Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lessons from Lee

[Editor's note: This was originally posted on]
For Today's CEOs, Lessons from Master Speaker Lee Iacocca

By Jeff Porro

The Chrysler chief's speechwriting team shares how today's execs can inspire employees and customers alive with candor and a great narrative.

Lee Iacocca, former head of Chrysler, was certainly the first and arguably the biggest CEO “rock star.”

Yes, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have also gained fame far beyond the business world. But no other corporate leader has scored the pop culture quad-fecta of being a “Jeopardy!” category, guest starring on “Miami Vice,” being the answer to a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle, and getting assassinated in “The Watchmen” movie. (OK. It was a lookalike actor playing Iacocca).

Iacocca’s autobiography was a world best-seller. And, in 1988, there was also a strong “draft Iacocca for president” movement.

Iacocca’s business success—saving Chrysler and reinvigorating the American automobile industry in the 1980s—has also become a staple of B-school “case studies.” And most analysts agree a key ingredient—what Iacocca himself called “my most important management tool” —was the spoken word. “I used that tool every day,” Iacocca wrote.

To better understand how he used words, I spoke with two men who wrote speeches and presentations for the former Chrysler head: Mike Morrison and Alex Tsigdinos. Morrison, Chrysler’s vice president of corporate communications from 1984 to 1999, wrote more than 600 of Iacocca’s speeches. Tsigdinos, who worked for Morrison, was part of Iacocca’s and Chrysler’s small speech-writing team during his last few years at the company.

Learning from Lee

Iacocca’s speaking style and his belief in the value of speeches came from his background in sales.

“In the auto industry, sales means talking to dealers,” Morrison says. “At that time, dealers were all independent business people, protected by state franchise laws. You couldn’t force them to do anything. You had to sell to salesmen, sometimes getting them to do things they didn’t want to do.”

Iacocca himself put it this way: “In every speech I give, the object is to motivate. You can deliver information in a letter or tack it on a bulletin board.”

Unfortunately, too many of today’s executives forget the motivation aspect. Most prefer to treat a speech as a spoken white paper or a status report to stockholders rather than as an opportunity to rally the troops. The result is a lot of very boring CEO speeches.

Iacocca, on the other hand, planned out each speech very concisely and with great focus, Tsigdinos says, to be sure he would move his audiences to action.

“He wanted to know what we wanted to accomplish with each particular audience: the point he wanted to make, the behavior he wanted to influence, the actions he wanted them to take,” Tsigdinos explains.

Tsigdinos notes that Iacocca understood how overwhelmingly important it was to persuade and put a huge amount of effort into each speech. “He always spoke from a script, never spoke off the cuff,” Morrison says.

Iacocca was always very nervous before a speech. However, because he put in the hours to rehearse and revise each speech, his delivery was so smooth, natural and relaxed, it could sound ad-libbed.

“I think some executives think all they need to do is review a draft just before they give it, and they can waltz in there and win an audience over,” Tsigdinos says. “Iacocca knew it wasn’t that easy.”

Check out YouTube for proof that too many executives don’t put in the time. You’ll find lots of examples of CEOs who read their speeches instead of delivering them.

As for the substance of the speeches, Morrison sums it up simply: “A good speech is a story.” Iacocca, he says, knew that everything having to do with communication was a story. “Iacocca was a great at telling stories with a beginning, a strong middle, and an end.”

For too many of today’s CEOs, a speech is what Morrison called “just a matter of reciting data, of listing serial events.” That’s a bad mistake that at first bores and then, ultimately, loses an audience.

Iacocca was so devoted to making each speech into a story that he asked Morrison not to add in applause lines. “He didn’t want anything to break up the flow of a story,” Morrison said, “No cute phrases, not a lot of short anecdotes. He would set up the story, tell it, draw his conclusion and leave.”

And he stayed far away from corporate-speak. Says Tsigdinos: “Simple but effective. That’s what we strove for. No convoluted language. He was great at making direct statements that people could remember.”

Taking the initiative 

Iacocca excelled at taking the initiative and getting out front on issues. In 1987, it was discovered that Chrysler had tested a small number of new cars with the odometers disconnected before they were sold.

The story rocketed around the country, and there were reports district attorneys were considering legal action. When Iacocca learned what had happened, he had Morrison draft a speech saying very frankly that Chrysler had made a mistake and would make it right.

When Morrison sent the draft to Chrysler lawyers for clearance, they were furious—fearing that the speech could be an admission of guilt and lead to lawsuits. Iacocca was just as furious that the lawyers tried to stop him.

So when he went before the cameras, he said that Chrysler had done two things that made customers question their faith in the company. In Iacocca’s soon-to-be-famous words: “The first was dumb. … The second reached beyond dumb and went all the way to stupid.”

“He was on every one of the nightly news shows,” Morrison remembers. “They lionized him, and he turned the whole thing into a huge PR victory.”

There’s an obvious contrast to the recent behavior of some CEOs facing crises, most notably BP’s.

“The BP guys should have understood they had a disaster on their hands. They should have worked with their communication experts, not their lawyers,” Morrison says.

As today’s CEOs work to keep their companies growing out of the economic doldrums, they would be wise to learn these lessons from Lee:
  • Use your speeches to motivate, not just deliver information.
  • Put in whatever time it takes to master your speech and make it sound natural.
  • Get out front, be frank, and admit your mistakes.
  • And above all, tell a story.
Speechwriter Jeff Porro ( helps executives prepare effective speeches and presentations. He also discovered and researched the true story of a Jim Crow-era African-American college debate team and helped turn it into the 2007 feature film “The Great Debaters.”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Around The Word

Does President Obama need a better editor? Last year, Politico's John F. Harris suggested that Obama and his team won the 2008 election "in part because they were better storytellers than the opposition." Lately, though, the media has been fixated on the president's "'narrative' problem." "Click on cable television or flip to the opinion pages, and you'll discover that whenever things aren't going the president's way, it's because he has lost control of the narrative," writes Samuel P. Jacobs. And who better to turn to in times of narrative crisis than some veteren storytellers?

In The Daily Beast, Jacobs collects strategy advice from a handful of novelists. But while Alex Berenson argues for the intoduction of "an enemy who is not John Boehner" and Sam Lipsyte suggests the Prez reexamine his "first chapters,"  not everyone is convinced Obama's problem is his story-arc. "Truth is," opines thriller writer Joseph Finder, "I actually think the 'narrative' notion is a preoccupation of journalists and political professionals, and not the real engine of political shifts."

We want to know what you think: does "narrative" drive politics or is this fixation on plot a red herring? 

"Patagonian toothfish" was cheap until one very clever importer rechristened it "Chilean sea bass." The life insurance industry avoids "death" by talking about "post retirement." In swinging 1970s London, "discussing the situation in Uganda" meant talking politics until one embarrassed lover used it to mean...something distinctly more amorous. On NPR's Talk of the Nation, Euphemania author Ralph Keyes discusses the history of such coded discourse, arguing that using euphamisms "isn't necessarily lazy or evasive; it can actually be harder to not say what we mean and still get our point across."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Around the Word: Tuesday Styles

Wait at least 72 hours before returning your clients' calls, and never, ever accept weekend assignments after Wednesday...

Well, maybe not all of The Rules apply, but according to communications consultant Lindsey McCaffrey, writers would be well-served to incorporate some basic dating tips into their professional lives. In Ragan, she advises wordsmiths to "order the steak," (remember that people want substance), "avoid 'too much information,'"(don't overwhelm your client--or your reader--by "data dumping"), and "keep your drinks to a minimum" (don't let your writing get sloppy or incoherent). Have you got any good ones to add to McCaffrey's list?

Writing may not be the most physically dangerous profession, but it can take a serious toll on the psyche: just ranked it among "the top 10 professions in which people are most likely to suffer from depression," reports The Guardian. The news is hardly surprising to those of us that are intimately familiar with the "irregular pay and isolation" the job entails, but poet Gwyneth Lewis looks at the grim stats through a different lens. "Given that writers do spend a lot of time on their own, and that the worldly rewards for poetry are minuscule, and given that most of the time you don't know whether what you are doing is any good, it's amazing that writers don't suffer more," she says.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Around the Word

Communication is a tricky balance between "saying it directly," "saying it artfully," and "saying it originally." Today on the BloGG, we're taking lessons on the marriage of style and substance:
  • Certainly, FDR’s speechwriters get to share in the credit for his legendary response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As The Christian Science Monitor points out, though, it was a last-minute presidential edit that helped the speech “define the event for generations.” In an earlier draft, the speech called December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in world history”—an opener made infinitely more powerful by Roosevelt’s historic word swap: the rhetorically-savvy prez “scratched ‘world history’ out with his pen, and printed over it in a spidery hand, the single word ‘infamy.’” 
  • Groupon, the ubiquitous deal-a-day phenomenon that’s probably already in a city near you, prides itself on their snappy copy. Thanks to the company’s leaked (and unverified) style guide, you, too, can have access to what Business Insider calls Groupon’s “secret sauce,” says New York Magazine. According to the style guide, the “Groupon Voice” is defined by “absurd images,” “hypothetical worlds/outcomes,” and “mixed metaphors,” suggesting that it may have limited use to, well, anyone not writing for Groupon. On the other hand, some of their guidelines—mainly the ones about avoiding classic marketing clichés—seem like advice well-taken.
    What do you think? Are you tempted to adopt any of Groupon’s “quirky” tips in your own copywriting?
  • In Johnson, The Economist’s language blogger attempts to parse out the “subtle cues and subtext” of “business English.” Cataloging each turn of phrase by usage, source, and subtext, blogger G.L. reveals a rather unflattering (but not unexpected) portrait of the American workplace. Many of the clichés, among them “going forward,” and “to your point” are ways of reassuring their intended audience that progress is being made—whether or not that’s the case. While we at the BloGG try to avoid Businessese, we admit we've been doing an awful lot of "reaching out" these days. What about you? Does Johnson have your number, or have you managed to buck the trend?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Around the Word

  • The Scarlet Letter? A Scarlet Letter? A Letter That Is Scarlet? Red Letter Days? With Lulu Titlescorer, the self publishing company aims to help authors assess their title’s chances of topping the New York Times bestseller list. On GalleyCat, the folks at Lulu explain that their research team analyzed the title of every hardback fiction bestseller between 1955 and 2004, then compared them to a “control group” of not-so-bestselling titles by the same batch of authors. While Titlescorer’s grammatical analyses can’t account for intangibles (musicality, suitability, timeliness), the program is appealingly scientific—at the very least, it gives authors another outside opinion to consider. Give it a whirl and let us know what you think: useful tool or amusing procrastination device?
  • Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is joining the pack of “presidential candidates and wannabes” churning out pre-election inspirational autobiographies, and according to Minneapolis City Pages, his will bring “some smackdown to the ring.” Turns out T-Paw has hired Mark Dagostino to ghostwrite his upcoming book, Courage to Stand—the same Mark Dagostino who ghosted Hulk Hogan’s 2009 memoir, My Life Outside the Ring.
    Clearly, Pawlenty must have impressed with the writer’s hard-hitting (ha!) prose.

    Monday, December 6, 2010

    Gotham's New Digs

    After much searching, our company has found a new home.  We are now sharing space with Global Strategy Group, one of the country's top political consulting and polling firms, in their beautiful office just north of Union Square.

    Here is our new contact information:
    895 Broadway, 5th Floor
    New York, NY 10003
    212-505-3131 (O)
    212-260-9058 (F)

    If you are in New York, channel your inner Mae West and come up and see us some time.

    Friday, December 3, 2010

    Jon Lovett: Obama Speechwriter, Huffington Impersonator

    November 2 was a tough night for the Dems. No matter, though, because exactly one month later, there's victory. Unfortunately, it's not the legislative kind.

    As of last night, Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett is officially “The Funniest Celebrity in Washington,” taking top honors at the annual beltway laugh-in.* He was bolstered, surely, by his speaking savvy, youthful charm, and mostly-funny TSA jokes, but it was his impressive Arianna Huffington impression that brought the house down and secured his victory over runner up Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.). Check out Lovett’s winning routine here.

    *actually, we hear the crowd was pretty tough.

    Monday, November 29, 2010

    Around the Word

    Today we're honoring the rhetorical greats of years past, but we're also excited about the linguistic lights of the future.
    • Fourscore and seven years ago, Lincoln delivered an address that "flouts the rules for writing a good speech"—which is why it is so powerful, argues speechwriter Hal Gordon. Gordon, who once worked for Colin Powell, joins a handful of PunditWire contributors in reflecting on some of the best rhetoric in American history. Former Bush Administration speechwriter Paul Liben delves into Robert F. Kennedy's April 1968 remarks on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., while Dave Helfert, a veteran Democratic flack, zeroes in on Obama's vision of "A More Perfect Union." What do you think? Who did the pundits overlook—or overrate?
    • And how does your work stack up to the greats? The 2011 Cicero Speechwriting Awards are your chance to find out. Designed to "recognize the work—the sweat and the blood and, with luck, the magic" that goes into penning great speeches, the contest promises winners "broad publicity and public celebration." For submission guidelines, judges' bios, and the texts of winning speeches past, check out the site.
    • The New York Times lights candles for four luminaries of lexicography who passed away this year. Edwin Newman, James J. Kilpatrick, Sol Steinmetz, and Frederick C. Mish were the dictionary dons of the 20th century, earning titles like "lexical supermaven" and "the rex of lex" from William Safire. We wonder how these umpires of usage would have responded to the death of spelling...
    • The Arctic isn't just losing its icecaps—the words used to describe them are also melting away. K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College and author of The Last Speakers, has dedicated himself to protecting the world's fragile linguistic ecosystem, from Siberia to Bolivia. In an interview with The Economist, Harrison describes how the knowledge encoded in a language—such as Yupik's 99 terms for distinct Arctic ice formations—vanishes when the language dies.
    (UPDATE: We corrected a few errors of identification in the Punditwire piece.)

      Wednesday, November 24, 2010

      On First Impressions

      Originally posted on, Gotham friend (and speechwriting pro) Colin Moorhouse advises freelancers and their clients on the art of the first meeting.

      Freelancers: How to win a speechwriting client
      By Colin Moorhouse
      What freelancers and clients should listen for in the first five minutes of a conversation

      If you’re an experienced freelance writer, you know this already: Prospective clients make up their minds about you very quickly—by the sound of your voice over the telephone, and the intelligence of your conversation. You don’t pass muster in that first five minutes, you know there will be no subsequent face-to-face to determine if you fill the bill.

      I can’t help you with the sound of your voice, but you should know that they are listening for beneath-the-surface clues. Can they trust you to put words—the right words—in their or their boss’s mouths?

      As for the conversation, the best way to sound intelligent is to say little. After the introductions are over, just shut up and listen. It is their dime after all, and you really need to hear what they are saying and what they are not. And frankly the more they talk, the more committed to you they become.

      While you’re listening, you can take in other considerations:

      They ask about money right off the bat. That means they don’t have much.

      They have left the job to the last minute and expect you to bail them out of a jam. If you could only do a so-so job in a short time frame, turn it down and explain why. The good ones will appreciate your honesty and professionalism and think of you the next time. The others you don’t need.

      The steepness of the learning curve. Alarm bells should begin to go off if the topic is highly specialized— particularly if the speech is for an internal audience of experts. I was once asked to write a speech for a defense establishment—to be delivered to an audience who specialized in buying—“procuring” I believe was the quaint phrase they used—military equipment. I knew immediately that there would be a lingo of military jargon that I didn’t have a chance of learning, much less understanding, before I would even begin to know the right questions to ask. Pass.

      The biggest deal-killer of all is if the speakers don’t know the message they want to deliver. I am happy to walk them through the matter of messaging. Hell, I will even make one up for them. But unless or until we agree on the message, it’s a no-go.

      Now of course specific messaging is not something you will hammer out in that first five minutes, but it is important that, in the limited amount of talking you allow yourself to do, you let them know that is the first thing you will be broaching when you get down to work.

      Of course, if you happen to be the client doing the calling, flip the perspective.

      In your five minutes you should listen for something else. Does the speechwriter appear to have a pulse? Is there any enthusiasm behind his/her words? I found out how important that was to a CEO client of very large international concern a few years ago. After we decided to do business I asked him why he chose me over two scriptwriters he interviewed.

      Apparently they made him feel like they were doing him a favor by taking on his speech—something to do while waiting for their next (read important) television job. They didn’t say that of course but that was the impression they clearly left. He said that he felt I really liked what I did and that I would bring a similar enthusiasm to what he did. Deal sealed.

      It is not a bad initial litmus test. Speechwriters might be able to fake sincerity over the phone about their mastery of their craft, but not their passion for it. You know they have a track record, or you wouldn’t have called them in the first place. So, if they also love what they do, if they do more listening than talking but are assertive enough to lay down a few ground rules of their own, and if they are likable (no small matter, that) then I would grab them fast.

      You both can talk money in the sixth minute.

      Colin Moorhouse has been winning over clients to his Vancouver-based freelance speechwriting business for many years. He may be reached at

      Tuesday, November 23, 2010

      Around the Word

      Here at the BloGG, we've found some unexpected reasons to be thankful for biographies, eReaders, and Patti Smith's ghostly editor:
      • To pen Just Kids, her National Book Award-winning memoir, rockstar-cum-literary-luminary Patti Smith followed two guiding rules: keep it visual, and keep it direct. "No matter what I remember or what I had," she told Jonathan Letham in an interview last spring, "if I couldn't see what I was writing about as a little movie then I took it away." Her prose also had to pass the Mapplethorpe test. Since her late partner, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, was the impetus for the book—"he asked me to write it on his deathbed," she reports—Smith wrote it with his short attention span in mind. "It couldn't be boring or too digressional or he would just be agitated," she told Letham. You can watch the full interview or read an edited transcript here.
      • Biographies can make good beach reading, but they're more than engaging stories—they're also fertile ground for new ideas, says PR coach Susan Young. At Ragan, Young suggests weathering the brainstorming process by observing other people's lives, whether in person or on the page. Reading a biography of someone you respect and admire can teach you new ways to tackle setbacks and offer fresh insights into old problems. And when you're talking with colleagues and clients, advises Young, maintain a biographer's curiosity: ask about details in their lives, and don't dismiss anything as trivial or boring. Have you found any great ideas lurking in biographies?
      • "I think there's going to be something that happens now, where books move in two directions, one toward digitized formats and one toward remembering what's nice about the physicality of them," says noted Vegetarian of Letters Jonathan Safran Foer on the future of print. Foer's latest project, Tree of Codes, which New York magazine calls "the anti-Kindle," falls staunchly into that second category. Building—literally—from Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles, the Brooklyn author teamed up with British publisher Visual Editions to cut up Schulz's text and form "a latticework of words...a new, much shorter story and a paper sculpture." What do you think—will eReaders usher in an era of art books?

      Monday, November 22, 2010

      Around the Word

      Today the BloGG is traveling around the world and backwards in time to see how writing, reading, and words change—and how they stay the same.
      • Robert E. Lee didn't have Gawker, but if he had, contends historian Adam Goodheart, it might have looked something like this. At Disunion, Goodheart's New York Times blog, he covers the Civil War day by day, describing events and republishing newspaper coverage in daily posts—an exercise as much about media as about history. Like blogs, Goodheart says, the 3,700 newspapers of the era (many of them daily—or even twice-daily!) "rewarded the people who could be the most outrageous." The colorful invective and vivid, grotesque details of battle in those papers appealed to the reader's emotions in a way that seems less Washington Post than Huffington Post. Hear him discuss the project on NPR's On the Media and share your thoughts: has Goodheart made you rethink the War Between the States—or the blogosphere?
      • Lonely Planet invites readers on a whistle-stop tour of the world's greatest bookstores, stopping in at historically, politically, and aesthetically notable shops around the globe. Among their picks? London's Daunt Books, which sorts its volumes by color, Paris's Shakespeare & Co, where stray bohemians sleep among the shelves, and Beijing's Bookworm, which boasts a rare cache of banned books (and a whisky bar). San Francisco's Beat hotspot, City Lights, is the lone U.S. pick. (Though, as the L.A. Times' Jacket Copy blog points out, the City of Angels made the cut when the Guardian did a similar roundup in 2008.) Have you visited any of these bastions of bibliophilia? Are there any bookstores you think should be on the lists?
      • "I wouldn't say that word if I were you—do you know where it's been?" Etymologies seem to matter more than ever now, as neologisms put down roots faster than they can be refudiated. Enter Etymonline, a free online etymology dictionary, compiled and copyedited by home-grown linguist Douglas Harper. Harper created the dictionary because he wanted to use it—and it's kept him busy ever since. Language maven Stan Carey reflects on Harper's project, and digs up an interview with the man himself over at Drunken Koudou. We decided to give Etymonline a spin, and suddenly "let's blog that" takes on a whole new color:

        "Blog": 1998, short for weblog (which is attested from 1994, though not in the sense 'online journal'), from (World Wide) Web + log. Joe Bloggs (c.1969) was British slang for "any hypothetical person" (cf. U.S. equivalent Joe Blow); earlier it meant "a servant boy" in one of the college houses (c.1860, see Partridge, who describes this use as a "perversion of bloke"), and, as a verb, "to defeat" in schoolboy slang.

      Friday, November 19, 2010

      Around the Word

      Everything old is new again: a new site tracks British rhetoric, a new analytics tool tracks who's reading what, and old James Frey is up to some very new tricks.
      • For our speechwriting friends across the pond, there's a new kid on the block: British Political Speech. The site is an ever-expanding online archive of British political orations of all stripes dating back to 1895. Visitors can submit speeches, explore speechwriting resources, and—of course—discuss, analyze, and revel in rhetoric. Hat tip to David Murray of Vital Speeches of the Day for pointing us toward the site.
      • It's the age of exploration for online writing. Scribd, the document-sharing site called the "YouTube for documents," is releasing a kit of analytics tools that will allow writers to track their documents across the web—and the world—with pinpoint accuracy, according to Fast Company. Aside from knowing the number of hits documents are receiving, writers will be able to identify the most magnetic search terms, watch how their documents travel through social networking sites, and locate reading hotspots, both on the web and in the world. There are even infared goggles: a new "heat map" will scroll along the left side of a document, glowing red wherever readers linger, and darkening to blue on portions that readers skip. Using this heat-seeking tool, writers will be able to shape content based on how readers react. The whole kit and caboodle is free for Scribd users, and requires no programming. Would you try it out? Do you think these tools will revolutionize writing, or are there regions even the best technology can't (or shouldn't) access?
      • James Frey, most famous for his controversial not-quite-memoir A Million Little Pieces, has since moved onto bigger and better things. Or at least, bigger things. Specifically, masterminding Full Fathom Five, a 30-person young adult fiction factory designed to supply the YA market with a steady stream of latter-day Harry Potters and Twilights. "A lot of artists conceptualize a work and then collaborate with other artists to produce it," he told a group of Columbia creative writing MFAs. New York magazine investigates the terms of that "collaboration," which include $250 up front, possibly $250 upon completion, and either 30 or 40 percent of all generated revenue. In exchange for the (possibility of) big bucks, writers agree, among other things, to give up control their name and image: the company can "use the writer's name or a pseudonym without his or her permission…[and] substitute the writer's full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future." So what do you say? You ready to sign on?

      Thursday, November 18, 2010

      Around the Word

      Roll out the red carpet: today we've got winners, finalists, and some superlatives in the world of writing.
      • Punk singer Patti Smith rocked the National Book Awards last night by winning the prize in non-fiction for her memoir, Just Kids. As she accepted the award, Smith blessed the beauty of the printed page, pleading—to the world at large?—never to "abandon the book." Both she and non-fiction finalist Megan K. Stack (Every Man in This Village Is a Liar) gave GalleyCat fitness advice: push that pencil! Smith compared writing to exercise, and recommends reading as a cure for writer's block. Stack, an international war correspondent, urges daily journal-writing as a way to tone your scribbling muscles.
      • "Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!" That is, they're all on Wall Street, charges a new book on the financial crisis. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera teamed up with The Smartest Guys in the Room co-author Bethany McLean to heap blame on the vivid (and lurid) characters in those Manhattan boardrooms. The book, All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, has garnered fiendishly good reviews, and won a renegade award from financial columnist Don McNay, who dubbed it the "Best Business Book of the Year" in the Huffington Post. Have any of you peered into the infernal abyss (or picked up the book)? What did you think?

      Wednesday, November 17, 2010

      Around the Word: A Tale to Tell

      This is your brain. This is your brain on stories. For hump-day, the BloGG takes a look at the art and science of narrative.
      • Jay-Z says that his new memoir Decoded "follows the jumpy logic of poetry and emotion"—and so does its marketing campaign. In a nation-wide scavenger hunt, all 306 released pages of the memoir have been "hidden" in major cities around the country, explains The New York Observer. The pages might be found scrawled on the backboard of a basketball hoop, sewn into the silk lining of a Gucci jacket, or printed on the roof of a New Orleans theater, depending on their content. Fans can find clues on a Bing site that logs the discovered pages, and one lucky Jay-Zealot will win lifetime passes to Jay-Z's shows.
      • Once again, science tells us what we already know—we are the stories we tell. The voice in your head that narrates your life ("So-and-so makes you happy," "You are suffering unfairly") actually shows up in PET images of the brain, activating not only the language centers but the comprehension and interpretation areas as well. The mind is hardwired to narrate the self—one reason stories can be so persuasive in ad campaigns and speeches. But how did we get here, and where are we going? Writing in New Scientist, neuroscientist John Bickle and philosophy of science student Sean Keating tell the story of the "narrative self," and consider the effects that fragmented "2.0" digital narratives may have on that inner voice.
      • In a classic tale of the Little Word That Could, the abbrev "O.K." grew from humble origins as a spelling error ("oll korrekt") into an international morpheme of mystery. The Baltimore Sun's John McIntyre sums up the word's journey, based on a new historical account, OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word. In the book, Allan Metcalf of the American Dialect Society chronicles the rise of the little term that now implies everything from "good enough, serviceable" (just OK) to "a mantra of tolerance and acceptance" (you're OK by me). What other quirky words would you like to see biographied?

      Tuesday, November 16, 2010

      Around the Word

      Today's trip around the word discusses the art of persuasion—in politics, in movies, and, more sordidly, for the sake of swindling teachers:
      • Meet "Ed Dante," a self-styled "academic mercenary" who has "attended" three dozen online universities, written everything from legal briefs and lab reports to Ph.D-level papers, and has completed twelve graduate theses—all for other students. Last year he ghosted around 5,000 pages on every topic under the sun, largely for cheaters he classifies as "the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid." In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education (written under an assumed name, like the rest of his work), "Dante" describes his life as a "shadow scholar" operating "from some invisible location far beneath the ivory tower."
      • "Polemics" is almost a four-letter word these days, but the true art of argument has nothing to do with the theatrics on cable television, insists columnist Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal. Far from any "feral opining," Siegel believes true polemics is about patiently absorbing your opponent's rhetoric first—and then meticulously undermining it by pointing out logical gaps where your counter-arguments can flourish. Who are your top polemicists to watch?
      • Sure, we've all seen a blue-faced Mel Gibson rallying Scotland's rebels, but what about speeches by female firebrands? The Eloquent Woman is going to the cinema in search of powerful oratory delivered by women on the silver screen. So far, she's catalogued Samantha's stirring address at the breast cancer benefit on Sex and the City and Norma Rae's iconic one-word speech in Norma Rae. Help populate the list with your own favorite scenes of rousing rhetoric by leading ladies.

      Monday, November 15, 2010

      Around the Word

      We're starting the week with a crash course in communications: Gotham President Dan Gerstein comments on concession speech gaffes, Ragan debates the worth of writing in corporate communications, and the roar of Mama Grizzly goes down in linguistic history.
      • Gotham's on TV: last week, in the wake of the mid-term elections, Fox News asked Dan to comment on concession speech goof-ups and the value of losing gracefully. While Christine O'Donnell's declaration that "We have won!" didn't seem particularly gracious—or even accurate—Dan applauds Linda McMahon's willingness to throw in the towel and congratulate her opponent. Check out the full clip for more analysis of the season's rhetorical winners and losers.
      • "Getting the message across" is the bottom line in corporate communications, but in the modern business world, just how much does literary finesse matter? Ragan's Russell Working referees the scrimmage between the craftsmen and the critics. In the digital age, communications expert Liam FitzPatrick tells Working, companies are looking for "good communications" rather than "great writers." Former journalism school prof Don Ranly, however, disagrees: a company "will look like idiots if there isn't somebody writing decent copy." What do you think—have new media pulled the rug out from under writing?
      • Here's another feather in Sarah Palin's bonnet—neologist of the year. "Refudiate" has been declared the New Oxford American Dictionary's 2010 Word of the Year, edging out "bankster" (a hybrid of banker and gangster), "retweet," and "Tea Party." Not quite identical to its parents "repudiate" and "refute," the infant word means something akin to "reject." CBS news hosts the clip of Palin's first call to "refudiate"—though the word actually made its television debut when John McCain used it on the Letterman Show in 2009.

      Friday, November 12, 2010

      Of Speakers and Sketchballs

      From the podium to the gutter, everyone's talking about speech:
      • Ted Sorensen's "taut, muscular orations" were more than speeches: they were "political theater of the highest order." At Pundit Wire, Ted Widmer explicates the top ten speeches of Sorensen's career to demystify—and show off—the master's rhetorical magic. Among the most notable speeches: Kennedy's underrated but often-quoted address at University of Washington, ("We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient") and his Lincoln-influenced "Farewell to Massachusetts," ("We shall be as a city on a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us").
      • Thanks to Jerry Tarver, retired Professor of Speech Communication and "speechwriting guru-of-guru," Ohio State is now the proud owner of thousands of rhetoric, oratory, and elocution books and manuscripts. The Tarver Collection—housed at the university's Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and focusing on pre-1900 texts—includes all 58 issues of Edgar Werner's Readings and Recitations, lecture notes from and 1837 rhetoric course, and a handful of elocution books in languages other than English. Tarver tells Vital Speeches that the institution "has my total respect for its willingness to preserve, along with obviously important literary material, items that tell us something about the byways of our culture." Plus, he notes, "it's a hoot getting all this together."
      • "Slang has always served as a secret language, in one way or another; one meant to exclude parents or dweebs, to shun outsiders or tag criminals," writes The Book Bench's Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn. But while new insider terms for unwanted outsiders—think "creeper," "rando," and "sketchball"—are popping on college campuses, such coded language has an equally rich (or richer) history less savory circles. Foley-Mendelssohn takes a tour through the linguistic underbelly courtesy of The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699, (original title: A Dictionary of Beggars and Gypsies Cant).

      Thursday, November 11, 2010

      What We're Reading

      From books to speeches to breaking reportage, many of our ghosts are penning pieces under their own names. A few of our Gotham friends passed along word of their latest publications:

      In Miller-McCune, Richard Korman reflects on the changing landscape of the American Family, his own divorce—and what he wishes he could tell the newly-single Tiger Woods.

      At, Brooke C. Stoddard digs into Ben Franklin's lesser-known military history. The Founding Father may be best remembered for his diplomacy, his inventions, and his role in the writing of a certain Declaration, says Stoddard, but we shouldn't forget his stint in the French and Indian War.

      Meanwhile, Rena Silverman recalls her moment as an accidental artist's model in BlackBook. Posing for famed photographer Gregory Crewdson, she writes, was about becoming "a hologram of Crewdson's brain."

      Keep the good news—and the good reads—coming!

      Tuesday, November 9, 2010

      Around the Word

      Today is the BloGG's history lesson, with a look at presidential memoirs and a speech that was never delivered (plus a fieldtrip to bibliophile heaven in L.A.)

      Former President George W. Bush's Decision Points hits bookstores today, inspiring The Daily Beast's Josh Robinson to take a walk down presidential memoir-y lane. The genre saw its first commercial success when Mark Twain founded a firm dedicated to publishing Ulysses S. Grant's wildly popular memoir. However, the practice only picked up in earnest after WWII, when presidents also began collecting their papers in personal libraries for the sake of future historians. Since then, most Commander-in-Chief chronicles have been considered dull at best, self-serving at worst. In recent memory, Clinton's My Life (which he wrote himself, prompted by interview sessions with historian Ted Widmer) is among only a handful of bestsellers.
      How will Bush's fare? While Michiko Kakutani notes that the book "gives the reader an uncanny sense of how personality...can affect policies that affect the world," the verdict is still out on how the marketplace—and the American public—will respond. If you've already picked up a copy of Decision Points, what are your impressions?

      In 1969, as the world waited for Apollo 11 to land safely on the moon, President Nixon's speechwriter William Safire imagined Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming stranded there. He wrote a preemptive—and thankfully unused—memorial speech honoring the astronauts "mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown." For an eerie voyage into counterfactual history, read the transcript on the Letters of Note blog.
      When it comes to imagining the worst, though, Safire's got nothing on the British. One of the Prime Minister's official duties is to compose the Letter of Last Resort—commands given to a nuclear submarine in case the entire British chain of command is wiped out in a nuclear attack. The letters are locked in a safe within a safe within a submarine, and are destroyed, unread, with each outgoing PM. The Daily Mail imagines the experience of writing the letter, while journalist Ron Rosenbaum discusses the custom on This American Life.

      Dispatch from Lalaland: former director of the Big Read David Kipen is on a mission to free books from the shackles of attics and storage rooms. His new store Libros Schmibros in L.A. sells books for around $1 and lends them for free, with a due date determined by the book's difficulty and length. Interviewed by the L.A. Times, the ardent literacy advocate invites visitors to come during business hours or by "rapping on the glass." How will he stay afloat? Well, he explains, he's resisted the "siren song of solvency" so far because he takes joy in releasing books into the world: "These are books that had been in captivity, in a storage kit in Agoura Hills, in some cases getting nibbled on by termites," said Kipen. "And I wanted to let 'em out and walk around a little, to go into the neighborhood and maybe bring back stories."

      Monday, November 8, 2010

      Around the Word

      Monday, schmonday! Allison Wood turns personal weaknesses into public speaking strengths, Mark Peters celebrates the joy of Yiddish, and the Oxford University Press wants YOU! (to save endangered words)
      • Nobody's perfect—but you can spin those character flaws into speechwriting gold, advises executive communications expert Allison Wood. In Vital Speeches of the Day, Wood shares her own sad story: she's too sensitive, is nosy and a worry wart, and can't make up her mind. Enter Rumpelstiltskin: Wood's thin skin helps her empathize with the audience and internalize their responses. Her busybody curiosity picks up tiny details about her client that strengthen their partnership. "What-iffing" and flip-flopping allow her to anticipate weaknesses and counterarguments. Have any of your quirks served you well on the dais?
      • "Keep your schnozz away from schmucks and spare me the spiel." Even if your bubbe never gave you an earful of Yinglish, you probably get the picture. The Yiddish "schm" has been schmeared all over English, to the delight of Good language columnist Mark Peters. The acidic, lip-puckering sound raises vivid pictures of unsavory schmucks and schmos and shmutz. The sound is so closely linked to insults that it has become "a Swiss army knife-like, one-size-fits all diminisher," Peters remarks.
      • Even as new words tumble into the OED with astounding celerity, the senescence of older, obscure words has alarmed linguistic conservationists. But fear not! Now, through, you can rescue old, superannuated words. The Guardian explains how to "adopt a word" on the site, which is run by a Malaysian subsidiary of the Oxford University Press. Register for free, choose from among 450 endangered words, and use it in casual conversation. You, too, can save English from spoliation!

      Thursday, November 4, 2010

      Around the Word: Post-Election Edition

      As pundits parse the political implications of Tuesday's midterm elections, some of our favorite metamedia outlets review the grammatical, lexical, and—yes—orthographical fallout.
      • President Obama may or may not have reinvigorated the Democratic Party, but judging by the response to his speech yesterday, he's definitely breathed new life into an old word. Reflecting on Tuesday's humbling results, he acknowledged he'd taken a voter "shellacking." Wait—shellacking? On his DCBlog, linguist David Crystal traces the history of the word, from is origins as "a resin or varnish" to the "thrashing, beating" Obama received at the polls.
      • While cliches may have their place (and, judging from the CJR's roundup of "midterm metaphor madness," that place seems to be election headlines), don't let them infiltrate your NaNoWriMo manuscript, says GalleyCat. With Cliche Finder, a searchable index of more than 3,300 tired phrases, you can determine once and for all if that coinage is really yours—or yours and everyone else's.
      • At Slate, Jon Lackman explicates the Tea Party's enthusiastic use of mid-sentence capitalization. "The point," he writes, "is to hark back to better times, to establish your politics as more authentically American, and to associate yourself with the Founding Fathers." Makes sense, except that, as Lackman goes on to note, "their orthography imitates not Thomas Jefferson and James Madison but the far-less famous Timothy Matlack and Jacob Shallus—a couple of secretaries."

      Wednesday, November 3, 2010

      Featured Writer: Ben Greenman

      This is the latest in a series of posts highlighting the work of our Gotham friends

       With Celebrity Chekhov, author Ben Greenman jolts the Good Doctor's short stories from the Russian past into the E! True Hollywood present—the tales are the same, but instead of Anna Sergeyevna and Ivan Andreitch, we've got Oprah Winfrey, Lindsay Lohan, Jay-Z, and David Letterman. For Greenman, the book is as much about reading contemporary culture as it is about reading Chekhov. Part of the project, he says, is "to restore depth to contemporary celebrities." And it's true: transported into Chekhov's melancholy landscape (it looks a lot like the Hamptons), Alec Baldwin's malaise is downright lyrical.
      If Greenman is interested in rescuing celebrities from their US Weekly caricatures, it's hardly a surprise. After all, in addition to being a New Yorker editor, novelist, essayist, and Chekhov aficionado, he's an accomplished ghostwriter and the pen behind Gene Simmons's Kiss and Make Up and Simon Cowell's I Don't Mean To Be Rude, But.... Yesterday, Greenman took a minute to chat with the BloGG about the ins and outs of ghosting with the stars. The interview follows after the jump.

      Tuesday, November 2, 2010

      In Memory: Ted Sorensen

      The speechwriting community mourns the passing of a towering icon. Ted Sorensen, JFK's speechwriter, ghostwriter, and "intellectual alter ego" died Sunday at age 82. Sorensen, who penned much of Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage, became a close confidant and adviser to the future President during three years on the grueling campaign trail. In JFK's circle, he stood second only to Robert Kennedy (the pair were instrumental in diffusing the Cuban Missile Crisis, drafting a letter to Nikita Khrushchev that Sorensen counted among his greatest accomplishments). In the popular record, though, Sorensen is remembered most reverently as the speechwriter of JFK's 1961 era-defining inaugural address. Famously modest, he swore that the President's legendary challenge to "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country" was Kennedy's coinage, but there's no doubting that Sorensen had a hand in his eloquence.

      We've culled a few memorials and interviews from the sea of media honoring of the "poet of Camelot." What memories, tributes, or thoughts would you like to share about Sorensen?
      • The Washington Post remembers Sorensen's profound influence on JFK and The New York Times offers a tribute to the wordsmith of the White House, including a video obituary with clips from an interview with Sorensen.
      • Time, which admired the "sober, deadly earnest, self-effacing man with a blue steel brain" in 1960, highlights Sorensen's career from before and after Kennedy's thousand days in the White House.
      • In a snapshot view, the L.A. Times's brief but trenchant obit reminds us that Sorensen's well-wrought phrases derived power from his deep understanding of JFK's ideas and personality.
      • Former presidential speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, James Fallows, reminisces in The Atlantic about Sorensen's modesty and gallantry.
      • WNYC's website hosts past radio interviews with Sorensen from 1963 (in which he broke his silence on Vietnam) and 2008 (in which he explained why he felt that he owed history a personal memoir to complement his opus, Kennedy.)
      • Ragan CEO Mark Ragan interviewed Sorensen in 2008. In the video, Sorensen discusses the qualities that make a great speechwriter, pithily summarizes the speaking styles of politicians including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and recites what he calls the "model English sentence" from Churchill's speech after the battle of Dunkirk in WWII: "The news from France is very bad."

      Monday, November 1, 2010

      Around the Word

      Today on the BloGG, science supports the savvy typist's hunch, Cory Doctorow self-publishes, and Bob Lehrman sings the praises of healthy online debate.
      • When it comes to typos, your fingers are your third eye, suggests a recent study by psychologists at Vanderbilt University. Attempting to "tease apart the various ways people catch their own mistakes," researchers engineered a computer program—essentially a doctored typing test—to surreptitiously correct some typos made by the subjects while secretly inserting others. Wired Science reports that while the typists couldn't consciously tell their real errors from the computer-induced ones, their bodies could sense the mistakes. After hitting a wrong key, the subjects' fingers slowed going into the next keystroke—even if the computer automatically corrected the word on screen.
      • It takes a village to self-publish a book—that's one take-away from best-selling science fiction writer Cory Doctorow's experiment in self-publication. Pulling every string in his social media network, Doctorow is building buzz around his collection of stories, With a Little Help, and has already made $10,000...and the book isn't even out yet. Doctorow describes his business model on NPR's All Things Considered. You can read an excerpt from the book here. Do his guerrilla publishing tactics inspire you to eschew Random House for the control—and potential rewards—of self-publishing? And if you're already in Doctorow's self-published company, how did you market your work?
      • Earlier this month, we blogged in support of PunditWire co-founder Bob Lehrman's bid to be the Washington Post's "Next Great American Pundit." He made it all the way to the top ten before getting cut in the third round. As the final three wannabe-WaPosters out-opine each other for a chance at the gig, Lehrman reflects on his stint in the contest—and the nature of online discourse.
      • Add "natural editor," to the list of Keith Richards's gifts. In The Daily Beast, Life's ghostwriter James Fox debriefs on working with the star. "We sat down at a table with the manuscript, and I read the whole thing [aloud]....There is a musical rhythm to his prose, dots and dashes and that kind of stuff....He cut according to the sound of it." Capturing the figurative music of Richards's voice was just one of the project's challenges—there was also Richards's literal music to contend with. "I remember our first negotiations," recalls Fox. "I said, 'Keith, we're going to have a slight problem if the music's this loud.' And he said, 'Well, that's kind of too bad.'"

      Thursday, October 28, 2010

      Around the Word

      Today, the BloGG is all business:
      • The economic earthquake still rages, according to 2010's Business Book of the Year, Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy by Raghuram Rajan. A professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a former IMF official, Rajan rose to economic stardom playing "Crisis Cassandra" in the Greek Tragedy of global finance—he predicted the current economic crisis way back in 2005. Other finalists for the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book award for "the most compelling and enjoyable insight into modern business issues" included The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick and Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin.
      •  Followers of Mad Men exec Roger Sterling's Twitter feed can get even closer to the appealing (and appalling) hedonist with his upcoming "memoir." With chapters on "Clients," "Women," and "Drinking," Sterling's Gold joins an illustrious line of fiction-inspired "non-fiction" (see also: Harry Potter's wizarding textbooks). We wonder—what must it feel like to ghostwrite the fictional memoir of someone who doesn't exist?
      •  The gallant guardian of grammar John McIntyre presides over a puzzling question today in The Baltimore Sun:

        "Mary Smith is one of the librarians who oppose(s)? the contract."

        McIntyre explains that the "s" makes all the difference. If "oppose" is kept singular, then Mary is singled out among librarians as an opponent of the contract (which her compeers may support or oppose). However, removing the "s" integrates Mary into the pool of librarians, who are now united in agreement. The "s" is the railroad switch in the sentence—small but instrumental.

      Wednesday, October 27, 2010

      Around the Word

      We've got ghostwriters, mythbusters, and an antidote to WiFi withdrawal today:
      • Celebrity ghostwriters get their time in the limelight: CNN Entertainment interviewed Wendy Leigh (who ghostwrote for Zsa Zsa Gabor and Madonna's brother Christopher Ciccone) and Jon Warech (who wrote with Kendra Wilkinson and Jodie Sweetin) about the tight-rope act that is ghosting. On the one hand, you're coaxing candid tales from your subject; on the other, you're avoiding potential mine fields. Leigh sums up the relationship as "part psychoanalyst, part best friend, part lion tamer, part interviewer and part nanny." Have Gotham's celebrity ghosts gathered any tales from the trenches?
      • Public speaking blogger Olivia Mitchell has some contrarian counsel for presenters bombarded by tips, hints, and pointers. In Ragan, she argues that golden ratios like "your message is 7% what you say, 38% the tone of your voice, and 55% body language" are just trumped-up ways of delivering the axiomatic advice: "Content and delivery matter." Mitchell also debunks popular advice about adapting your presentation to the "learning styles" of your audience and challenges the commandment to seize people's attention from the start. After all, she points out, seizing is easy—it's keeping their focus that's tough. After so many BloGG posts about speaking strategies, we turn to you—what's your take? Do you swear by these rules, or are Mitchell's counterclaims refreshing?
      • Those long WiFiless commutes call for inexhaustible reading material—a call answered by the joys of Instapaper, an app for storing and perusing articles on an offline reader. Now, can help you stock your subway-tunnel library. An offshoot from the @longreads Twitter feed, the site archives thousands of articles that have been tagged as "longreads" by the Twitter feed's over 7,000 followers. Some periodicals—including The Atlantic, Esquire, and Vanity Fair—are starting to get wise and tag their own articles as "longreads" as well. Longreads founder Mark Arms says the site is teaching media organs how to organize articles for more transparent online access.

      Tuesday, October 26, 2010

      Around the Word

      Today we're mixing private and public with two much-anticipated memoirs and a handful of public speaking pointers.
      • Rolling Stones guitarist, renegade rock legend, fame-shy former dope addict—in a word, Keith Richards is a storied figure. Now he's bringing his adventures with the "pirate nation" of the Stones to Life, his memoir released today. The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani raves over the "electrifying" book that speaks in a voice "earnest and wicked, sweet and sarcastic and unsparing," painting a searing picture of rock'n'roll's coming of age and of Richards's years parrying unmanageable fame with addiction. The book, co-written by veteran journalist James Fox, is also available as an audiobook narrated by Johnny Depp, while the Apple iBook version includes a Google Maps function for tracing Richards's peregrinations.
      • Former President George W. Bush is capping off White House memoir month—inaugurated by Condoleeza Rice's Extraordinary, Ordinary People earlier in October—with his book Decision Points. As the former president gears up for the release in a few weeks, he'll be giving interviews to Oprah Winfrey and "The Today Show" host Matt Lauer. We're guessing we speak for everyone involved when we hope that the American public will show more decorum than the egg-lobbing Brits who greeted Tony Blair's first book signing for his memoir.
      • Every public speaker has a lot to remember on the rostrum: who to thank, the key points, who your audience is, where to place emphasis or pauses—oh and did you remember to breathe? The Eloquent Woman has a few tips for the things her readers say are the first to slip their minds when they step up to the mic. Among her hints? If you forget to make eye contact or speak slowly, try jotting down cues after each paragraph, and don't be afraid to use notes—or even a Kindle—to remember names or central points. And smile! Smiling releases chemicals that calm you down, and will put your audience at ease. What's your cure for audience-induced amnesia?
      • Meanwhile, public speaking guru and Trust Me author Nick Morgan promises that a great speech is closer than you think. In his new eBook, released by New Word City, Morgan guides readers through 7 Steps to a Great Speech, removing the stumbling-blocks of anxiety and stress. What's more, he offers to clear a path to the golden land—a standing ovation.
      • Arizona's Bookmans bookstore is making the Literary Domino Effect—the more you read, the more you want to read—literal. GalleyCat hosts the exhilarating promo video here.

      Monday, October 25, 2010

      Around the Word

      From old-school rhetorical techniques to new software innovations, we're starting off the week with a roundup of tools that can help you communicate better:

      As a public speaker, every aspect of your presentation sends a message—down to the shape of your vowels and consonants. In the New York Times, Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert discusses our unconscious reactions to numbers and sounds, such as the round b that makes those greenback "bucks" sound so desirable, or the fricatives (such as the slithery s) that make a "hiss" or a "whisper" sound small. Gilbert cites a recent study in which volunteers were shown ads for ice cream priced at $7.22 and $7.66—an obvious choice, until the customers were asked to say the prices aloud (or even repeat them mentally). The "silky" fricatives of "sixty-six" appealed to consumers more—44 cents more—than the "rattling" t's of "twenty-two," Gilbert notes. What's more, the effects correspond in other languages.
      For some subliminal message management, public speakers might try plying those stops (b, d, t) or back vowels (the /u/ in "goose") to convey the "bigness" of their topic, while relegating opposition to the front vowels (long a, e, i) and fricatives like f, s, and z. Have you uncovered any other word-voodoo recently?

      App attack! From monitoring your output to tracking your research to—yes—typing in your own script, the (new) adage proves true: there IS an app for that. Here are a few digital tools that came to our attention this weekend.
      • Thou Shalt Wright Every Day, goes the age-old commandment. A new app,, aims to help you keep the covenant by providing a platform for composing one page of text each day. Simply sign into the "web typewriter" with your Google or Twitter account—no registration necessary—and write. Proclaims the website, "You are free from the tyranny of the infinite page." The app might be a helpmate for prospective novelists looking to write their opus for November's National Novel Writing Month. Go forth and be prolific!
      • Scrivener, a program produced by Literature & Latte, is designed to aid writers in composing and organizing long-form or research-heavy projects. Tack your notes to a virtual corkboard or track themes and sources through the program's interface. Unfortunately, it's Mac-exclusive for now; read the New York Times review here.
      • Do you miss the intimacy of handwritten notes? (Do you even remember what your handwriting looks like?) Geek Sugar reports on Pilot, an app that lets you type in your own handwriting by uploading samples via webcam. The app processes each letter and can stitch together an elegant cursive script.

      Some reviews require nuance. Others books, GalleyCat points out, can be summed up in a single zinger. At Jezebel, a well-crafted headline tells us everything we need to know about "Jersey Shore" star Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino's upcoming release—it's "The Literary Equivalent Of An Ed Hardy Tee." Lest you remain unconvinced, the bemused review offers this Situation-issued wisdom: "No matter what T-shirt you select, whether it's fitted, graphic, sequined, bedazzled, crew-neck, deep-V, wifebeater, or what-have-you, it's about being proud of who you are."

      Friday, October 22, 2010

      Knucklerap Corner: Where a Red Hand is the Mark of an Improved Mind

      Lauren's back, and she's combing the culture for grammar gaffes:

      The Corrections
      By Lauren Weiner

      Page 52 of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen:

      "There were fifty thousand students at the U., but probably less than five hundred of them (not counting former players and friends or family of current players) considered women's athletic events a viable entertainment option."

      It should be "fewer than five hundred" not "less than five hundred." Granted, this sentence occurs in a section that is supposed to come from the diary of Patty Berglund. Was the error put in deliberately by Patty's creator, Mr. Franzen, as a clue to what she is like? Possibly, but we do not think so. Patty's mode of expression is so little distinguishable from the voice that narrates the other parts of the novel that we consider the diary device to be a rather large flaw in an otherwise accomplished work. We charge the error to Mr. Franzen himself.

      Page 503 of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen:

      "He exhibited no trace of a sense of responsibility, but also, therefore, neither defensiveness nor resentment."

      A bit wordy. How about streamlining: "He exhibited no trace of a sense of responsibility, and therefore no defensiveness or resentment."

      Disclaimer: We offer these corrections mindful of their utter puniness yet confident that the novelist welcomes our vigilance. His own vigilance was demonstrated in a recent newspaper item: It said Mr. Franzen was in England, where he discovered that his U.K. readers had a version of Freedom that was not the final proof. He asked them to discard the draft that someone at the publishing house had mistakenly released over there. A cock-up of such major proportions deserves a rap on the knuckles. Make that two raps, extra hard, one on each hand. Blimey.

      #   #   #

      Dangle Alley, Where This Time Only David Rakoff Roams, August 3, 2010. "After describing them to a sculptor friend, she showed up the next day with a small plastic container of powdered graphite and two solid Koh-i-Noor graphite sticks."

      The "she" following the comma is the sculptor friend. There would be nothing to take issue with if Mr. Rakoff had written: "After I described them to a sculptor friend, she showed up the next day." Instead, the opening clause modifies the describer without that describer (Mr. Rakoff) being named. The clause is left dangling., July 9, 2009. "Unlike Borat's evident naiveté, with his cheap suit and wide-eyed wonder at American plenty, unfamiliar with the felicities of monied, first-world civilization, Brüno, a successful Austrian talk-show host, cuts a figure of slippery, continental media-savviness."

      We are supposed to see Brüno as unlike Borat. Yet Mr. Rakoff wades into the contrast with a grammatical discontinuity: Brüno is being put up against, not Borat, but "Borat's evident naiveté.", August 3, 2010. "Much like those of an athletic bent who are constantly succumbing to, or having to resist, the impulse to turn everything into a ball (or so I assume. I have never been moved to use a ball even as a ball), if you make things, all objects house the potential to be turned into something else." 

      Here Mr. Rakoff is comparing rather than contrasting. But, as in the Borat/Brüno example, the two elements are not presented in a strictly parallel way. The initial formulation dangles. (The period in the middle of that parenthetical was no good, either.)

      #   #   #

      Washington Post, August 13, 2010. Charles Krauthammer: "A mosque really seeking to build bridges, Rauf's ostensible hope for the structure, would accept the offer."

      A mosque is in no position to accept (or reject) an offer. It is inanimate.

      Baltimore Sun, October 2, 2010. Photo caption on the front page: "Nitrell Cotton, a first-grader at Lockerman Bundy Elementary, carries a cello that's bigger than him down the hall at his school."

      The instrument is bigger than he is. If you want to shorten it: "bigger than he." People have come to consider this highfalutin but that's no reason to elbow it aside in favor of bad English.

      Washington Post, August 3, 2010. Rajiv Chandrasekaran: "Commanders are wrestling with the option of razing some fields to remove the bombs, which would eliminate many farmers' livelihoods, or assume more risk by leaving the crops untouched."

      Parallelism error. "Razing some fields" should be followed by "assuming more risk by leaving" the crops alone.

      From the same Rajiv Chandrasekaran article: "A recent effort by Karzai's local-governance directorate to fill 300 civil service jobs in Kandahar and the surrounding district turned up four qualified applicants, even after the agency dropped its application standards to remove a high school diploma, according to several U.S. officials."

      To make it less awkward, he could have said: "even after the agency dropped the requirement that applicants have a high school diploma."

      New York Times, October 10, 2010. Anne Barnard and Alan Feuer: "Even some of her former right-wing allies say she has gone too far."

      They are still right-wing; they just aren't allies of hers (Pamela Geller's) any longer. Syntax error.

      Knucklerap archive:
      June 2010
      February 2010
      August 2009
      May 2009

      Weiner, a Gotham team member, is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.

      Thursday, October 21, 2010

      Around the Word

      Today's tips on speechwriting tact and de-cluttering your prose can help you get your message across in one piece:
      • Veterans of the podium know that the risk of projectiles—shoes, books, or booing—can spike when speaking to an audience that doesn't share your stance. Public speaking expert Nick Morgan advises using rhetoric to disarm your opponents, preferably before you have to duck. Start your speech by sketching out the contentious issue, then venture into the opposite camp and consider their point of view fairly and respectfully. Crossing the battle lines tells your audience that you're listening to them—and that they don't need to throw things to get your attention.  Alas, no tips for navigating those pesky situations where you find yourself on a discussion panel with your enraged ex...
      • Hal Gordon, former speechwriter for the Reagan White House, examines the diplomatic tact of British Ambassador Sir Nigel Sheinwald's talk in Houston last week. Writing for PunditWire, Gordon praises Sir Nigel's flurry of engaging facts and the compelling tone with which he conveyed the meat of his message and let the audience know how much it mattered to him.
      • Writers are often tempted by a fragrant, steaming, heaped-up plate of—adjectives. They inject variegated vividness, right? Or maybe they're just plain pests. Arch-wit Alexander McCall Smith, author of the bestselling No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, crusades for concision in the Wall Street Journal. He points out that people don't generally think in adjectives, and argues that "writing which one cannot actually think can very easily look wrong on the page." Even more vitally, adjectives crowd out the reader's own imagination by layering the paint on too thickly. Elizabeth Bishop knew that an artist can create "tiny cows, / two brushstrokes each, but confidently cows"—cutting adjectives lets the scene speak for itself.
      • There's no Oscar for best-punctuated film, but Slate's Nathan Heller might start hassling the Academy to instate one. Looking back at the collected titles of Woody Allen, Heller celebrates the grammatical vigilance of What's Up, Tiger Lily? and Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* / *But Were Afraid To Ask, but is less pleased with the auteur's newer releases. What happens when we get to Everyone Says I Love You, the befuddling Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or Allen's latest You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger? Let's just say the comma goes kaput.

      Tuesday, October 19, 2010

      Three Keys to a Great Speech

      We had the good fortune to hear our favorite speechwriting community guru, Vital Speeches of the Day editor David Murray, give a dynamite presentation on the elements of great speechwriting at last week's New York Speechwriters Roundtable meeting. It would be hard to do justice to David's "speechwriting jam" here, given the mix of poignant and hilarious videos he weaved into his talk. But we still thought it was worth sharing some highlights of his expert advice on the three key common components of a vital speech: an attention-grabbing opener, a clear intent to communicate, and an undeniable authenticity.

      OPENING: The first minute of a speech is the time to wake your audience's imagination up. Start with a strong image or anecdote that will absorb listeners into the drama of your topic. As an example, David quoted a speech from March 2010 on the Communications Act—not, perhaps, the most riveting subject. Verizon VP Thomas Tauke opens by building an image of the crazy Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, taking the audience down "doors and stairways that lead nowhere" until, as David said, "we're all in that house and we're clamoring for it to be fixed and made rational." Tauke then compares the Mystery House to the state of communications, and the speech takes off from there. Start boldly—thanking the caterer is the perfect way to say, "My message can wait."

      INTENT: The opening is the first step in conveying your intent to communicate. In an era crammed with symbolic statements that preach to the choir, the intent to communicate a simple, fresh, meaningful idea is often lost. Great speeches, David argued, occur when the speaker "really, really wants to get something out of his head into the heads of the audience." While many speeches are meant to be symbolic or convey accepted information, a compelling speech is only born from the need to share a message or an idea, no matter how basic. This may mean seeking out the enemy or taking a message public, rather than staying cooped up with insiders or supporters. Corporate speechwriters working with dry, straightforward material can stir up the client's natural enthusiasm by finding something that matters to him or her. Write from the intersection of the speaker's work and something he or she cares about.

      AUTHENTICITY: Keeping it real is perhaps the most daunting and slippery aspect to keeping control of your audience. How do you convince your listeners, including those who feel like they have heard it all before, that you mean what you say? One way is to cry, as University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow did following a dispiriting loss, where there was no mistaking his vulnerability. Another is to meet a tragic moment with the kind of sincere eloquence that President George W. Bush displayed in his response to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Sometimes even monotone talks by the least charismatic figures can move and persuade listeners if the speaker conveys an urgent and unpretentious devotion to an issue. One of David's longest clips came from a 1969 hearing about a federal grant for National Public Broadcasting's childhood programming, which President Nixon wanted to slash. Anxiously leaning forward in his seat and speaking with halting slowness, Fred Rogers—the lovable sweater-vested host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—explained to the judge why his program could change a child's life. After listening to Rogers recite the lyrics to a song he had written for the show, the judge shook his head in wonder and said, "Looks like you just earned the twenty million dollars."

      We turn to our speechwriting community—what other elements do you believe great speeches share? What are your favorite examples of an imaginative opening or a display of candor and authenticity?

      Thursday, October 14, 2010

      Around the Word

      Today we're looking at ordeals and book deals from around the world:
      • The last of 33 trapped Chilean miners stepped into open air yesterday night—and into the glare of an international media frenzy. Television, book, and movie deals are flooding their way, with talk of $20,000 offers for the first TV interview, and the "purchase price" of movie rights estimated at up to $500,000, reports Bloomberg Businessweek. The men received counseling and video lessons on interview techniques and posture while still underground, but the wattage of their instant celebrity—and the gloom when it fades—could be traumatizing, according to an intriguing analysis in the Telegraph. Meanwhile, the competition to record the Chileans' stories is fierce, observes Crain's Business. Guardian reporter Jonathan Franklin has already sold rights to his book 33 Men, Buried Alive, scheduled for release in early 2011, and Times reporter Alexei Barrionuevo is angling to publish on the aftermath of the miners' newfound heroic status.
      • Nonfiction writers get their slice of the award season pie. The finalists for the National Book Award—in the wake of the Nobel and Man Booker Prize—were announced yesterday morning. Among the nonfiction notables are singer-songwriter Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids, and Times reporter Megan Stack's tales of being a war correspondent in the Middle East. Have you read any of the finalists? What are your thoughts?
      • Welcome to Grammar-Land, where rich Mr. Noun debates declension with his friend Pronoun, and Doctor Syntax cures grammatical maladies. The Book Bench takes a romp through the world of busy Dr. Verb, the tiresome Interjection, and others in Grammar-Land: Grammar in Fun for the Children of Schoolroom-shire. The book, first published in the 1880s, has been released this week in facsimile edition by the British Library. Attend Mr. Adjective's trial for stealing from Mr. Noun (who owned "beauty" before sly Mr. Adjective added "ful"), and hear Dr. Verb sing "Conjugation," a song with three "verses"—past, present, and future tense.
      • Books are going paperless, suggest the August 2010 book sales stats released by the Association of American Publishers. GalleyCat reproduces the AAP's findings, noting that adult hardcover sales dropped 24.4% compared with August 2009, while eBook sales saw an increase of 172% in the same period. eBooks now comprise roughly 9% of trade book sales. It's no surprise, then, that Harvard hosted a talk this month on the possibility of creating a National Digital Library.
      • Waltzing writers? Capering columnists? Scribblers sashaying? Sure, if GalleyCat has anything to say about it. Next week, they're launching a Facebook campaign to put an illustrious ink-slinger on Dancing with the Stars. Self-proclaimed "midlife author" Claire Cook and Kathy L. Patrick, founder of the Beauty and the Book bookclub, are leading (but David Sedaris could make a come-back!) Add your vote on GalleyCat's Facebook page.