January 2012

National Handwriting Day: Enhance Your Brainpower and Creativity

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As we celebrate National Handwriting Day (January 23rd), have you ever thought why it might be a good idea to write some of your book by hand? More to the point, how the act of doing so has all sorts of advantages: like boosting your memory, enhancing your ability to learn, and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s?

Last year when I wrote about this topic, my focus was on the many successful writers of books and screenplays who use pen and paper to capture their first, sometimes even their second, third, or fourth drafts. (BTW: If you mistakenly think that good writers express themselves perfectly first time, read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird on “shitty first drafts.” Honestly — if you think writing is easy and the first thing out of your head is good enough, you’re kidding yourself and likely exposing your readers to drivel.)

Writer/directors John Lee Hancock (The Alamo; The Blindside), John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Charlie’s Angels I and II), and Randy Wallace (Braveheart; Secretariat) have said that writing longhand first feels more organic and real to them. And according to British actor Emma Thompson, winner of an Oscar, Golden Globe and Writer’s Guild Award for the screenplay she adapted of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (among many other writing and acting successes):

I have no problem editing on the computer, but I can’t write write on it.

In British newspaper The Guardian, author Lee Rourke confided that he, and many other professional writers, take pleasure in composing their prose in notebooks first. Maybe it’s because we’re just paper and pen fetishists? My loves include those glorious, orange Rhodia webnotebooks that I’ve filled over the years (handy when I want to find something quickly) and a gliding uniball pen that my former employer introduced me to and I’ve been obsessed with using ever since!

Numerous books, including Hamlet’s Blackberry and The Shallows outline how different parts of the brain are switched on when using computers, compared to writing by hand. And in his article The Phenomenology (aka “personal experience”) of Writing by Hand,  Daniel Chandler distinguishes between Planners who “tend to think of writing primarily as a means of recording or communicating ideas which they already have clear in their minds,” and Discoverers, for whom writing is typically “a way of discovering what they want to say.”

I don’t know about you, but depending on what I’m writing, and the stage at which I’m at with my work, I’m a blend of both.

Before looking at some of the broader benefits that composing work by hand has for our brains, here are four possible explanations for why many of us feel that the quality of our work is enhanced:

  • Working on a screen keeps you, literally, at arm’s length from your words; it’s like they’re not really part of you. According to Daniel Chandler, “There may even be a feeling of (your) being an extension of the tool” rather than having an experience of using a pen that is an extension of you.
  • Inexperienced writers may think they know what they want to say beforehand, but having read many  incomprehensible first drafts, it’s obvious that most are not clear about what’s in their minds before spewing words onto the screen. Being clear involves thinking for an extended period of time about your topic and holding those deliberations in some sort of logical order. Few people are really good at doing that, which is why it helps to write those thoughts down first.
  • The speeded up and separated experience of writing on the computer makes you less likely to take the time to search for the exact word, or the more compelling sentence. For example, writer/director John August shared that the slower action of writing by hand encouraged him to “look for exact words that convey the sense” of what he wants to say. Choosing the right word with care, and re-evaluating phrases and sentences is the hallmark of more accomplished writers.
  • Ironically, those of us who write with pen and paper are more inclined to revise our work. Just think about your emails or social site posts and how frequently they are misunderstood because you’ve typed words directly on to the screen with little or no editing.

What I hadn’t realized until recently, though, was how much of an impact writing by hand has on the brain. In a recent TV segment entitled Longevity Boosters, Dr Oz pointed out that using pen and paper gives the brain a workout that not only helps improve memory, but could reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s.

Children who are taught to print out letters by hand, compared with those who do so on the computer, have been found by researchers — using fMRI technology that measures blood activity in the brain — to show enhanced neural activity. They’re able to visually recognize letters and other visual shapes faster. Encouraging children to write letters out by hand may also improve their ability to read and learn. In short, writing by hand could make us smarter.

Even if I wanted to, I doubt I could give up my love of writing things out by hand. For example, I find it impossible to craft a cohesive article — let alone a whole book — by writing directly onto the computer. For that I need to create a huge mind-map poster that helps me strategize what I want to say, and how. And for more complex articles, where I’m not clear on what I’m trying to express, I’ll always write by hand first, honing and refining the manuscript several times before confining my work to the computer.

So — food for thought on National Handwriting Day, huh? And certainly something to think about as Apple and others encourage us to “technologize” learning in the classroom and beyond!

[Do you use a virtual assistant to help you accomplish more in less time? I do! Some of the research for this article was unearthed by the wonderful people at Zirtual.com. Check out their services. And if you do decide to use them (as I've been doing in a hugely beneficial way), please tell them Liz Alexander sent you :-) ].

Marika Flatt of PR by the Book: Why Book Blurbs Matter (and Which Ones).

It’s never too soon to discover what needs to be done to enhance and promote your book once it’s published. That includes thinking about those kind souls who will take the time to read the final manuscript and write testimonials. These will be the blurbs you showcase on the front and back covers, and sometimes also inside the book under “Advance Praise.”

I have my own views on how many of these are desirable.  For example, I find it tedious and a tad overdone to wade through five or six pages of glowing testimonials, seemingly from everyone the author knows or has done business with. It always seems to me these folks are trying too hard to impress.

Marika Flatt of PR by the Book

Not wishing to come at this topic with my own prejudices, I sought out the perspective of Marika Flatt, founder of boutique publicity firm PR by the Book.

As a result of this enjoyable conversation, I can share the following insights from Marika on why testimonials matter, how many is “enough,” and how a business author might select the right ones to feature*:

(*Bear in mind that finding people to write book blurbs isn’t a service typically provided by book publicists, as their work begins when the book is done and this kind of third-party validation needs to be secured several months beforehand.)

Liz Alexander: Marika, why do testimonials matter?

Marika Flatt: We’re a bandwagon society. Anything that has name recognition and stands out in our minds will help a book sell. For example, if you’ve had successful dealings with an internationally known company like Dell or Microsoft, and someone in the company thinks enough of you to agree to write a cover testimonial, that name recognition of the company will go a long way to enhancing the trust a reader feels when they purchase your book.

If you’ve been on a platform with Stephen Covey and can persuade him to say something about your book, you’d want to feature that on the front cover. It really makes a huge difference to the typical reader.

L.A.: What if you’re not doing business at those lofty heights?

M.F.: If your work is mostly with small and medium sized enterprises, then you still need to try and attract testimonials from companies that your target reader would at least recognize. They’re going to be impressed by Fortune 500 names, for example. Much depends on whether you intend to sell your book in stores like Barnes & Noble, or have mostly back-of-the-room sales during workshops and talks. If you’re looking for more mainstream appeal, then the bigger the name, the better it looks.

L.A.: Does it matter what these folks say – as long as it’s positive, obviously?

M.F.: When somebody is looking at testimonials on the cover of a book, their eyes will automatically gravitate to the person’s name and title rather than the statement. It’s more about the person giving the quote than what they actually say.

L.A.: I’ve read that you need to be careful to select people who are directly relevant to your book’s topic and target audience. So business book readers will be looking to see names of CEOs and entrepreneurs, right? What if I’m chummy with Sandra Bullock but I’m writing a book on leadership? 

M.F.: I think these days it’s good to offer a range of people who are blurbing your book. So instead of three CEOs, you might chose one CEO, one sales person and a celebrity. Having Sandra Bullock’s name on the cover of your book is not going to harm you, regardless of the topic.

I would encourage authors to think about who they know or have come across in their lives that could comment on their book in a way that’s relatable to the average consumer; someone who has any kind of name recognition.

L.A.: And that includes other authors, right? I’ve heard they like to be asked to blurb since that gives them an additional way to promote their own books? 

M.F.: Yes. It’s always a good idea to connect with authors of books that your target reader would already know, to ask if they will write you a testimonial.

L.A.: Okay, I’ve already revealed that I’m skeptical of authors, especially self-published ones, who have every-man-and-his-dog quoted on or in their books. What do you consider to be the optimal number of testimonials – either for the back cover or inside the book itself?

M.F.:  Most books have anywhere from three to five quotes on the back cover. There’s no need for any more than that as the reader will get bored of reading blurbs eventually.

L.A.: Finally, Marika, any tips on how to guide folks to write suitable testimonials?

M.F.: You’re looking for the three Cs: Clever, Concise, Compact. Two powerful lines are better than a paragraph of fluff. The only time I would use more than two to three sentences for a testimonial is if what they wrote was so power-packed, I couldn’t bear to cut anything out.

Testimonials may be written about the book specifically, but often you can use what you already have on sites like LinkedIn or use on your website. If someone has written that you are the most forward-thinking person they’ve come across, then a consumer is going to see that and think you really know your stuff.

Brilliant, Marika – thank you.

H

aving recently received a copy of The Age of the Platform by Phil Simon to review, I thought I’d see how many testimonials he’d included, and by whom. Here’s the low-down:

Front cover: One sentence from Adrian C. Ott, award-winning author of The 24-Hour Customer.

Back cover blurbs: Two authors, two corporate presidents.

Inside “Additional Praise” page: Five more – two broadcasters/authors; one author/editor; two CEOs.

 

Enjoy this irreverent article on the history of book blurbs


 

Sterling Lanier of Vistage: How to “crowd-source” a book in two hours

Think of any of the two-hour meetings you’ve attended at which very little was agreed upon and nothing tangible got done. Now imagine completing a value-creating book in the same time. Sounds impossible? Sterling Lanier can prove otherwise.

While writing #CoachingTweet for the THINKaha book series, Lanier found himself referring constantly to the wisdom he had amassed from colleagues after 10 years as a Vistage CEO Coach and CEO Peer Group Leader.

“It occurred to me that although Vistage does a lot of training for group chairs, there was not a book created by chairs about how to do their work,” explains Lanier. “Then I realized that since the wisdom of chairing CEO groups often resides in individual, experienced-based best practices, a group of chairs—not just one person—should write this book.”

By the time they attended their June 2010 meeting, 24 North California Vistage Chairs had received advance email notice that they’d be writing the definitive book on the ways in which chairs could successfully guide member CEOs to reach their full potential. The participants collectively had over 160 years experience as C-level executives and highly respected coach-practitioners. They were tasked with contributing to four topics, each of which would become a chapter in the book:

  • On Being A Chair
  • Enabling Thoughtful 1-on-1s
  • Leading Meaningful Meetings
  • Nurturing and Growing Your Groups.

Chair Tweets

The participants were randomly divided into groups and positioned at one of four easels that represented the chapter topics. Each group was tasked with writing up their best “bullet point” thoughts for that topic; they rotated to the next easel after 20 minutes. After completing their first pass of insights for all four chapters in 80 minutes, the groups were given a further 10 minutes at each easel to review their colleagues’ thoughts and add anything they felt was missing.

After two hours, the participants had crafted 282 tweet-sized thoughts. Lanier had the further task of collecting all the easel pages and editing the insights into what was to become a 130-page e-book.

“What truly overwhelmed me was seeing the immense amount of knowledge released in two hours,” says Lanier, who admits that if he had tried to write the book single-handedly, it would have taken him months. “More importantly, I could never have captured the depth and breadth of wisdom and the diverse ways of expressing this wisdom that was recording during this process.”

Of course, not every group meeting lends itself perfectly to this kind of activity. To be successful developing a “team-sourced” e-book, it helps to focus on topics that can draw on the group’s practical knowledge, preferably gained from experiences in the field. The process is best suited to wisdom that’s typically passed through informal sharing, including “water cooler” storytelling.

“A perfect example is when a new sales person arrives at their assigned team, having been trained extensively on product knowledge and sales techniques by the organization. When they hook up with a top performing “old hand,” the newbie then discovers how success happens in the real world,” says Lanier. “This type of knowledge needs to be recorded in a “crowd-sourced” book so it isn’t lost when the top performer leaves the organization.”

Lanier offers the following advice to executives wishing to benefit from this kind of project:

  1. Bring in a trained facilitator/writer to run the process.
  2. Take part as a creative participant yourself and have fun.
  3. Have someone take pictures of the process.
  4. Leverage the skills of a professional who can edit the material and create a visually appealing printed or electronic book.

Sure beats the usual, boring, unproductive two-hour meetings most of us are familiar with, wouldn’t you agree?

Three Tier Books: The One For Thought Leaders

When I read a nonfiction book it gets mentally shelved—in terms of how well it engages me from page one—as “truly dreadful,” “worthy but boring,” or “absorbing: do not disturb.” These are what I call my “three tiers.”

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Tier three typically is populated by self-published “go it alone” authors whose books are little more than poorly organized streams of consciousness. Certainly not the place any self-respecting professional would want their book to reside. So far I’ve been lucky enough never to buy one of these, although I’m frequently “gifted” quite a few.

Tier two is the home of many respectable business books. Well-written, reasonably organized, nevertheless you’re inclined to put them down within the first few pages (if you even get that far). The problem? The writing lacks any kind of engaging quality.

It’s often the case that when a first-time author begins to write, they fall into what I call “text book” mode. They’re so earnest about telling you what you need to know that they overlook what Tier One authors know about crafting compelling books. (Which is why, even though Tier Two books may sell reasonably well with a lot of marketing effort, they’re rarely going to hit the big time).

Authors who approach me, who have already written part or all of their book, tend to fall into the Tier two category :-(

Top tier books pique our interest right from the get-go. They largely do that in several ways that you can emulate, depending on the topic of your book and the style you’re most comfortable with. All of them highlight the approach of “showing” rather than “telling,” which is the hallmark of superior communication.

© Cheryl Hill | Dreamstime.com

The first set of examples drop readers right into the middle of a compelling story, as these authors have done:

When he woke up on May 1, 2007, Kevin Rose had no idea he was about to have the most interesting day of his life, courtesy of an uprising of his own customers. Groundswell, Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff, 2011, HBR Press.

A large division of a Fortune 50 company experienced sales growth from zero to $100 million in eighteen months. The executives weren’t quite sure why they had grown so quickly; they were concerned that the business could vanish just as fast. Harnessing the Power of Project Management, Wes Balakian, 2009, Brown Books.

In the dense fog of a dark night in October 1707, Great Britain lost nearly an entire fleet of ships. There was no pitched battle at sea. The admiral, Clowdisley Shovell, simply miscalculated his position in the Atlantic and his flagship smashed into the rocks of the Scilly Isles, a tail of islands off the southwest coast of England. First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman, 1999, Simon & Schuster. 

Three very different stories, spanning more than a decade—all of them page-turners. And the advantage of gripping your readers at the beginning of the book is that you’ll have earned their forgiveness if you need to expose them to heavier material later. Just be sure that your story directly relates, and leads seamlessly, to the overall theme of your book.

© Grzegorz Kula | Dreamstime.com

But there are other ways to open your business book, such as painting a very clear picture, phrased in highly motivational terms:

Imagine being able to explain your leadership philosophy on one piece of paper—a simple 8.5 by 11-inch summation of all you are and all you want to be as a leader. How powerful would it be to have a discussion about that single page with the members of your team? One Piece of Paper, Mike Figliuolo, 2011, Jossey-Bass.

Imagine that a friend has invited you to accompany her to an invitation-only special event. You arrive and approach the door, surprised to find a red velvet rope stretched between two shiny brass poles. A nicely dressed man asks your name, checking his invitation list. Finding your name there, he flashes a wide grin and drops one end of the rope, allowing you to pass through and enter the party. You feel like a star. Book Yourself Solid, Michael Port, 2006, John Wiley & Sons.

The best-known thoughtleaders of today are megastars. You see them on the covers of their books; you see them on TV. They are quoted and profiled and spotlighted incessantly—not just in the business pages of newspapers and magazines, but in gossip columns and society pages and on celebrity TV newsmagazines as well. They are beyond famous—they are gargantuan glitterati, celebrated personalities, ubiquitous, razzle-dazzle, neon-escent. The Expert’s Edge, Ken Lizotte, 2008, McGraw-Hill.

The authors of these books are going to show you how to craft a compelling leadership philosophy one a single piece of paper; attract more of the clients you want; and become a thoughtleader. After reading each of their Chapter One openings, I’m excited enough to gladly continue my reading journey with them. Do you feel similarly?

Finally, you could do what these co-authors have done and establish empathy with the reader’s key issue—the reason why they’re reading your book in the first place. In this example you’re seeing another picture painted that compels you to nod your head in agreement:

Everyone has a customer experience horror story. The cable company technician who never shows up. The parts supplier that you have to call repeatedly for an update on a spare part order. The support person who cannot help you with your billing question, even after you have waited on hold for an hour. The building materials supplier whose late delivery costs you thousands of dollars in lost labor and causes you project delays. The Customer Experience Edge, Soudagar, Iyer & Hildebrand, McGraw-Hill, 2012.

It’s probably no surprise to hear that human beings have an innate response to stories. Novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights have leveraged this for eons. Take a leaf out of their book (pardon the pun!). No matter what picture you are painting in your readers’ minds when they turn to Chapter One of your book, make it vivid, intriguing, and relevant to your topic.

Most of us have had enough of textbooks in college. Don’t make the mistake of writing your book in that vein. Especially if you have aspirations to be a thought leader, a title others attribute to you–you don’t give to yourself. That won’t happen if your book is so tedious we stop reading at page one.

Discussion questions: 

  1. What business books do you think do a fabulous job of engaging you right off the bat?
  2. How might you embed this learning into all your written communications? How compelling, for example, are the beginnings of your white papers, articles, or even blog posts?

 

Are You Overlooking This Authoring Skill?

 

As challenging as it might seem to first-time authors to write a book, you can simplify the process by thinking of it as just another form of project management.

To show you what I mean, I selected my favorites among the 140 bite-sized insights found in THINKaha’s #Project Management Tweet, written by Himanshu Jhamb and Guy Ralfe, the co-founders of Active Garage. I then tweaked each of them to relate to book development (at least, according to my perspective).

The numbered advice comes from their book, with my offerings (LA) in italics underneath:

#1: Project scoping is like a belt. You need that to keep things together!

LA: Complete the sentence: The question that I answer with this book is__________________________________ and scope your book to relate to that!

 

#3: A Golden Rule to Remember: It always takes longer and costs more than you think.

LA: Writing a quality book is like renovating a house. Enough said!

 

#20: 7Ps of Project Management: Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

LA: Take time to thoughtfully prepare an outline of your book to avoid the low quality stream-of-consciousness offered by many authors.

 

#21: You can have the best plan, but if you don’t have the right organization you don’t have a prayer.

LA: Without organizing your material with the reader in mind, your book doesn’t have a prayer of being readable – or remarkable.

 

#22: You can learn the theory and distinctions of Project Management. But knowledge is only gained through experience.

LA: Reading a book on how to write a book is a poor substitute for learning to do so guided by someone with years of authorship experience.

 

#43: Even the best plans cannot cover all scenarios. Accept that as an inherent risk in projects.

LA: Don’t be too rigid in forcing your book to be what you want it to be. Allow your book to become what it wants to be.

 

#67: When monitoring your project, make sure you use metrics (e.g., 20 new issues) and not opinions (e.g., we had a good week) for making assessments.

LA: To make solid progress on your book, stick to quantitative measures, e.g.: “I’ve written X thousand words or Y chapters this month.”

 

#72: At the end of the day, the success of the project is determined only by the results; nothing less, nothing more. 

LA: When your book is done, judge the results by how many books reached the hearts and minds of your intended readers.

 

#90: A team is always better than a single person, no matter how competent that person may be.

LA: A remarkable book always involves a team of people contributing specialized expertise.

 

#138: Pay close attention to the subjective criteria for measuring project success, such as quality.

LA: For us to be a good fit, quality needs to be at the top of your subjective criteria list.

 

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