You need poetry in your posts

What the world really needs is poetry in posts. Seriously. Keep in mind, when we use the word poetry we usually mean it in one of two ways.

There is the very technical use when we are talking about something like a Shakespearean sonnet. But there is also the much more common use, in the general population, where it refers to really damn well done communication.

When it is damn well done communication it often uses metaphors, similes and analogies. It uses examples and descriptive language without going overboard. It creates images that communicate sense and makes what we read relatable and understandable.

Bald facts are boring. And they’re often difficult to wrap your head around. But poetry, in a very broad sense, makes them clear and drives home their meaning. Let’s try an example to see if I can communicate this notion.

I could write a post that would have the merit of being brief by simply writing, “Before any public speaking engagement, it is important to go to the bathroom beforehand.”

Or, I could write this:

About 45 minutes into my two hour lecture before 1,000 students at the University of Ottawa, I crossed my legs. Roughly five minutes later, I crossed them more tightly.

Not long after, perhaps five minutes, I began to perspire freely although the room was climate controlled and quite pleasant. Unfortunately, I had to pee. And I had about 50 more minutes to go at the lectern.

As it turned out, I humiliated myself by peeing my pants before a thousand eyes and thus learned my lesson: always pee before a public engagement!

Imagery conveys meaning and imagery is often the element that adds poetry to a post, in the sense I’m using the word.

Why would a news network send someone to a place devastated by an earthquake when they can simply say it registered 7.9 and over 500 people lost their lives? It costs money to send people all around the world. But the data doesn’t quite convey the meaning. Images of people and structures ravaged by the event do. It makes the event relatable and understandable.

So put some poetry in your posts. Make it mean something to me and everyone else.

Put another way, try telling a story that makes your message vivid.

Google makes social media interesting again

Google puts their focus on people.

I found myself wondering if Google might be the first company to actually get social media by focusing on the word social and realizing something was lacking in a big way in the world of social networks and technology generally. This was after having watched Andrew Keen’s interview about Google+ with Vic Gundotra (Google’s VP Social) and Bradley Horowitz (VP Product).

(See: Why Google Is Now A Social Company.)

Within the first ten minutes of the interview, as they gave a high level explanation of Google+, they spoke of communication and nuance. They talked about the differences between how people communicate in the real world, face to face, and how they do so online. They spoke about how they want to bridge that gap.

I don’t expect they will any time soon but the simple recognition that there is a big difference, and that online communication is a beggar’s version of real world communication, suggests a number of things, including an implicit acknowledgement that Google has made a big internal change in how they view technology and what is important. (In my last post I referred to how Google had never been a non-tech audience friendly company.)

It also suggests they have an advantage no other online company has: recognition that the time for baubles and wishful thinking is over. It’s time to acknowledge the limitations of digital technology and deliver the goods, as in a true digital model of real world communication, such as its nuances.

Consider all the senses that are in play when communicating in the real world and then consider what is available with technology: sight and sound, both of which are limited.

When I speak to someone in person I have so much more information flooding into my brain and being processed. I see their eyes, facial expressions, their body language and the full environment surrounding them that conditions all of that. I even smell them. I can touch them.

Why are they speaking so quietly? Is it because it is an intimate conversation? You might think so unless you’re able to turn around and see the two people sleeping behind you.

What happens when someone has a camera in front of him? If you’re taking a picture, they pose. In other words, they don’t present themselves; they present how they would like to be perceived.

Almost everyone behaves differently in front of a video camera – some are embarrassed, some act up and some, even professionals, become a presentation. Few people are their usual selves.

What digital communication delivers is a simulacra of the real thing. Communications involves so many things and to date technology has just scratched the surface. Communications isn’t just about exchanging messages; it’s also how those messages are presented.

Appearances to the contrary, technology around social media has been stalled for quite some time. This is partly why we spend so much time discussing the business end of it – market share, revenue models and so on. It has become pretty tedious simply following updated versions of products that add a few more doo-dads and greater capacity.

Google is the first, that I am aware of, that is talking about fundamentally changing not just social media but technology itself. That a company so engineer driven and so artifact focused would announce this kind of change in their approach – in the way they actually view technology, putting the emphasis on people and how we behave rather than the technology – is remarkable.

It also signals a fundamental shift with some absolutely amazing potential.

Suddenly, communications is interesting again.

(Thanks to Jeff Roach for directing me to the interview.)

Creativity can obscure your message

In an age of digital this and that, when many of us live large parts of our lives online, creativity often obfuscates our message.

Obfuscate means to “render obscure, unclear, or unintelligible,” as my dictionary defines it.

It’s not that the creativity we bring to something isn’t imaginative. It’s often very imaginative; very clever and artistic. We may have a wonderful headline and presentation, one full of witty wordplay and inventive images.

But when people are scanning, it can mean your message is missed.

Online (and more often than not, offline too), we tend to have such a short attention span that it is all but non-existent. We glance here and we glance there. Understanding the meaning of something, given these conditions, usually requires that it be obvious. So obvious that it can’t be missed.

The creative presentation of a message puts a layer over top of the meaning. It’s a cognitive barrier. To get and understand the message, we first have to get and understand the creative element.

In most cases, this occurs in a nanosecond. But even that nanosecond can interfere with delivering your message because, given online behaviour, a nanosecond is all the time you have to communicate your meaning.

I’m not saying don’t be creative. Be creative. It’s necessary, online more than ever. But be careful. Sometimes being creative isn’t about cleverness or imagination. Sometimes it’s about finding ways to make something simple and obvious. It often means leaving the paint brushes at home.

Pairs, sequences and storytelling

The short video below, The Evolution of Storytelling, tells a story about stories. However, pay attention to how it tells its story. Listen to it and pay attention.

You may have noticed pairs and sequences of threes. In fact, the opening sentence begins with a sequence of three that concludes with a pair:

“There is a revolution …

1) in the way that we think,
2) in the way that we share,
3) and in the way that we express
3-1) our stories,
3-2) our evolution.”

These pairs and sequences occur throughout the video. ( “Our story, our poetry, our romanticism,” and “How to live, and how to die.”) These patterns create the rhythm of storytelling because telling a story isn’t just about the story; it’s about how it’s told.

You’ll notice something else in the video: repetition. “People have been leaving behind footprints, footprints that are moments of self-expression.” This is another very common device, a mnemonic that emphasizes something and helps the audience to remember.

Now try watching the video with the sound off. I think you’ll find something interesting there about how stories are told.

Initially, it looks like a crazy, animated mind map. Words are flying around everywhere, chaotically — or so it seems. Quickly, however, out of the chaos ideas emerge because some words repeat. At the same time, the words have different fonts and font sizes emphasizing some over others.

Some are seen amid other words; some in isolation. And all are moving, but not randomly.

Visually, the story is being told and once again it is with a certain music — a rhythm — that helps communicate what it is about. Again, it isn’t just about the story; it’s about how it is told.

This is why it is called storytelling.


Storytelling, classifications and definitions

We live in a world mad for deconstructing, classifying and compartmentalizing. We have always done this but never to the degree we do now. It has something to do with the rise and growth of science. It’s the process we developed in order to learn and understand. It can, however, be restrictive and have the opposite result.

I’ve always known a story when I’ve come upon it. I’ve always recognized storytelling when I’ve encountered it. But I’ve never articulated a definition of storytelling. It never occurred to me to do so until recently when I’ve found others attempting to define it. For instance, today I was on the Canada Council for the Arts site and the term storytelling shows up, but I get the sense their definition and mine aren’t quite the same. I think mine is broader.

I tend to resist defining, at least in this instance, because defining is also limiting. It is a bit like defining myself. No matter how detailed any definition might be, there will always be more to me than is included in that definition. There may be elements that even contradict it.

So … storytelling. There are two streams that seem particularly active currently. One of these is the business stream where storytelling is seen in terms of marketing and branding. What is your story? You have to communicate it because that is what customers want and what engages them. It’s the thing that communicates your brand. Your business needs to engage in storytelling, particularly where social media is concerned.

The other stream is in the realm of the arts where storytelling seems to be a way to distinguish the medium by which a story is communicated from writing. In other words, to a large extent it is being defined by what it is not. What it is appears to be, or to encompass, is performance.

I have two problems with this. The first is that, for me, writing is performance. The second is that the term seems to be defined by what are actually its subsets: oral storytelling, visual storytelling, and so on. To me, this would be akin to defining myself by my arms or my eyes. They are part of me but they are not who I am.

This leads to confusion, at least it does for me. For me, I go back to the definition of stories I posted a while ago: A story is people involved in events told by people to people.

Storytelling, then, is the telling of that story, regardless of the medium.

Storytelling — get out of the way

With the indifference of weather, he shot the child and kept walking.

I’ve mentioned before that far too often we’re focused on writing rather than storytelling. I refer to writing because that is what I do, but this is applicable to all forms of storytelling – written, verbal, film, etc.

Our writing gets in the way of the story. Our verbosity gets in the way. Our filmmaking gets in the way. Why does this happen? That is easily answered.

We’re too busy selling the story rather than telling it.

If you have a good story, get the hell out of the way.

I’ve seen a lot of writing, particularly with new writers, that goes overboard with description and repetition  in an effort to get a point across, like a certain character is a bad guy. A really bad guy. A really, really bad guy – so bad he smelled bad too!

And so on. There will be long paragraph after long paragraph of description that isn’t really description but overselling. It overstates the point and, in overstating, loses the reader because it loses the tempo of the story. Like watching a show on television and hitting the ads, it is interruptive. It disrupts flow and often does the opposite of what is intended.

On the other hand, a brief sentence like the one at the start of this post says all that needs saying. A man shoots a child? Now that’s bad. He does so with indifference? That’s even worse! What kind of guy is this?

Were it part of a story, my guess is you would keep reading because it communicates quickly all it needs to. Later, you may want some physical description but you don’t need much. The reader has created their own image of this monster.

So … get out of the way. Let your story be told. Quit interrupting it with unnecessary ads.