work in speaking with the friends of homeless people who have died on Britain’s streets.

Subscribing to the “masterclass” was a “win-win” opportunity: while listening to Hattenstone’s insights, I could indirectly support a newspaper that has consciously remained free to readers across the globe. Profits made from  such online classes that feature experts from all fields of inquiry enable the newspaper to stay accessible. Newspapers have large expense sheets, beyond what advertising brings in. 

These “masterclasses” are wildly successful online events: Hattenstone drew some 700 listeners to the call, which included a breakout-room application and an extensive Q&A that followed. In all, the class lasted some two hours and could easily have run longer.

Hattenstone was gritty, funny and insightful. Using often salty, down-to-earth language (‘wanker,” “rubbish, ” and some other, less polite, terms ), he shared genuine tips and insights garnered by his 30 years in the business. Here are some of the best:

Interviewers, he said, need to be aware of their “intuition,” to be interested—even “nosy”—about others, and most of all,  to be able to “communicate.” We are not supposed to work out philosophical arguments, as “huge brains” (academics) might try to do. We should not try to “make friends,” with our interviewees, as well, but instead to combine respect, background knowledge (preparation) and empathy with the ability to compose a narrative.

Interviewing is hard, Hattenstone says, because writers must impose a structure, a story, over the fragments of an interviewee’s life, that do not reach us in story format.

He comments that interviewers can learn old and new things, touch people, inform and entertain them, while also making the lives of our interviewees better—by being understanding and respectful of them. We also inform the reading public who consume the stories.

Interviewing—to find out new things that haven’t already been said—”is not a casual job,” Hattenstone says, and “it’s not about making friends, at all!”

He referred to different approaches to interviewing, including these:

  1.  We can be interrogators, focused on potentially hard-hitting questions, especially if we know the subject is being dishonest or corrupt;
  2.  We can be performers, who aim to “get something out of the interview” by heavily managing our exchange with the interviewee;
  3.  We can be sharers—by offering something relevant about ourselves to establish a feeling of safety and empathy. But in such cases the interviewer should share only briefly, so as not to intrude too much on the interview;
  4.  Hattenstone advises that “interviewing is like speed-dating, you can be hard, fair, make light fun of someone, but . . .  don’t shit on them or be unfair.”
  5. If we encounter a problematic story (e.g. an interviewee with a history of abuse, etc.), it’s “not the end of the world to keep quiet about them,” he says. “Your trust may allow you to tell their story later.” Often, several-stage interviews can reveal a more complex story over time, as Hattenstone found with the American student, Amanda Knox, who was convicted in Italy of the death of her roommate, Meredith Kercher (making international news in 2007).

As interviewers, we can ask good questions by looking at “news in brief” (NIBs) of any newspaper to find interesting interviewees and topics. Hattenstone says that looking for past media “cuts” (pieces) via Google is another great way to find subjects, as interviewees often speak less guardedly earlier in their careers. We can refer to these earlier clips, as he did when interviewing Dame Helen Mirren. Social media, he says, makes it much easier to trace interviewees’ earlier thinking.

We can find responsive subjects by finding “bored” actors waiting in dressing rooms for their plays to start in London’s West-End (and equivalents, elsewhere).

Hattenstone says that there are many ways an interviewer can “screw up” an interview: we may fail to research sufficiently a subject (He recommends that interviewers prepare roughly  30 questions and relevant material, knowing you’ll get only to one-third or fewer of them). The interviewer may fail to make sure their recording device still works (having two recording devices handy is wise, unless you know shorthand well). And interviewers shouldn’t worry about “looking cool” when nervousness is a sign of respect for the interviewee and for the process.

Recording an interview is essential, even though it can raise nerves for both parties, because the interviewer needs time to observe our interviewees, while they speak. If we obsessively trying to write down what they say, we’ll miss out on a lot, Hattenstone says.

When preparing, he suggests asking a good friend or colleague who knows our subject matter and can give us some background to work with. Such a friend should be “cheeky” and can encourage you to ask equally “cheeky” questions that haven’t been previously asked or answered. Overall, Hattenstone says: “research, research and research” your interviewees’ lives.

We can look for a particular issue to plumb, such as a crime they committed and/or a scandal that ensued.

Use some close-ended questions to establish the information, especially for politicians and people in public service (e.g. “Did you believe in X?”)

When writing for the news, ask “what they did”: when writing for features, ask “Why it mattered,” the story around the story.

Hattenstone says the most important questions are “What do you mean and how?”

He says never to worry about looking uncool or knowledgeable on a topic. It doesn’t matter if you read your own questions, or  pause, saying, “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten myself. I just need a moment.” Simply put, allow for some painful silences. What comes from them are often the best moments of any interview.

If your interviewee  bursts into tears, just “let them go through it and allow their silence. Don’t try to comfort them,” he says.

If our interviewee’s field of knowledge is not transparent, it’s fine to say “I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. Tell it to me in baby language.”

If we meet a resistant subject and things “go badly,” ask “Why do you dislike interviews,” “Are you OK,” and “Do you want to talk about something else?”

If an interviewee asks to keep something off-the-record, don’t betray that trust by telling it. But we can try to persuade them to let us include it in the interview.

Don’t stick to a script too closely, as often the most interesting insight will rise from digressions, Hattenstone adds.

Be a good listener and be aware that we may have to do a cross-examination. “If you tell a slanted story,” Hattenstone says, “you’ll get hammered.” For example, he would ask an alleged criminal “If you’re not guilty, why did you confess to something you didn’t do? People think you’re involved . . . .”

He says that the “easiest way to get a story is to ask someone about something else.” Try to get any resistant interviewee to complain about politicians or to say something negative about current events.

But don’t try to settle a dispute (as an arbitrator would), he adds.

It can be helpful just to let our interviewees talk. Sometimes the only way to bring yourself in, especially if you’re interviewing famous people, is to highlight with incredulity something that they’ve said. Like, “What do you mean?” or “How so?” Or “Seriously?”

Hattenstone emphasizes that we should observe our interviewees closely: if we don’t tend to notice things such as the way they’re dressed, how their hair is cut, how they interact with the waiter at your table, etc., we’ll lose valuable information for our stories. If they have a scar or noticeable feature, ask them about it, because some of their life story will inhere in it.

Ask them what the most important story is, in their life? If the interviewee distracts us from observing them, ask them to describe something themselves, such as the clothes they’re wearing that day. This process will allow us to observe them observing themselves. Then observe as we ask our interviewees to describe their work and what they’re contributing to their fields.

ALWAYS check your facts, Hattenstone also urged. We may have to call or consult someone to verify facts. If we find a quotation is inaccurate, no matter how quotable it may be, he urges, leave it out! If we know that we’ve being deliberately lied to,  point that out as part of the article.

Anecdotes do not make good print journalism: if our interviewees tend to use them, he says, “hurry them along, especially if you’ve heard the stories before and if they take a lot of time to share.”

When it comes to pitching articles, Hattenstone says, we should keep our emails short and use bullet points.  We should include roughly five links to relevant online sources. Similarly, he says, we should ask questions only the interviewee can answer and say as part of our questioning: “Only you can answer this . . .” Then leave the pitch for one to two weeks before following up:  Hattenstone says a good commissioning editor will take the time to consider a strong pitch, however busy they may be.

He also advised to “be thick-skinned in journalism, generally, and especially when pitching story ideas.” What seems like a brilliant idea or story concept to you may not seem so to a newspaper editor.

Even with the unfavourable exchange on the Canadian dollar and despite some technical glitches, The Guardians “masterclass” on interviewing, facilitated by Simon Hattenstone, was filled with valuable insights.  Have the above highlights inspired you to adjust your interviewing practices? Do the above comments make interviewing seem a more reasonable process?

Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Meantime, sign up for invitations to other masterclasses on The Guardian newspaper, to learn more from some of the world’s best thinkers and doers.

Does your writing have ‘umami?’ What that means, in the September issue of TYSN

September 2021 Vol 3 Issue 9

Tell Your Story Newsletter (TYSN):

Specializing in Entrepreneurial and Organizational Storytelling

Let me tell your story!

Welcome Mid-September, 2021!

We have enjoyed milder than usual temperatures this September and as I write this issue, autumnal sunshine is pouring in my office window.

While many Saskatchewanians dread the coming of winter, autumn’s crimson and golden leaves bring remarkable beauty to our surroundings. I hope amid the rushed pace of our schedules, good readers, that you’ll find time to observe this beauty and to store its warmth in your minds.

There are many issues weighing heavily on us, this month, especially as the “fourth wave” of Covid-19 in Saskatchewan drives up infection rates higher than we have seen in 18 months.

Human Rights’ Watch and environmental scientists report  violations of human rights in many nations and of our earth’s precious natural landscapes.

And yet around us small miracles appear, in human endeavours, resilience and redemption, showing us that life is still good and that goodness still permeates our world.

Despite these Covid-weary times, may this autumn be a time to conserve your health, renew professional accomplishments, relationships with family and friends. And may you find gratitude for the blessings that continue to grace our lives.




Storytelling Communications






ARTICLE 1:  Does your writing have ‘umami?’ 


Word Etymologies from the “Australian Writers’ Centre Newsletter”





Article One:  Does your writing have ‘umami?’ Can writing be delicious?

Growing up in a part-Chinese Canadian family, I learned as a teenager that different countries within Asia (not to mention beyond it) can be deeply ethnocentric. Historical and political divisions between and within these countries have been terrible. Yet immigrants to Canada and their descendants (me included) have benefited from encountering each others’ cultures with greater tolerance, respect and an attitude of equality. One powerful area of cross-cultural exchange can occur through eating these countries’ favourite foods.

Although I have part Mandarin heritage, I have greatly enjoyed other Asian and African foods that some of my ancestors might have refused to try. International foods are of course more available nowadays through locally owned businesses and restaurants throughout Saskatchewan, and through our local farmers’ markets.

In Saskatoon, authentic Thai food is close at hand (Keo’s Kitchen at Broadway & Taylor). And, more recently, I sampled amazing flavours of Japanese food (Café Japa Bowl, also on Broadway, which I highly recommend).

At Japa Bowl, I have eaten at various times delicately prepared ramen, dumplings, deep-fried sweet potato and marinated tofu—to name only a few of the staples on their menu.

I was particularly interested to read recently that scientists view “umami” (a Japanese word for “savory,” “meaty” or “broth-like” flavour) to be one of the five basic tastes humans experience (along with sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness). Umami is characteristic of broths, cooked meats and fermented products. We experience it through our taste receptors that typically respond to glutamates and nucleotides (common to meat broths, mushrooms and fermented products, like soy sauce, miso, etc.).

Because umami flavour has its own human receptors (and does not simply arise from a combination of other, recognized taste receptors), scientists consider it to be a distinct taste.

Umami can be detected in various Asian dishes and is not limited by geographic or cultural differences.

Without knowing what it was called, I have learned since childhood to taste umami (one of my parents was a skilled cook) and now delight in consciously experiencing its range of flavours from Chinese and non-Chinese cuisines, alike.

But what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with writing and communication?

Imagine my pleasure to recently read one of my favourite bloggers, the Scandinavian Henneke Duistermaat, likening effective writing to umami. She writes: “A good writing style has umami, too.”

You have to sample many Asian foods over some time if you are to learn the taste of umami. Henneke says the same holds true for writers who want to “taste and learn to appreciate different writing styles.”

Like me, Henneke reads a various “diet” of fiction, history, memoir, drama and also non-fiction guides to the writing process, amongst other genres.

If we want to improve our writerly umami and to make our prose a pleasure to read (whether as a business blogger or a novelist), Henneke says that we need “three magical ingredients”: meaning, rhythm and word- play.

(1) Write with meaning, she urges us. Much business writing these days is “full of meaningless drab, and opening sentences often are yawn-inducing because they’re so obvious.”

She cites an example she recently read: “SEO experts love to talk about Google ranking factors,” when this is a truism for all SEO specialists.

Elsewhere Henneke laments the emptiness (“gobbledygook”) of statements from “Business Solution Providers” who claim to have worked “for 30 years to hone our solutions and meet your needs.” (From such writing, no one really knows what that company does.)

By contrast, she says, good writing brims with meaning and uses clear (persuasive) imagery. She cites Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, in which a protagonist “slammed her glass down so hard that it slopped over on an ivory cushion. She swung her legs to the floor and stood up with her eyes sparking fire and her nostrils wide. Her mouth was open and her bright teeth glared at me . . . .”

Such writing adapts “vivid imagery” to relay its meaning. Even the tech giant Apple does this in some of its advertising: “We put the brains of iPhone 11 Pro in the body of iPhone SE. A13 Bionic is the fastest chip in a smartphone. So everything feels fluid . . . ” (emphasis Henneke).

Good business writing must have legitimate meaning. Using vivid imagery is one way to achieve that.

(2) Write with rhythm, Henneke also says. Writing can “hop, skip and dance” or “stutter and stumble” by its syllables and sounds. “Punctuation, sentence length, and sound or word repetition” are some of the ingredients that contribute to sentence rhythm.

She cites Raymond Chandler again, in The Long Goodbye, describing a lazy morning: “It was the kind of morning that seems to go on forever. I was flat and tired and dull and the passing minutes seemed to fall into a void, with a soft whirring sound, like spent rockets.”  The rhythms and onomatopoeic sounds of these words (words whose sound evokes their meaning) struck me even very early, on the morning I first read them.

(3) Playing with words, Henneke recommends, to give your writing umami. Wordplay can give writing precision and therefore persuasive power. Raymond Chandler describes a high pile carpet that “almost tickled my ankles” and a “stuffy office” as having “The musty smell of years of routine,” (which also evokes “urine”).

Wordplay is also evident when we use similes, so that a character in Chandler’s writing “talked with commas, like a heavy novel.” Haven’t we all met someone like that?

My point is that good writers and creatives need to read in order to collect words with umami, words that we love and can apply to our work.

And these truths apply to business writing, too. Henneke admires the work of Chip and Dan Heath (Made to Stick), unnamed copywriters at Apple and many others.

We can find our own favourite writers by observing the meaning, rhythm and word-play of what we read—and by reading it aloud, as well, so we can adapt these strengths to our own style.

She returns to the concept of “umami” as an essential ingredient to our writing, rooted in the Japanese word “umai,” which means, simply, “deliciousness.”

“Umami” carries connotations of food that is “kind to the body,” and that leaves us “feeling good after eating” (Katoh in Duistermaat). These are my feelings, especially when I pull away from a table at Japa Bowl.

When we make our writing similarly “delicious,” readers’  lives, whatever their ethnic origins,  can be enriched by it. Henneke concludes that such writing “lingers in our readers’ minds” like an indelible taste; and it leaves behind an indelible trace.

And now it’s your turn: How can you increase the “umami” factor of your writing? What authors do you read who convey “deliciousness?”



STORYTELLER’S CORNER: Words, Stories, Riddles and Jokes on Writing and Editing . . . 

Word Etymology: The “Australian Writers’ Centre  Newsletter” (September 2021):

Can you identify which is the correct meaning of each of these words?

  1. MELLIFEROUS: Honey-producing OR Foul-smelling
  2. IRENIC: Quick to anger OR Peaceful
  3. POLLEX: Another word for a human thumb OR Medieval skin disease
  4. OOLOGY: Study of bird’s eggs OR Study of comets
  5. MOUE: A tuft of hair protruding from the ear OR A small grimace/pout
  6. PHALANGES: Finger and toe bones OR Identical twins of opposite gender
  7. BLEB: A zigzag pattern OR A blister
  8. SUFFUSE: To spread through something OR To deaden/stifle


  1. MELLIFEROUS: Honey-producing
  2. IRENIC: Peaceful
  3. POLLEX: Another word for a human thumb
  4. OOLOGY: Study of bird’s eggs
  5. MOUE: A small grimace/pout
  6. PHALANGES: Finger and toe bones
  7. BLEB: A blister
  8. SUFFUSE: To spread through something

Do you have a story, riddle or joke on any aspect of writing or communications? Please share it with me; I’d be delighted to use it in an upcoming issue. 



Thank you to the administrative and operating staff at The Franklin Retirement Residence (Revera), for working hard to support seniors of all ages and abilities, in their later years.

The quality of life, including diet, openness to home-care support and other programming is second to none in Saskatoon, and has become home to a senior in my family.


Special thanks also to the committee of the Language Training Unit, Open Door Society, Saskatoon, for discussing ESL instruction at their organization. I look forward to applying my ESL training there (to lead a conversation circle) and to learning more of the amazing work Open Door teachers do.


An enthusiastic thank you this month to colleague Megan Kent, of Little Ox Film Company and coach Deanna Litz of Powerful Nature Coaching & Consulting, Inc. , who have assisted me in learning the finer details of screen-sharing inside Zoom’s “Breakout Rooms.”

Long after my nine months of studies in startSMART at the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship (PSE), I continue to find fruitful relationships with these fabulous, deeply talented entrepreneurs and with mentor (PSE Chief Visionary Officer), Monica Kreuger.

Readers, if you (or someone you know) are entrepreneurially minded or have “just some kind of an idea” for a business, the startSMART program of the PSE can help you make it a reality. The program offers many benefits–its network of support continues long after the program ends!

Contact program administrator Elaine Mantyka today for more information. An intake is already underway. Don’t miss out: (306) 664-0500  and



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 career and communications documents and lead language and writing workshops that help newcomers to Canada land their first or better jobs; help SMEs to close more sales by communicating more effectively; and help major companies to promote their legacy stories.

Interested in learning more? Please contact me through my CASL-compliant website (

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

Please visit my website for more information (


Read more, read better? Developing a reading habit with Stephen Cavan, Stephen Krashen and Brad Stulberg

When I teach students for whom English is a second (or foreign) language, they often express a desire to practice orally to help them become fluent as quickly as they can.

Less often, one will ask me what book titles I would recommend; when they do, they usually are interested in books on language skills (e.g. ESL textbooks), not books of fiction or poetry, written in English.

An advocate for reading by second language learners, my colleague (and a great ESL teacher, himself) Steve Cavan has recommended the writing of Dr. Stephen Krashen, an expert in theories of language acquisition and development.

Krashen has published hundreds of books and articles and given more than 500 lectures at universities world-wide to promote the “natural approach” to language teaching. By this he means to encourage students to read recreationally and for teachers like me (and administrators) to ensure that school libraries are well stocked.

Krashen says that “what is good for language development and literacy development is . . . pleasant [to] the acquirer and the teacher.” He has found that time spent free reading is more efficient for developing language skills than the equivalent time spent in traditional instruction.

Reading can (and should) be fun—and can help us learn new languages better.

So many readers and writers find life boring (even or especially in this digital age), when devices can leave us with minds feeling dry, uninspired, even cranky. What Krashen calls the “pleasure path” of reading often lighthearted fiction in a foreign language accelerates our learning of that language.

For instance, Krashen refers to one study in which new immigrants to the US who have progressed very slowly in learning English showed a remarkable spike in progress, due mainly to reading pleasant (potboiler) romance novels, such as the “Sweet Valley High” series. These students were not taking ESL classes at the time.

My colleague, Steve Cavan, has referred his students to free, online ebooks in English on the following site, where classics have been simplified to levels comprehensible to new learners:

Whether we are new to a language or native-speakers, however, reading deeply, what freelance writer and coach Brad Stulberg calls “full engagement in a book,” can be a joyous experience. When people’s attention spans are shortening by the day (or so it seems), Stulberg says that to be a deep reader “is also a competitive advantage in today’s knowledge-based economy.”

In a recent article in “Forbes” magazine, Stulberg argues that getting lost in a book “is good for the mind and spirit,” allows us to understand topics more deeply, to sustain attention for longer periods of time and to enhance our creativity.

Now, whether for non-English readers or the fully fluent, who would argue against all that?

Stulberg recommends six practices that can help us all read more and read better:

(1) Use a hardcopy book. Research shows that we understand and connect ideas better when we read physical (not digital) pages. There are fewer distractions than with digital media and our brains remember better knowledge acquired through “tactile experience.”

(2) Have no digital devices in the room. Even “the sight of these devices and everything they represent—not to mention the willpower it takes not to check them—is a huge distraction.  So find a non-tech room for reading.

(3) Read with a pencil, pen or highlighter. When we engage with books more deeply, actively responding to their ideas, we become more fully absorbed in the material, which improves our “associative thinking and subsequent creative insight.” (This will of course mean that you need to buy the book, which in time means you may wish to donate it to charities, through which others can benefit from it, too.)

(4) Keep a notebook nearby. Even when we’re closely engaged in a book, irrelevant thoughts can pop up in our minds (e.g. groceries to get; errands to run). Stulberg suggests that we right them down in a retraceable place, so that we can “off load [our] brains from trying to hang on to them.”

(5) Read for at least 30 minutes. Deep reading is similar to physical exercise. Our minds are muscles and need to be trained to read over a significant amount of time. Filling in brief moments of your day with an audiobook, though not terrible, cannot compare.

(6) Read as much as you can. Stulberg rightly says that “books are the best bargain there is” for sharing insights, wisdom and experience. As a professional coach who recommends reading, he has helped Olympic athletes to progress through life, post-sports; business founders through career-defining and challenging times; and has observed that wise leaders “from Bill Gates to Ruth Bader Ginsberg  . . . all read a heck of a lot.”

So why shouldn’t we, too? And that’s whether we are new to the English language or not.


And now it’s your turn. Do you practice deep reading in your professional or personal life? Has the thinking of Cavan, Krashen and Stulberg convinced you to get started?

Please share your experience. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

How has Covid Changed Copywriting (and Entrepreneurship)? Five Tips from Copywriter & Coach, Steve Slaunwhite

Pandemic times are not “unprecedented,” if we know the history of the Spanish Flu, the Bubonic Plague and others. But Covid-19 has shown us up close that pandemics have an extraordinary effect on the world of communications and marketing.

For instance, Terry O’Reilly dedicated a wildly entertaining and informative episode of his CBC radio program to “Marketing in the Time of Covid” on “Under the Influence” (February 18, 2021).

My colleague (and former coach), Steve Slaunwhite, blogged recently on ways in which Covid has changed copywriting. He says that rules of the game “have been altered. Perhaps permanently.” His observation that Covid has caused copywriting to “become more relevant, authentic—even caring” resonates with me.

Yes, we continue to write copy that tries to persuade and ultimately close sales.  But now, more than ever, conversational copy, which I find draws on storytelling, matters. The conversation outperforms any effort to pitch.

In fact, heavy pitching in pandemic times will only sound tone-deaf to the buyer. So how can copywriters and entrepreneurs address these uncertain times in our writing? Steve gives five tips, which I develop further, below.

  1.  He recommends that we update our understanding of our target buyers, or “buyer personas”: Ask yourself who they are. “If they were created before March 2020, they’re way out of date.” 

Spend some time reading and asking your customers what they’re thinking about, what worries them, what their “hopes and desires” are. Steve says that their answers will be different now than they were, one year ago. Customers and prospects may even be buying differently.

I’ve heard from the CBC and from trends in my local community that some people, not only in northern and remote Canadian communities, but also here at home, deal with pandemic risk by buying many of the amenities of life through Amazon:  For some of these buyers,  not enough stable providers (and deliverers) of food and goods have persisted, through the past year.

Now Zoom has become a means of hiring service providers, whereas earlier more in-person methods (or a combination of virtual and actual) were used.

Steve asks: “Does your marketing copy reflect” these kinds of changes? It needs to.

2. Learn to write conversationally: This is not news and yet I regularly see copy online that does not flow well. It reads, as Steve says, “stiff and formal.” I rebranded my business, Storytelling Communications, in 2018,  focusing on the importance of communicating in ways that quickly resonate with human readers–both thematically and in tone.

Consider that copywriting and marketing greats like Steve, as well as Nick Usborne, Michael Katz and giant, Seth Godin (the latter partnered with Bernadette Jiwa), have all developed training materials that teach conversational copywriting through storytelling.

  1. Build facts and details into your writing: Why? Uncertain times make people crave for certainty. I’ve noticed recently that terms like “bedrock,” “foundational,” “flagship” and “landmark” have circulated more in online news than I can ever remember! We often feel better just for reading those words.

Steve recommends inserting facts, details, useful knowledge from highly credible, authoritative sources. Make sure your statistics are up to date. (We need to update website copy from content that’s four or five years old.) Also, cite “plenty of testimonials.”

  1. Be very realistic about the benefits we tout and any outcomes we quote. Experienced copywriters know that we can write persuasively but still must be honest about benefits and expected outcomes. Otherwise, we have no credibility. Steve writes: “What has changed is that buyers are being extra cautious and scrutinizing the claims made in marketing copy much more closely.”

So we must write convincingly, but not overlook that we are being realistic (honest) in how we describe benefits and promises.

This reminds me of the anger of an accountant I know, who voiced his frustration to a nearby assistant, that a salesperson of their recently purchased photocopier was “a bald-faced liar” for promising a higher volume of copies than the machine produced. The salesperson’s credibility was shot—and won’t easily, if ever, be recovered.

  1. Reward your reader for reading your marketing copy: So we must not “pitch” or push in a hard-sell way. Steve knows that “pitch fatigue” can undermine the effectiveness of marcom copy.

He recommends an “alterative approach,” of including within a promotional email a few tips on how to make the most of the product or service: This “makes the email exciting and helpful to the buyer, whether they buy or not.”  Salespeople call this “adding value with every contact.”

Consider that companies as diverse as Vistaprint and FlexJobs (and many more) have sent me promotional emails in recent months that tell how to improve one’s resume, job interview strategies, etc.

But remember the evergreen power of storytelling (used by civilizations from cavemen to millennials), especially in pandemic times, to hook the reader.

To summarize, then: Covid times force us to be on top of our game as copywriters and entrepreneurs, more conscious and self-aware of our clients and prospects than ever before. We can avoid falling into a “tone-deaf” state if we update our understanding of our target buyer; learn to write conversationally; build facts and details into our copy; are realistic about benefits or outcomes; and add value to our audience, rewarding them for reading our writing.

Covid challenges us to be more nimble in our mindset, as promotional writers.

Copywriters and entrepreneurs who merely crank out copy or promotions in age-old ways will be left out in the cold.

And now it’s your turn. Do Steve’s five tips on how to update our approach to marketing in Covid days resonate with you?  Please share on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear from you.