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.

My most popular posts in 2010

I took a look at my analytics to see what posts were the most popular here during the year. And I made a list of them.

I find it interesting looking back at the past year to see that my focus on social media drooped a bit somewhere during the summer as my focus was taken up by the idea of stories and storytelling. That focus persists. I wonder how far into 2011 it will linger?

As for the most popular, my favourites from the list would be #6 and #8, and maybe #3.

Top Writelife posts in 2010

  1. Metaphors and similes like bling for words
  2. How to waste your time effectively
  3. How Kurt Vonnegut defined social media: connection precedes communication
  4. Social media basics for a small business
  5. Guidelines vs. rules: bamboozled by bullets
  6. Lose the model: everything is a story
  7. Repetition is good so it’s good to repeat ourselves
  8. Words and how they sound
  9. Seth Godin on linchpins, focus, spreading stories
  10. Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘What the Dog Saw’ – a review

Note: This list is not entirely accurate. The top post was one titled, Joni and Bob; poets and thieves. I chose to leave it off the list because it was an aberration. It was linked from a Bob Dylan fan site and the numbers went through the roof.

The only reason I have a job

I know a bit about a lot of things but I can’t really claim to be an expert on any level except in the area of stringing words together. Although I have had positions that involved technical work (audio engineer, radio ad producer, a degree of coding for web sites), I’ve only managed to keep working because of one thing: my English degree.

I’ve never been very good at explaining its value to me. Fortunately, David Brooks has in a New York Times Column: History for Dollars.

“Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

“Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion. In an information economy, many people have the ability to produce a technical innovation: a new MP3 player. Very few people have the ability to create a great brand: the iPod. Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, and you can’t do it unless you are conversant in the language of romance.”

I’m not sure other people always see how dependent understanding our technology is on language. I tried to explain one aspect of it a while ago in Metaphors and similes: like bling for words.

Brooks’ column does a much better job of explaining the importance of such things. I recommend everyone read it.

It helps to explain why I’ve managed to keep working.

Metaphors and similes like bling for words

We use metaphors and similes every day. The web is built on them. The web itself is a metaphor. Well, it began as a metaphor. Given the meanings of web, I suppose it is an actual web. So I guess it isn’t a metaphor.

As you can see, thinking about metaphors and similes can muddle up your mind. It has always muddled mine.

Similes compare two things, suggesting similarities. Metaphors also compare but usually in a way that suggests they are same – no differences – with the sneaky goal of startling you into saying, “Huh?” and then realizing there are similarities between two different things.

“The storm bellowed and havocked across the sky like an angry bowler.” Wow – that sentence has a metaphor and a simile! (I think. I’m never sure.)

I find similes easier to wrap my thinking around than metaphors. Simplistically, if the word “like” is in there, it’s a simile. It’s a comparison. Unless you are saying I like Susan or I like Martin. Then you’re using the word “like” with one of its other meanings. (Words are so confusing – especially if they are English words.)

Why do we use metaphors and similes? Given how confusing it gets trying to figure out what they are and which is which, don’t they just make a dog’s breakfast of writing?

You could argue they are linguistic bling. What we write can be so bland without some razzle dazzle to liven it up. What better than a metaphor here, a simile there? They prettify our writing. They’re attention grabbers.

That’s what they’re there for, isn’t it?

To a degree, yes. But their main purpose is to clarify and convey meaning. Take the storm example above: Storms don’t bellow and they don’t bowl, crossly or any other way. But by referring to the storm that way, you have a better sense for the storm. It was a thunderstorm and it was noisy.

I love similes because they come very easily to me. When I write or speak, I don’t have to think about them. They’re like popcorn popping in my head. The only real work for me is separating the good ones from the bad.

Metaphors are different, however. I have to stop and think about those. I’ve never been good at them. I have to think, “How do they work? Is it this way, or is it that way?” Then it gets very muddy because I start thinking, “But isn’t that just another simile? Or maybe it’s an analogy?”

And then I have metaphors and similes and analogies and I can’t distinguish one from the other – all because I had to stop and think about metaphors.

So my preference is for similes.

But getting back to meaning … If someone has no idea of what the Internet is and what it does, you might say, “There are computers all over the world and they connect to one another. When they do, it is like a web.” Immediately the person who knows nothing of the Internet has a good fundamental sense of what it is. It’s far from complete, but it is basic and the building block to communicating a fuller idea.

When metaphors and similes are on their game, they communicate immediately. They facilitate understanding.

That’s something bling doesn’t do.

Analogies and a quibble with a quibble

Our world, particularly business and technology, is peppered with metaphors and analogies. An article in the Harvard Business Review, The Next Evolution in Economics: Rethinking Growth, uses a biological analogy in discussing how we view business growth. It drew a response, Science, analogy and ecoliteracy, from pathways questioning the accuracy of the analogy and suggesting another would be more appropriate.

In some sense I agree, but I disagree more. My argument is simply this: 1) while there may be similarities, things compared are never the same and, 2) the key point to be communicated is better done with the biological analogy.

In this instance, it is likely true that the biological comparison only goes so far and that, in order to go further, an ecosystem is a better analogy. However, I don’t think that analogy does what the initial, biological analogy does nearly as well, which is to convey the most important idea informing the analogy’s use: constant growth is death.

To use an analogy (no joke intended) … Let’s say I’ve made a movie. I’m asked, “What’s it like?” If I answer, “It’s sort of like Casablanca,” almost everyone will have an idea of what that means. Of course, it won’t be accurate – it may even be misleading, especially if I leave it at that.

But if I answer, “It’s sort of like The End of the Affair,” some people will have an idea of what that means having read the book or seen the movie, but others will not. Casablanca communicates far better than The End of the Affair simply because more people are familiar with it.

Getting back to the biology/ecosystem analogies … The biological one communicates more broadly and with much more impact than the ecosystem one, particularly if you bring in the idea of cancer as a malignant growth. Many, many people have been touched by cancer in one way or another.

The problem with my argument is that, once you establish the idea of constant growth as a negative, you run into problems. But I don’t think it’s a problem specific to this instance, it’s a problem with all analogies. They are always inaccurate because no two things are ever the same. Their use is in communicating a key idea. Their flaw is in our nature, which is to simplify and not think things through and realize they are inevitably inexact. Ecosystem may be more exact but it, too, will only go so far.

From what I’ve seen in the business world, however, at the ground level where middle-managers and executives are engaged in daily business activities, the idea of constant growth is very deeply rooted and unquestioned. I think the only way to shake it loose is with an analogy that has the kind of impact of the biological one. I just don’t think the ecosystem analogy would do the same. It’s also a more complex analogy, I think, at least compared to the biological one.

I suppose my quibble is dependent on defining what it is that is to be communicated and to whom. But it seems to me, at least as far as a broader, general audience goes, you won’t be able to communicate anything until you create the conditions to so, and I think that lies in freeing people from the traditional growth, growth, growth-at-all costs mindset to one where growth is seen differently – as not necessarily a good thing or, growth is good but a different kind of growth.

As I often do, I agree and disagree simultaneously. There must be a metaphor for that.