Thursday, March 30, 2017

What spices are in your speechwriting style?

I am a nerd, so I have been enjoying reading Ben Blatt’s 2017 book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, which is subtitled What the numbers reveal about the classics, bestsellers, and our own writing.  The introduction describes how in 1963 Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace used statistics to figure out whether Hamilton or Madison wrote some of the disputed essays in The Federalist Papers.

A section that starts on page 164 is titled What’s Your Favorite Word, and it states Ray Bradbury said his favorites were ramshackle and cinnamon.

At the Grocery Outlet I recently bought a package of Cinnamon Spice Crisps (cookies from Germany). A smaller legend on the package described them as Traditional European Spekulatius Cookies. On the back of the package a mix of six spices was listed: cinnamon, coriander, anise, cloves, fennel seed, and cardamom.   

On page 170 Mr. Blatt defined “cinnamon words” as words where:

A]  It must be used in half an author’s books.

B]  It must be used at a rate of at least once per 100,000 words throughout an author’s books

C]  it must not be so obscure that it’s used less than once per million in the Corpus of Historical American English

D] It is not a proper noun

On pages 173 to 176 he presented tables with the top three cinnamon words for a hundred different authors. The table shown above is a sample of ten. From those three words, you can get a very good sense of what C. S Lewis, J. K. Rowling, Lemony Snicket, and J. R. R. Tolkien were writing about.

 He also defined more common “nod words” as words where:

A]   It must be used in all of an author’s books.

B]   It must be used at a rate of at least 100 per 100,000 words throughout an author’s books

C]   It must not be so obscure that it’s used less than once per million in the Corpus of Historical American English

D]   It is not a proper noun

The table shown above is a sample of the same ten authors for nod words. From those three words, you can only tell what J. K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket were writing about.

Mr. Blatt also discusses the top ten most popular three-word sentence openers. On pages 153 and 154 he shows tables with them for nine novels. I have shown a sample of three above for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Pride and Prejudice.

On page 148 he compared the top ten most popular three-word sentence openers for two New York Times opinion columnists – David Brooks and Paul Krugman. As is shown above, they have distinctly different styles.  

Another way of looking at writing is via a grade level formula. On page 107 Mr. Blatt mentions the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, for which the formula is:

0.39 x (total words/total sentences) 
+ 11.8 x (total syllables/total words) – 15.59

He mentions on page 108 that the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of -1.3, in contrast with William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury at 20.

On page 109 he refers to an article in The Guardian on February 12, 2013 titled The state of our union is …dumber which showed the grade levels for our presidential State of the Union Speeches.

Monday, March 27, 2017

A little lie that many book publishers tell

It is book pages that read (as shown below) that:


This page intentionally left blank.

The Urban Dictionary more correctly says:

The rest of this page intentionally left blank.

Four other variations are:

This page intentionally left (almost completely) blank.

This page intentionally left blank, 
except for the preceding phrase.

This page has been intentionally left, except for 
this annoying little message, entirely blank.

[This page is intended to be blank. Please do not read it.]

Wikipedia has an article that discusses why there are intentionally blank labeled pages.

The Language Log for February 19, 2010 on Language and meta-language talked about the intentionally ‘blank’ page. It has a long set of comments, including about one famous painting by RenĂ© Magritte called The Treachery of Images which shows a pipe. Below it, Magritte had painted:

 "Ceci n'est pas une pipe.", French for "This is not a pipe."

I commented that one of Dave Kellett’s Sheldon cartoons, from February 15, 2010, repeatedly showed Arthur the Duck with captions reading:

“This is not a duck. This is not a duck floating on a lake. This is not a duck noticing us talking about him floating on a lake. This is not a duck who enjoys Magritte jokes.”

The image by Takashi Hososhima of an Oxford University Press bookstore came from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Table Topics – What should we call people who live in that city?

On Friday at the Saint Al’s Toastmasters Club meeting in Boise, I was the Table Topics Master. (Table Topics is the impromptu speaking portion, where you answer a question in one or two minutes). I reused a topic I have blogged about before in 2013 – What should we call residents of that city? The usual answer is to add suffixes like:

-ans, -eans, -ens, ers, ians, -ites, or -ns  

I also told them to consider what we should NOT call them, because it wouldn’t refer to all of the people. (Horseshoe Benders only should refer to blacksmiths). As an example, I said the residents of the southwest Idaho city of Kuna would be called Kunans. Kunanites sounds biblical, perhaps like a prophet had said they needed smiting. Kuns would be a phonetic spelling for Coons, an awful racial slur for black people that wouldn’t apply to Kuna, since it is over 90% white and only 0.6% African American.    

I gave participants a choice of two cities in a part of Idaho:

Caldwell or Nampa (southwest)

Idaho Falls or Rexburg (east and north)

Pocatello or Blackfoot (east and central)

Post Falls or Sandpoint (north Panhandle)

Preston or Soda Springs (east and south)

When you are on the spot, this is very hard to do. The man who got Caldwell said they should be known as Caldwellians, although Caldwellers would be a perfect answer.  

The man who got Idaho Falls and Rexburg said the latter should be called Rexburgers. You might imagine them as burger kings or queens.  

The woman who got Pocatello and Blackfoot said to call them Pocatellians. (Afterword I pointed out that Pocatellers would only be those who worked behind the counter in banks).

The man who got Sandpoint said, of course they are Sandpointers, and extended his arm and finger to point like the breed of gun dog known as a Pointer. He said they get trained to do this at age two - which had us all laughing.  

The woman who got Preston and Soda Springs said the latter are Soda Springers. Preston is where the 2004 cult comedy film Napoleon Dynamite was made. (The title character is a high school nerd with curly hair and a dazed expression).

People from Preston could be called Prestoners, Prestonians, or Prestonites. Prestoners can be read as Pre-Stoners. Prestonians could be mis-spelled Prestonions, and then read as Prest-onions. Prestonites is OK, but sounds like a nasty mineral that would press on a superhero and slow them down.
Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting came from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Getting back into Toastmasters International

Now that I have more free time, I decided to rejoin Toastmasters International, which I had left in 2011. I missed the personal interaction of a club.

So, I looked at two smaller clubs near home – Club Fed and Saint Al’s. Club Fed meets at a local Bureau of Land Management office, but only every two weeks. Saint Al’s, which I joined earlier this month, meets at Saint Alphonsus hospital every Friday. On March 17 I gave an Icebreaker speech. Yesterday I was the Table Topics master (which I’ll say more about tomorrow).

The image of hiking came from an old WPA poster at the Library of Congress.

Friday, March 24, 2017

An ineffective pie chart – in a slide deck on Delivering Effective Presentations

Recently one of my Google searches for images led me to an ineffective pie chart similar to the one shown above. The original was the eighth slide from a deck on Delivering Effective Presentations that was posted at Slideshare by Terri L. Jensen on May 18, 2014. Both the content and form are abysmal.

The data came from a web page titled Fear/Phobia Statistics at Statistic Brain, and the data is crap as I discussed in a blog post on July 1, 2012 titled A bogus list of top ten phobias. On December 7, 2014 I blogged about how Statistic Brain is just a statistical medicine show.

The form is awful because those three percentages add up to 172.5%, as shown above. They should have been shown via a bar chart, not a pie chart. Microsoft Excel unfortunately will let you produce a pie chart like this. (The wedges it shows are rescaled by dividing by whatever the total is. 74% gets shown as 42.9%, 68% gets shown as 39.4%, and 30.5% gets shown as 17.7%). An article by Nathan Yau at FlowingData titled How to Spot Visualization Lies cautions:
“Some charts specifically show parts of a whole. When the parts add up to more than the whole, this is a problem. For example, pie charts represent 100 percent of something. Wedges that add up to more than that? Peculiar.”

Pie charts also are not very effective for comparing similar percentages. It is hard to see the 3.5% difference between Public Speaking (42.9%) and Death (39.4%) until you extend the line between them upward, as shown above.

With a horizontal bar chart showing the actual percentages it is easier to see the difference between 74% and 68%.   

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Celebrating the milestone of a million page views

It’s spring, and this blog just passed another milestone of receiving 1,000,000 page views. That’s like everyone in the Honolulu metro area stopping by for a look. Here is a list of my top ten most popular posts:

1]  October 27, 2009 (16,636 views = 100%)

2]  July 5, 2009 – 97.1%

3]  December 29, 2011 - 37.8%

4]  December 11, 2009 - 36.8%

5]  January 11, 2011 - 20.8%

6]  August 9, 2010 - 20.0%

7]  September 18, 2009 - 19.3%

8]  May 19, 2011 - 9.4%

9]  August 13, 2010 - 9.3%

10] December 15, 2011 - 8.8%

I often have been surprised by what does and doesn’t get popular. #3 was an afterthought from a preceding post on December 26, 2011 about Walter Lewin’s MIT lectures titled Finding and communicating wonder in physics. #5 was followed on March 1, 2011 by what I thought was a more interesting post on a simpler way (Timing Tiles) to add feedback titled Being second in my first Toastmasters speech contest. 

Two other educational posts I thought should have been way more popular were the February 19, 2014 post on how Assertion-Evidence PowerPoint slides are a visual alternative to bullet point lists and the February 24, 2015 post on How to do a better job of speech research than the average Toastmaster (by using your friendly local public and state university libraries)

Three recent posts I enjoyed writing and hope will become popular are:

December 20, 2016 - Bursting the overblown claim that 95% of Americans fear public speaking at some level. This one drew the nastiest comment I’ve ever received, which came from no less than the Chairman of the Department of English and Communications Studies at Texas Lutheran University.

I also had lots of fun with using Photoshop Elements to modify graphics like the recruiting poster of Uncle Sam that first showed up in the July 6, 2009 post on Celebrate Freedom from Fear of Public Speaking Week and again in the January 1, 2016 post Remember that only YOU can prevent bad presentations.

A panorama of Honolulu came from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Spelling and Punctuation Still Matter

On March 16, 2017 at ToughNickel there was an article by Rusty C. Adore titled Five Tips for Great Presentations When You Fear Public Speaking with a second tip that included:

Teachers love visual aides during presentations. If you have charts, graphs, slides, photos, or videos you're already ahead of the game.

He should have said aids not the narrower category of aides. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an aide is:

“a person who acts as an assistant.”

The century old poster (shown above) for Thurston the Master Magician has eight visual aides – young women in low-cut dresses whose role is to direct attention away from what the magician actually is doing.

On March 17, 2017 there was another article by Mary Norris at the New Yorker about a lawsuit. It was titled A Few Words About That Ten-Million-Dollar Serial Comma and described how:

“While advocates of the serial comma are happy for the truck drivers’ victory, it was actually the lack of said comma that won the day. Here are the facts of the case, for those who may have been pinned under a semicolon. According to Maine state law, workers are not entitled to overtime pay for the following activities: ‘The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.’

The issue is that, without a comma after ‘shipment,’ the ‘packing for shipment or distribution’ is a single activity. Truck drivers do not pack food, either for shipment or for distribution; they drive trucks and deliver it. Therefore, these exemptions do not apply to drivers, and Oakhurst Dairy owes them some ten million dollars.”

In 2016 Ms. Norris had a two-minute YouTube video on The Importance of Serial Commas.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Spouting Nonsense: Fake news about fear of public speaking from a course announcement

I ran across an announcement for an upcoming two-day course at Florida International University in Miami on Conquering Presentations: Public Speaking and Presentation Skills that began with this startling claim:

“What is your biggest fear? Is it possibly death or failure? According to the third annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears, public speaking ranks as the number one fear of American citizens.”

But a quick check shows it is absolute nonsense. If you look at the Chapman blog post about their third survey on October 11, 2016 titled America’s Top Fears 2016, you will find public speaking wasn’t even in their top ten, and only ranked 33rd out of 79 fears.

A frequently cited article in the Washington Post on October 30, 2014 about the first Chapman survey was titled America’s top fears: Public speaking, heights and bugs. It discussed a subset of their results (on phobias), which I also blogged about a day earlier in a post titled Chapman Survey on American Fears includes both zombies and ghosts. The Chapman press release on October 20, 2014 incorrectly titled What Americans Fear Most – New Poll from Chapman University only had public speaking in their top five.  

The course is to be taught by Katsiaryna Matusevich, Ph.D. You’d expect someone with that degree would have checked their information more carefully, so she gets a Spoutly.  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A wonderful TEDx Talk by John Koenig about making up words for our emotions

At TEDx Berkeley there was a wonderful 7-1/2 minute talk by John Koenig titled Beautiful new words to describe obscure emotions that discussed some of the words he made up for his web site The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. I have illustrated two of his definitions. We had a lot of anecdoche in last year’s election campaigns.

On December 27, 2014 I blogged about how you can Have fun making up new words! One describes a very obscure fear about dogs (as shown above). An earlier post on June 3, 2013 titled Finding the right word (or not) mentioned that waterson would describe the analog for arson, but with deliberate destruction via water rather than fire.

Demented means insane, so the process for reversing it could be called remented.

The image of two men arguing was derived from a WPA poster at the Library of Congress. The sad clown came from Mizraim at Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

There will be no more Drunken TED Talks

Parody can be fun. But eventually it can wake up the lawyers for that brand, and they have no sense of humor. Back on November 25, 2014 there was an article by Katie Toth in the Village Voice about writer Eric Thurm titled This Guy Knows How to Make TED Talks Interesting: Get the Speakers Drunk. This live performance comedic nonsense went on for years and and even had a YouTube channel.

Now things have hit the fan as reported at Rooster,com in an article titled Drunk TED Talks transform the way we watch people rant about nothing and another at titled TED Talks Sends a Cease-and Desist Notice to its Drunk Alter Ego, Drunk TED Talks.

TED without Talks is ok legally. There are movies titled TED and TED 2  featuring a talking teddy bear with off-color humor.

An image of A toast in the Idun Society came from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

‘In play’ is a stale old phrase from sports. Instead try something else like ‘up for grabs.’

On March 3 at her Speechwriter-Ghostwriter blog Jane Genova posted that President Trump Blows It With Over-Used Buzzphrase ‘Witch Hunt.’ I thought that was a hilarious example of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ because she has recently used the phrase ‘in play’ in her post titles once a month:

‘Up for grabs’ is an obvious alternative for ‘in play.’ The day after her January 3 post I blogged about her Tired sports jargon – please don’t say pivot when another word would be better. Then on January 7 she blogged about “Pivot” “Deep Dive” “Disrupt,” et al. – Buzzwords Belonging in Graveyard. Her use of et al. also belongs in the graveyard, since it should refer to names rather than things (where et cetera belongs).

It’s easy to get ‘stuck in a rut’ of overused words or idioms. Back in graduate school I picked up the five-dollar word deleterious (harmful often in a subtle or unexpected way) from my thesis advisor. Remember that Mark Twain said:

“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”

Every day or two I look at Alltop Speaking. Jane’s post titles show up there in the feed from Speaking Pro Central. My pointing to her as a bad example just is like ‘shooting fish in a barrel.’

The volleyball game image is from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

According to the 2016 NACE Job Outlook Survey, verbal communication is the most important candidate skill, and employers grade their average new grad/recruit as a B+ on it

On February 27, 2017 Ellen Finkelstein had an article titled Verbal communication is the MOST important job skill. It showed up at Alltop Speaking under the heading of PowerPoint Tips Blog.

Ellen quoted from a web page posted on February 24, 2016 at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) about their Job Outlook 2016 Survey that was titled Employers: Verbal Communication Most Important Candidate Skill. Their results (from Figure 41) are shown in the following bar chart (click on it to see a larger, clearer view):

“When asked to assess candidate skills/qualities, employers rated verbal communication skills the most important, according to NACE's Job Outlook 2016 report. 

Employers rated verbal communication skills (4.63 on a five-point scale) highest this year, above teamwork (4.62) and the ability to make decisions and solve problems (4.49), the two skills that tied for the top spot last year.”

But then she went wild by speculating and ranting about what might be going on:

How can this be?

How is it that verbal communications rates over teamwork, decision-making and problem solving, planning/organizing/prioritizing, several types of technical knowledge, and the ability to sell or influence?

Because communication is important for all of the other skills.

And because employers are not seeing good verbal communication skills in their candidates. Believe me, if they saw great verbal communication skills, they would be worrying about something else.

How does this happen?

Colleges do a poor job of training students in oral communications.

Professors give a poor example for students when they teach.

Employers do little to train their own employees in verbal communications.

But that web page didn’t include another important figure from the full NACE survey report. Every year at least one university posts it on a web site. (This time it was the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University). Data from their Figure 42 are shown in the following bar chart:

Employers graded their average new graduate recruits with a letter of B+ on their verbal communication skills. They were able to hire quite well trained graduates. (Figure 44 of the 2015 Job Outlook report also graded recruits with a B+).

Candidates also will be interested in what attributes employers most commonly sought on resumes. Verbal communication skills tied for fourth place there, as shown below in a bar chart based on data shown in Figure 39 (and also reported at another web page titled Job Outlook 2016: Attributes Employers Want to See on New College Graduates’ Resumes).

The NACE Job Outlook 2017 report is also out, but I haven’t seen it leaked by a university yet. We may have to wait a few more months to see it.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Oracy – a 20th century word for a very old idea

Last week at LinkedIn Pulse I found a very brief article by Kathryn Rikert titled What is oracy and why should every child be taught it? which linked to a September 16, 2016 article at edutopia titled Oracy in the Classroom: Strategies for Effective Talk. That word is popular in educational circles (look it up in the ERIC database).

The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary says that noun came from 1965 and it defines oracy as:

“Proficiency in oral expression and comprehension.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

“Competence in oral language; the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech.”

In 1965 A. Wilkinson wrote of it:

“The term we suggest for general ability in the oral skills is oracy; one who has those skills is orate, one without them inorate.”  

Seeing that word reminded me of what Moliere said in his 1670 play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme:

“Par ma foi, il y a plus de quarante ans que je dis de la prose, sans que j'en susse rien.

(Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it).”

A sculpture of Demosthenes came from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sports are an awful metaphor for business

John Sadowsky had a blog post on February 10 titled Can sports teach us anything worthwhile about business? and another on February 23 titled Is sport such a poor metaphor for management?  I don’t share John’s claim that sports can teach us anything, or his enthusiasm for the National Football League (NFL).

On February 3, 2017 the web site for the Harvard Business Review had an article by William C.  Taylor titled Why Sports Are a Terrible Metaphor for Business. He said:

“The logic of competition and success is completely different.”

“The dynamics of talent and teamwork are completely different.”

“The creation of economic value is completely different.”

I agree. Bill wrote that a few days before the Super Bowl. Most businesses don’t compete in an artificial oligarchy like the NFL where less than twenty events over part of a year decide a championship. And most don’t have their talent come from indentured servants like college students playing under the NCAA.

Also, as George Carlin hilariously discussed long ago there are huge differences between even Baseball vs Football.