Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Check out the new look

Written Words has moved from the worthy Blogger platform to Wordpress. Along with that, as you will see, it sports a new, cleaner look and new functionality. I like the white space, the categories for blog posts and the ability to search through the blog. I hope you do, too.

Why make the change?

The most important difference now is, the Written Words blog is an integral part of my revamped Written Word Communications Company website, writtenword.ca. Since I started the blog years ago—in 2006!—I have wanted to integrate into the website. But mostly because i wasn't willing to invest the time into figuring out how, I never did—until now.

A couple of months ago, I began an effort to update the writtenword.ca website. I quickly found that cheap or free web layout programs usually are not that easy to use, and worse, are not reliable. Freeway Express, for example, is free, but it inexplicably changed the names of all my image files. If all I wanted to do were to create a nice website that sat on my desktop computer, it was great. But when it came to uploading it to my domain host, well … I’ll tell you about that in a future post, where I review the software in detail.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Onboarding, buying-in and re-skinning: Gerunds gone wild

Image courtesy NBC
Today’s hottest buzzword is: “onboarding.”

A group of corporate Internet professionals has “onboarding” an official part of a major, inter-departmental project, as in “The onboarding phase will continue until buy-in has been obtained from a significant majority of players in this space.”

Do you see what they’ve done here: defined one buzzword with another in a passive sentence that avoids telling the reader who or what is responsible for the action.

After I pulled my attention away from that disaster of a sentence, my next thought was “What’s the difference between ‘onboarding’ and ‘boarding’?”

Onboarding—also known as “on-boarding”—means committing to a process. If someone needs others to “onboard,” it means the success of the process or project depends on the commitment of those involved. In other words, you cannot just accept what’s going on—you have to contribute some effort to make the process work. 

You become a part of the process when you onboard. It suggests something more active than “buy-in.”

Buy-in has been a trending buzzword for a few years, now. “We have to obtain buy-in to the new paradigm.” I still prefer “accept” or “agree.” But of course, when you buy in—or even better, when you get someone else to buy in, you’re talking or writing like one of the cool kids.

But the best new jargon term I heard has to be “re-skinning.” It means changing the visual appearance of a website or Web page so that it matches an established look. The word revives the concept of “skins” from at least 10 years back—I remember being able to choose different skins, or combinations of colours and icons for various websites or programs.

The most interesting thing about “re-skinning” is that the current meaning is the opposite of the original meaning of the root word. “Re-skinning” means putting a new look, or “skin” over an underlying structure, while not so long ago, to “skin” something meant removing the skin, or outer layer.

So what’s wrong with buzzwords?

The trouble with buzzwords is that they lead to confusion. Usually, most people can glean the meaning of any new buzzword. However, someone whose first language is not English can get the wrong idea, especially with a word like “re-skinning” that reverses the original meaning. 

Worse, though, is the creeping application of buzzwords to new things. Take the term “off-line.” It means “disconnected,” typically from the Internet and other electronic media. At one time, it meant not operating, as a paper mill being off-line. But in meetings, people will often say “Let’s take that off-line” to mean “Let’s talk about those details just between the two of us, and not bog down this meeting for all these other folks.”

“Re-skinning” is an example, where to “skin” something is being applied to more and more things. I can understand using it to describe covering or decorating a physical product, but today it’s more often used for websites and apps.

And when a buzzword creeps into more uses, it gets used everywhere. Remember “busters” in the 1980s? After the movie Ghostbusters became a hit, dustbusters started advertising more and more. Then snack advertisers described their treats as “hunger busters.” The nadir always comes when politicians get involved, and the Progressive Conservative party in Ontario called themselves “Grit busters,” referring to the nickname for the Liberal party, “grits.”

I just dread the day when people tell me they’re on-boarding to getting re-skinned at the outlet mall.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Think of the children: what will happen if they learn sex exists?

Photo courtesy cbc.ca

News item: Ontario sex ed: Protesters disrupt school meeting

Protesters turned out in force at a Scarborough school Thursday night, disrupting efforts by two local MPPs to discuss Ontario's new sex ed curriculum. 
The information session at Agincourt Collegiate Institute was cut short when demonstrators moved inside — chanting "We say no" at MPPs Soo Wong and Bas Balkissoon. 

The new curriculum has drawn criticism from some parents and religious groups who say it is too explicit for young children. 

A group of loud parents protested against the new Ontario health and physical education curriculum at a public meeting in Toronto this past week. They carried signs that bore phrases like:
“Too early, too soon”  
“Our children, our choice”

The ruckus drew media attention, of course. One of the protesting parents asked: "Can you justify to me why a Grade Six needs to know about masturbation? Can you answer that?"

Today on a newsstand near you

Some of the cover headlines on the current edition of Cosmopolitan:

63 Secrets to Better Orgams—Get Over the Edge!I Like High-End Sex Parties—and I’m Not a Weirdo.

Last issue: 

Cover lines: 
How I solved our sex issueHow to touch a naked man: 16 Naughty Strokes That Will Send Him Over the Edge.

Apparently, an orgasm is like falling off a cliff at Cosmopolitan.

From the current issue of Women’s Health magazine: 

“The positions men prefer most”—a how-to guide.

Unlike porn magazines, which are, at least where I live, out of reach and sight of children, these magazines are all the most popular, biggest-selling women’s magazines. Most are regularly displayed in racks beside the check-outs of grocery and drugstores.

Kids see them all the time, and whether or not they ask Mom “What’s an orgasm?” they’re going to wonder.

And they’re going to get the information somewhere.

The connected generation

Kids today get most of their information today not from parents or school, but from the Internet, and they’re accessing it through mobile devices.

Cover line: "The best hour for
amazing sex"
In other words, when they have questions, they go for answers to the Internet first. And they probably won’t look up Cosmo or Women’s Health. They’re more likely to get misinformation from irresponsible like soft porn sites or, worse, the Centre for Canadian Values.

It’s the same argument that led to sex ed in schools in the 70s: kids are getting bad information about sex from uninformed sources—the “kids in the schoolyard” argument. That’s why it’s important to give children correct information based on facts before they hear misinformation and outright lies.

The big lie succeeds

The Big Lie technique is simple: if you want a large number of people to believe something that’s not true, make it as big, as ridiculous as you can, and keep repeating it. Political opponents of the Ontario government are using it in the pointless sex-ed debate have floated the phrase that under the new Health and Physical Education curriculum, Grade 6 students will the “taught masturbation.”

That’s the phrase used by a former reporter from the defunct Sun News TV channel on an online rant against the curriculum. “Taught masturbation.” Not “taught about masturbation” or “taught the definition of masturbation.”

Phrasing it this way is clearly meant to evoke the idea of a teacher showing students how to masturbate. But the curriculum says that among the physical and health education concepts Grade 6 students will learn, is:
“Things like wet dreams or vaginal lubrication are normal and happen as a result of physical changes with puberty. Exploring one’s body by touching or masturbating is something that many people do and find pleasurable. It is common and is not harmful and is one way of learning about your body.”
Why should a Grade 6 student learn that?

News item:

Woman, 33, watching 50 Shades of Grey arrested for masturbating at movie theater in Mexico during S&M-filled drama

Because the word comes up in mass media, in social media and in the schoolyard. Because in a year, that 12-year-old will be 13 and masturbation will move from a word on a screen to reality.
Cover line: "Is Everyone Sexting
Without Me?

If schools cannot teach facts that children will need in their life, then where will they learn it?

(Mis)Information is everywhere

A lot of parents, understandably, want to control the information their children get. The trouble is, that's a futile effort. Kids are getting more information than ever before, all the time. The only thing we as parents can do is make sure that we give them correct information about the most important things in their lives.

What do you think about this? What do you think about teaching children about sex—not how to do it, but that it exists. 

And I would be interested to hear from those who oppose the sex education parts of the health and physical education curriculum: what do you think will happen if a young child learns about sex?

Monday, March 09, 2015

The Phantom Menace: Don't start with background

Title: A proposal to supply Acme Corp. with Blagfly Macroscopic Flange 
Background: In 20187, Ignati and Wilhelmina Lightblack noticed the diminishing return on investment of industrial-size household powersource applications for lightsabres. The siblings engaged upon a ten-year research project into the optimal application of flange technology in lightsabres. A side enquiry into the efficiency of something something something dark side ...

That's what was wrong with The Phantom Menace — Chapter One of the Star Wars epic. It was all background.

No one wants to read background. If they do read it, it's because they thought they had to.

One element that made the first Star Wars movie work (Episode Four, "A New Hope") was that it started with action and immediately put the audience into a fully realized universe. That's also part of the appeal of The Hobbit (the book) and George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. The authors have developed complete, consistent worlds, and all the elements they present fit together consistently.

In other words, the author has done the background research, but doesn't force it on the audience.

This principle applies just as well to non-fiction and business communications like proposals and reports. No one wants to wade through background information. They want the point, first. 

Luke Skywalker did not stop to read the history of the Trade Federation, the blockade of Naboo, the destruction of the Jedi Order and the establishment of the Empire. No. His reaction to Princess Leia's message was "She's beautiful. I have to help her by finding Obi-Wan Kenobi." 

Thesis first, background later

Recently, I received a number of reports and proposals that begin with extensive background. 
Page after page of background. 
The authors felt that the audience could not understand the thesis without knowing the background. That's intuitively correct, but the idea falls apart on the quickest analysis.

No matter what the document is, it's competing for its audience's time and attention not just with other documents and reports, but with other media (including Facebook). Before anyone decides whether to invest time in reading a report, no matter how long or short —in fact, before they decide to invest time in anything — they do a quick return-on-investment calculation: will this be worth it? 

Before they start reading, the audience needs to know why they should, and the only way they can make that calculation is if you tell them what their payoff will be. 

Start with the point — the end of your argument. "Your company needs our flanges." Then provide the reasoning that backs it up.

Like Princess Leia: "You have to help us, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're our last hope." Thesis statement first, then the reasoning.  

Problem, solution

"But what about the problem-solution approach?" you ask. "Isn't that a good way to structure a proposal?"

Thanks for asking. Indeed, it is a good way to set up a proposal, as well as many other kinds of documents. Even a novel. But you should not front-load it with a long description of the problem. Show the oppression, quickly describe why it's a problem, and then show the reader the promised land.
Problem: We cannot tell who is coming to our website, nor what they look at most.
Solution: Lungbreath web analytics software will track who comes to the site, from where, and specifically which pages they spend the most time on. This will allow us to target sales messages and ultimately increase revenue.
Problem: Dirty Bill's restaurants have far too many rats in the kitchen. Not only will the health department shut us down if we cannot get the rat count below municipal standards by next month, the rats are eating so much of our inventory, we are losing money.
Solution: Batta's Better Mouse-Traps® will reduce the rat population in the kitchen by 50 percent in the first month, which will bring the restaurants within Health Department standards. Thus, we will stay in business! 

Write it in reverse

I often find that the best way to do this is to write the introduction last. As the writer, you may find it easier to write the background first. This helps you to understand the situation and its context. For example, you could describe how you first noticed the problem, explain how big a problem it is, and outline what would be the long-term impacts of not addressing the problem. 

You could introduce statistics that show the history of the problem, perhaps linking it to causes and factors that have an impact.

But this comes in the main body of your report. From that analysis, you can write an analysis of the impact of the problem. In business terms, this means how much it costs. Then you could present alternative solutions, and describe their potential impacts and costs. 

Finally, you describe the best solution, in your considered and researched opinion, and make a recommendation. That's called the conclusion. 

After you have finished writing the conclusion, you can write the introduction. Summarize the conclusion. State the solution first, then the problem and the cost of the problem.
Batta Corp.'s Better Mouse-Traps® will solve the increasing rat problem that the Dirty Bill restaurant chain has been experiencing this past year. This modest investment will not only save each location $2,000 per month in food inventory, it will prevent the Public Health Department from closing us down.

That gets the readers' attention. They'll want to read more after that. 

Monday, March 02, 2015

The anti-sex brigade lies again, hurrah, hurrah — the Ontario sex ed curriculum

Last week, the Ontario government published its revised health and physical education curriculum, which includes updated sexual education content.

Image courtesy energeticcity.ca
The update is actually titled The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1–8: Health and Physical Education. There is a separate curriculum for high school, grades 9 to 12. It covers much more than sex, in fact, all forms of health, including safety, physical activity and hygiene. 

The sexual component elicited opposition from the usual groups. The most prominent groups in this opposition use the Big Lie strategy to get more attention and rope uninformed people into joining their side.

For example, Charles McVety of the Institute for Canadian Values call the curriculum “nothing more than an indoctrination vehicle to teach children a new way of thinking about gender.”

Campaign Life—whose main goal is to stop abortion—is worried about teaching grade 1 students the proper names of body parts. This is what it says on its website as a problem with the curriculum, which is not all that different from the draft brought out in 2010:
Below are some shocking excerpts from the 2010 curriculum that the Education Ministry had posted online…Graphic lesson on sexual body parts including ‘penis’, ‘testicles’, ‘vagina’, ‘vulva’ and more.”
This is what the curriculum actually says: 
Specific expectationsC1. Understanding Health ConceptsBy the end of Grade 1, students will: …Human Development and Sexual HealthC1.3 identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology [PS]Teacher prompt: “We talk about all body parts with respect. Why is it important to know about your own body, and use correct names for the parts of your body?”Student: “All parts of my body are a part of me, and I need to know how to take care of and talk about my own body. If I’m urt or need help, and I know the right words, other people will know what I’m talking about.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a problem with that. And “penis” and “vagina” are words we can hear regularly on prime-time TV today.

Campaign Life are also concerned that the curriculum 
Will normalize homosexual family structures and homosexual ‘marriage’ in the minds of 8-year-olds, without regard for the religious/moral beliefs of families.”
This is what the curriculum actually says about homosexual relationships for grade 3 students, who are 8 or 9 years old:

By the end of Grade 3, students will: …C1.3 identify the characteristics of health relationships (e.g. accepting differences, being inclusive, communicating openly, listening, showing mutual respect and caring, being honest) and describe ways of overcoming challenges (e.g. bullying, exclusion, peer pressure, abuse) in a relationship [IS] Teacher prompt: “Consider different types of relationships — with friends, siblings, parents, other adults — and think about the kinds of behavior that help to make those relationships healthier. What can you do if you are having problems with a relationship?”

Importantly, in Grade 1, the curriculum also aims to teach kids this concept:
demonstrate the ability to recognize caring behaviours (e.g., listening with respect, giving positive reinforcement, being helpful) and exploitive behaviours (e.g., inappropriate touching, verbal or physical abuse, bullying), and describe the feelings associated with each [IS]

Let’s look at the curriculum:

C3.3 describe how visible differences (e.g., skin, hair, and eye colour, facial features, body size and shape, physical aids or different physical abilities, clothing, possessions) and invisible differences (e.g., learning abilities, skills and talents, personal or cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, family background, personal preferences, allergies and sensitivities) make each person unique, and identify ways of showing respect for differences in others [PS, IS]

Campaign Life says that part of the curriculum means Ontario schools 
will teach the disputed theory of ‘gender identity’ as if it were fact. This is the notion that whether you're a boy or a girl does not necessarily relate to your physical anatomy. It is merely a ‘social construct’. Gender is ‘fluid’ according to this theory, and any little boy can decide that he is actually a girl, if that's the way he feels in his mind, or vice-versa.  
Note: The potential for causing serious sexual confusion in the minds of children is very real with this teaching.”

Of course, Campaign Life does not point out that there is no evidence for the theory that teaching children the theory of fluid gender identity harms them in any way.

Another thing that this organizations do not point out in their protests against the curriculum is their own agenda. They’re very conservative, stridently anti-gay and against any sexual content in any education. In fact, reading their material, I get the strong sense they’d be happier if no one ever talked about sex, ever.

Another big lie: no parents were consulted on the development of the new curriculum. In fact, consultations with parents, students, teachers, faculties of education, universities, colleges and other groups started in 2007. Granted, most of that was prior to the 2010 draft, but there isn’t much difference. And there have been consultations since.

Parents have had a lot of opportunity to weigh in on the issue. And in the meantime, the world has moved on and become even more sexually explicit.

Here’s another big lie: Brian Lilley of the conservative website TheRebel says that “in grade 6, they want to start teaching masturbation.” Those were Lilley’s words: “they want to start teaching masturbation.” Not “about masturbation.”


Lilley deliberately constructed his sentence that way. He is trying to create an image in his audience’s minds of a teacher teaching grade 6 students, 11- and 12-year-olds, how to masturbate.

Don’t worry. They already know how. And so do you, Lilley.

The concept of masturbation occurs once in the curriculum. This is what the Grade 6 curriculum says about it:
“Things like wet dreams or vaginal lubrication are normal and happen as a result of physical changes with puberty. Exploring one’s body by touching or masturbating is something that many people do and find pleasurable. It is common and is not harmful and is one way of learning about your body.”

Have a problem with that, Lilley?

Big lies. Expect the anti-sex brigade to keep repeating them, because we all know the Big Lie strategy works.

Even in this sexually explicit age, we’re still squeamish about sex.

“I know sex is either boring or dirty.”
— I’m An Adult Now, The Pursuit of Happiness, 1986

Sex’s dirtiness and the shame imposed on my generation around sex — and earlier generations, too — fuels the titillation, fascination and explicitness over sex. Despite the sexual revolution of decades past, we’re still squeamish about it. Especially religious communities, who cannot get away from telling people about the kind of sex they should have.

By the way, as a parent, I really resent groups like the Institute of Canadian Values presuming to dictate to my kids whom they can marry. As far as values go, I think these are Canadian values: accepting differences, being inclusive, communicating openly, listening, showing mutual respect and caring, being honest. Where did I see those? Oh, yes — in the Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum for Grade 1.

What age is appropriate?

With every other topic, we teach people information before they start the activity, so they know what to expect and can take the right steps to protect themselves against inadvertent harm. We teach kids safe behavior near water before we teach them to swim. We teach teens the rules of the road in a classroom before we let them get behind the wheel of a car. So why should we not teach facts about sex before they’re of an age to be sexually active?

I remember when my kids came home from their first sex-education classes, in grade 3 or 4 — I can’t remember, offhand, which it was. Their reaction? “Gross!”

No danger that they were going to indulge in premature sexual activity in school.

The biggest lie is that, without sexual education in school, parents can “protect” their children against harm by keeping ideas and expressions about sex away from them. The reality is that our society is awash in sexual messages. The biggest movie is Fifty Shades of Gray, based on the book that broke all kinds of sales records of its own. Every time I go to the grocery store, the magazines at the check-outs invariably bear at least one headline about having “mind-blowing sex.”

And kids in school have all sorts of wrong ideas about sex, ideas that can be harmful. Many high school-age people believe that by having only oral and anal sex, they’ll remain virgins. Some believe that oral sex cannot expose you to sexually transmitted diseases. We owe our kids clear, correct information about health, which, despite anyone’s squeamishness, includes sex.

I don’t think children are harmed by facts.

They’re harmed when facts are hidden from them. For centuries, abusers have gotten away with sexually exploiting children partly because the shame that their victims felt prevented them from talking about it, from reporting it.

If we can talk openly and honestly about sex, without shame, the same way we talk about any other health topic — the way we talk about healthy food, for example — then maybe the next generation will have fewer sexual problems and healthier lives.

Denying facts won’t help that.

What do you think?

Monday, February 23, 2015

How to avoid awful committee writing: Go back to the beginning

“A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” That’s been attributed to more than one person, and it’s an excellent way to describe written documents that get approved by authorities who are more concerned about things other than the content of the documents themselves. In other words, documents produced by corporations and governments.

Recently, I’ve found some especially great examples of terrible writing. I’ve changed a few words to protect the guilty, without affecting the weight of its awfulness.

Many participants in consultations expressed the view that fostering a change in attitudes and behaviours is necessary to counter the culture of instant gratification and its impact on health.

That sentence is overloaded, cramming several ideas into one string of words: changing attitudes, which are distinct from behaviours; instant gratification as a culture; and health. As if that’s not enough, the Select Committee of Awful Writing Creation and Promotion (SCAWCP) jammed in the superfluous phrases “participants in consultations,” “expressed the view” and “fostering a change.”

Committees that review and approve writing seem to prefer passive sentences—the kind of sentence that doesn’t tell you who or what performed the action. I think that’s because the people on these committees either don’t want to take responsibility for the actions described, or don’t want to give anyone else credit.

Take this example:
Some positive results were reported from initiatives that help individuals reflect on personal values, set goals and take concrete steps to align their behaviours with their values and personal goals.

Committee writing often shows chains of words and phrases, placed so that readers cannot tell which is most important. Again, this probably results from the competitive nature of committees—no one is willing to let another’s idea take prominence over their own.

Participants in the consultations noted that many people are uncomfortable talking about colon health and that there is a stigma associated with getting help to improve health understanding, which has been a barrier to building their health knowledge.

What is that sentence about—the consultations, colon health, a social stigma, understanding of health or barriers to knowledge?

Here’s a string of adjectives. Maybe they’re all equally important to the plan, but SCAWCP apparently thinks a subject is not important:
With a focused plan that is inclusive, relevant and accessible, the aim is to help patients understand the Internet and take steps that will enable them to use online resources to their best advantage.

I feel sorry for the documents I took these sentences from. I imagine they began as good sentences, and then successive approvers stretched, contorted, twisted and mangled them beyond recognition. I don’t know what they even mean, anymore.

That’s the problem—neither did the committee. The people who had approval authority over these documents did not have the same objectives. The committees expected a single document to achieve different, sometimes competing goals.

What’s the solution? As always, go back to the beginning and get a GRIP:
  • Goal—why are you writing this sentence, this paragraph, this document? What do you want your readers to do after they read your document? Before you start writing, state the goal clearly. Keep it in mind while you are editing, reviewing or approving any document.Examples of goals: 
    • propose a strategy 
    • sell more products 
    • explain how to save money.
  • Reader—whom is this document for? What do they know, what do they need to understand, what motivates them?
  • Idea—the thesis statement, the most important idea in your document. Try this: “You have to only one sentence to tell me what your document says.”
  • Plan—the other ideas that support or prove the main idea. Put them in the order that will take the reader from your thesis statement to fulfilling your goal.

If your goal is to improve understanding of colon health, for example, you need to know who your readers are, what they know about colon health now, what they need to learn, and what would interest them in reading about their colons. Then you need to organize the information so that these particular readers can follow it.

However, getting an executive’s approval on your idea for a strategy to improve the public’s knowledge of colon health takes a very different document. Its goal would to get a signature or an approval to spend some resources, the reader would be one person or a small group of people, and the thesis would be something like: “We need to spend X dollars on this strategy so that this organization will benefit in the following particular way.”

Writing well is not easy, but it’s not complex, either. It’s a matter of keeping the basic rules in mind. The next time you submit your writing for approval, remind the review committee about your goal, reader and thesis.