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Presentation lessons from Steve Pinker's advice on writing

Pinker_bookOne of the most interesting books I read last year was Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Pinker’s book is a thoughtful, clear, and useful discussion on how we can make our writing simpler and clearer by avoiding muddy, confusing prose otherwise known as corporatese, legalese, academese, medicalese, bureaucratese, and officialese. Pinker explores what is called the Classic style of prose, a style of non-fiction writing which Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner dedicate an entire book to explaining in Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. "The feature of classic style that makes it a natural model for anyone is its great versatility,” Thomas and Turner say in their book. "The style is defined not by a set of techniques but rather by an attitude toward writing itself. What is most fundamental to that attitude is the stand that the writer knows something before he sets out to write, and that his purpose is to articulate what he knows to a reader.” (Emphasis mine.)

"Classic style is in its own view clear and simple as the truth. It adopts the stance that its purpose is presentation; its motive, disinterested truth. Successful presentation consists of aligning language with truth, and the test of this alignment is clarity and simplicity." — Francis-Noël Thomas, Mark Turner

As I read Pinker's book I couldn't help but notice that much of his advice about writing also applies to presenting more effectively as well. Presenting and writing are different skills, but they are alike in that when done well both reflect a clarity of thought in both preparation and delivery. If you do not have time to read the book, Professor Pinker has several talks about the contents of his book available on YouTube, such as the video below. The video is well worth your time, but if you also do not have time to watch the video just yet, I have highlighted many (though not all) of his key points from his talk (and book) below. Along the way I’ll relate his advice about writing in the Classic style to the art of presentation.

Classic style at a glance
Pinker early on presents key aspects of Classic style.
    (1) The writer has seen something in the world.
    (2) He positions the reader so she can see it with her own eyes.
    (3) The reader and writer are equals.
    (4) The goal is to help the reader see objective reality.
    (5) The style is conversational.

Non-classic styles are many. Academics, he says, write in a Postmodern or Self-conscious style in which “the chief concern is to escape being convicted of philosophical naivete about his own enterprise." Classic style is not interested in talking about the tools and structure of the subject but rather the subject itself. And yet, Classic style is not Plain style, Pinker says. You do not have to go to a bare bones, stripped down style. Classic style does not have to be Plain. It has to be CLEAR and words are chosen for a good reason. But the writing does not have to be absolutely plain — your character needs to come out. While Plain style is not the ideal, Pinker says (in many cases), it is nonetheless better than academese, and other forms of difficult-to-read prose.). 

More aspects of Classic prose
Pinker lists some more aspects of the Classic style.
    (1) Focuses on the thing being shown (discussed) not the activity of studying it.
    (2) Assumes reader understands that concepts are hard to define, problem is difficult, etc. The reader wants to see what the writer will do about it.
    (3) Minimizes hedging (common for academics): somewhat, fairly, relatively, apparently, perhaps, etc.
    (4) Does not overly use quotation marks. Minimizes compulsive hedging (i.e., cover-your-ass qualifiers)
    (5) Classic prose: "it’s better to be clear & possibly wrong than muddy and not even wrong."
    (6) Counts on the cooperative nature of ordinary conversation. People read between lines and connect the dots themselves so that   everything does not have to be said with absolute precision.

Four ways your writing (and speaking) can be better
Pinker goes through several reasons why a lot of professional writing is muddy and unreadable and offers many tips for improving one's prose. For example, Pinker says it's OK to break a grammar rule from time to time, however, we must first know the rules. Rules and correct usage do matter very much, but more important is expressing coherent ideas, sound arguments, and logical structure with simplicity and clarity. (See "Steven Pinker’s 10 grammar rules it's OK to break (sometimes)" published in the the August 15, 2014 issue of The Guardian.) Below I touch on just four items from Pinker's lecture/book that I think are key and apply as well to the art of presentation or public speaking.

(1) Avoid “The Curse Of Knowledge”
The Curse of Knowledge refers to knowing something so well that it’s hard to imagine what it's like not to know it. Pinker says this is the number one reason for opaque writing. One symptom of this is using jargon without explaining the meaning, for example. My friend Physicist Jean-luc Doumont has said something similar (see his Stanford University talk here). The book Made to Stick also identified The Curse of Knowledge (see key points of Made to Stick here). The cure, Pinker says, is to always strive to empathize with your reader. However, the problem is we are not always very good at seeing things from the other's point of view or to imagine what they don’t know. So one solution is to present the material to a representative reader (listener) first. When you do that you may be surprised that what was clear to you is not clear to others. Another idea is to show a draft to yourself after a bit of time has past. Then rewrite with the single goal of making the copy more understandable to your particular audience.

(2) Be Visual
The old chestnut "Show it, don't tell it" applies here. This does not mean you need to include images such as photographs or quantitative displays when you write or present, though those visuals can be extremely useful. Yet even if you do not include actual images, your writing or speaking itself can paint a picture and help your audience to see what your are talking about. In the Classic style, Pinker says "The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself." Of course, sometimes we do indeed need to present abstract ideas, yet "what classic style does," says Pinker, " is explain them as if they were objects and forces that would be recognizable to anyone standing in a position to see them.” In this way we look at our writing or speaking as a kind of window onto the world we are sharing. Classic style avoids metaconcepts (concepts abut concepts) and aims to help the audience see the idea for themselves. "Classic style minimizes abstractions, which cannot be seen with the naked eye," Pinker says. "This doesn’t mean that it avoids abstract subject matter only that it shows the events making up that subject matter transparently, by narrating an unfolding plot with real characters doing things, rather than by naming an abstract concept that encapsulates those events in a single word.” Pinker cites astrophysicist Brian Greene as someone who is skilled in presenting complicated ideas and explaining them in a way that allows people to visualize the world he is showing. The interview below where Greene discusses the basic idea around the discovery of gravitational waves, is a good example. Here is a 3-minute version of Greene sharing much of the same information.


(3) Be Conversational
"A writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging her in conversation," Pinker says. I've always said that a conversational approach to communication is preferred when clarity, engagement, and understanding are the aim. I'm not suggesting that one should be overly casual or folksy, but when someone speaks in a natural, down-to-earth manner, we are more inclined to listen. Brian Greene above speaks in a conversational style.

"A concrete and conversational style does more than make professional verbiage easier to read," Pinker says, "it can be a matter of life and death." Here Pinker offers an example from a warning label:

"Mild Exposure to CO can result in accumulated damage over time. Extreme Exposure to CO may rapidly be fatal without producing significant warning symptoms. Infants, children, older adults, and people with health conditions are more easily affected by Carbon Monoxide and their symptoms are more severe."

This warning label does not give one the feeling, Pinker says, that anything bad will happen. A much better warning sticker was created for subsequent models with this prose:

"Using a generator indoors CAN KILL YOU IN MINUTES. Generator exhaust contains carbon monoxide. This is a poison you cannot see or smell. NEVER use inside a home or garage, EVEN IF doors and windows are open. Only use OUTSIDE and far away from windows, doors, and vents."

The second version is more concrete and emphasizes the point right away—this can kill you quickly if used indoors. The tone is much more like something your friend or parent would say in conversation. Would you ever say to your friend, for example, that using a charcoal barbecue indoors "may result in accumulated damage over time or may rapidly be fatal without producing significant warning symptoms"? Of course you wouldn't. You would say something like "never, ever, EVER! use a charcoal barbecue indoors! It can kill you in minutes without warning!"

(4) Embrace Simplicity (not simplism)
Good writing like oral presentation results from clear thinking and an authentic effort to share in a way that is as simple as possible without being oversimplified, trivial, or foolish. "The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth," Pinker says in his book. "It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity." Many people confuse simplicity, which takes work by the writer/speaker to achieve, with simplism, which is often a result of laziness or a desire to obfuscate. This does not mean that you can not use sophisticated language, for to communicate simply does not mean to dumb-down, but we should choose words carefully. George Orwell's writing advice (from Politics and the English Language) such as "Never use a long word where a short one will do," or "If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out" or "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent" are worth remembering. Simplicity does not only concern choices of vocabulary. Simplicity refers to structure and our decisions about what to include and what to exclude as well. Cutting the superfluous is one of the hardest things for writers to do. But clear communicators make careful considerations during the preparation stage about what is important to include and what is not. Good writers and effective presenters know that if everything is important then nothing is important. Exclusion of the nonessential is not a panacea, but it goes along way toward achieving simplicity.



Nice compilation of so many useful ideas. Thank you for this.

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