November 22:  Pixar Pitch Day

On this day in 1995 the computer-animated film Toy Story was released by Walt Disney Pictures.  The film, directed by John Lasseter, was the first feature-length film produced by Pixar Animation Studios, a subsidiary of Walt Disney.  Widely considered one of the greatest animated films of all time, Toy Story and has earned over $350 million.

Film poster showing Woody anxiously holding onto Buzz Lightyear as he flies in Andy's room. Below them sitting on the bed are Bo Peep, Mr. Potato Head, Troll, Hamm, Slinky, Sarge and Rex. In the lower right center of the image is the film's title. The background shows the cloud wallpaper featured in the bedroom.Today Pixar Animation Studios, located in Emeryville, California, is one of the most successful studios in movie history, grossing over $7 billion and winning 26 Oscars.  Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 have all won the Academy Award for Best Animated Features.

In his book To Sell Is Human, Daniel H. Pink attributes the success of Pixar to “The Pixar Pitch,” a template that provides a structure for the most important part of every Pixar film – the story:

Once upon a time____________.  Every day____________.  One day____________.  Because of that, ____________.  Because of that,_____________.  Until finally___________.

The following is an example of a pitch for Finding Nemo:

Once upon a time there was a widowed fish named Marlin who was extremely protective of his only son, Nemo. Every day, Marlin warned Nemo of the ocean’s dangers and implored him not to swim far away. One day in an act of defiance, Nemo ignores his father’s warnings and swims into open water. Because of that, he is captured by a diver and ends up as a pet in the fish tank of a dentist. Because of that, Marlin sets off on a journey to recover Nemo….Until finally Marlin and Nemo find each other, reunite, and learn that love depends on trust.

According to Pink, the strength of the Pixar Pitch format is that it a concise and controlled “framework that takes advantage of the well-documented persuasive force of stories” (1).  Just as the fourteen lines of a sonnet seem to be the best package for a message of love, the six-sentence template of the Pixar Pitch is the perfect way to deliver a packaged plot.

Today’s Challenge:  The Six-Sentence Sell

What story would you tell using the Pixar Pitch as your template?  Try your hand at creating a narrative that uses the six-sentence structure of the Pixar Pitch.  Imagine that you are making a pitch for the next Pixar feature.  If you are working with others, have a contest to see who can come up with the most compelling pitch.

Quotation of the Day:  In the South, we tell stories. We tell stories if you’re in a sales position, if you’re in a retail position, you lure your customer by telling a story. You just do. -Tate Taylor

 

1-Pink, Daniel.  To Sell Is Human. New York:  Riverhead Books, 2012: 170-174.

 

November 21:  Invention Day

On this day in 1877, Thomas Edison announced his latest invention, the tinfoil phonograph.  Edison, who held over 1,000 patents, came up with the idea of the phonograph while working on his telephone transmitter.

Working with his machinist John Kruesi, he constructed a machine with a grooved cylinder which was mounted on a long shaft.  Tin foil was wrapped around the cylinder.  Using a hand crank to record on the tin foil, Edison’s first recording was a nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  After playing the recording back and realizing that it worked perfectly, Edison was amazed but cautious.  He said, “I never was so taken back in my life.  Everybody was astonished.  I was always afraid of things that worked the first time.”  Today we know Edison for the lightbulb, which came about in 1879; however, it was the phonograph that boosted Edison’s reputations as a great inventor.  Edison continued working on improving his phonograph, and in 1887 he produced a more satisfactory commercial model using wax cylinders for recording (1).

Creating the name of a new invention can be almost as important as the invention itself.  Based one of Edison’s notebooks from his Menlo Park, New Jersey laboratory, we have evidence that Edison gave careful thought to naming his invention before its launch, making a list of possible names, most using roots from Greek or Latin.  Before settling on the Greek phonograph (“phono” = sound + “graph” = writing or recording), Edison considered more than 50 possible names; the six listed below are some examples:

Brontophone = Thunder sounder

Phemegraph = speech writer

Orcheograph = vibration record

Bittako-phone = Parrot speaker

Hemerologophone = Speaking almanac (2)

Invention For Writers

Like Edison, Ancient rhetoricians were devoted to invention; to them, however, invention was the name of the first phase of generating ideas for speaking and writing. Two of the three books of Aristotle’s Rhetoric are devoted to invention, and the Roman orator Cicero made invention the first of his five canons of rhetoric: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery.

Sometimes called prewriting, invention is a deliberate process for discovering the best way to approach a writing task, and the best method is to ask yourself some key questions before putting together a first draft:

PURPOSE:  What is the purpose of your writing; in other words, what is the goal you are trying to accomplish by writing?

ARGUMENT:  What are the arguments on both sides of the issue you are addressing?  Imagine and anticipate what your opponent will say so that you can construct the most cogent argument.

AUDIENCE:  What do you know about your audience?  What do you want from them, and what do they value and care about that is relevant to your case?

EVIDENCE:  What kinds of evidence do you have to support your argument? Do you have enough, and does it forcefully support your argument?

APPEALS:  How will you employ logos, pathos, and ethos to make your argument compelling?

Today’s Challenge:

What would you say is the most overrated and the most underrated inventions of all time?  Your task is to convince an audience of your peers that one invention is either the most overrated or most underrated invention of all time. Begin by brainstorming two columns, listing both overrated and underrated inventions.  Then, use the questions regarding purpose, argument, audience, evidence, and appeals to generate the best approach to putting together the text of a successful persuasive speech.

Quotation of the Day:  Instead of just sitting down and writing a speech, I walk outside, scuffle my feet through the dead leaves, and figure out what everybody wants, starting with me.  That’s the first part of invention:  What do I want?  Is my goal to change the audience’s mood, its mind, or its willingness to do something?  -Jay Heinrichs, in Thank You for Arguing

1-http://edison.rutgers.edu/tinfoil.htm

2- Usher, Shaun.  Lists of Note:  An Eclectic Collection Deserving of a Wider Audience.  San Francisco:  Chronicle Books, 2015: 242.

 

November 20:  Significant Object Day

On this day in 2009 a fascinating five month anthropological study was completed by two writers, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn.  The hypothesis of the study was that storytelling has the power to raise the value a physical object.

To test their hypothesis the researchers acquired 100 objects at garage sales and thrift stores at a cost of no more than two dollars per object.  In phase two of the study, each object was given to a writer who crafted a short, fictional story about the object.  Each object was then listed for auctioned on eBay with the invented story as the item description.  Walker and Glenn carefully identified each item description as a work of fiction.  Based on the results of the study, the average price of an object was raised by 2,700 percent.  The total cost of the purchasing the 100 objects was $128.74; the total sales on eBay reached a total of $3,612.51.  For example, a duck vase purchased for $1.99 sold for $15.75.  A motel room key purchased for $2.00 sold for $45.01.

Walker and Glenn compiled the results of their study, including a photo of each object along with its accompanying story, in the book Significant Objects:  100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things.

In the book the following story by Colson Whitehead yielded $71.00 for a weathered wooden mallet that was originally purchased for 33 cents:

On September 15th, 2031 at 2:35am, a temporal rift — a “tear” in the very fabric of time and space — will appear 16.5 meters above the area currently occupied by Jeffrey’s Bistro, 123 E Ivinson Ave, Laramie, WY.  Only the person wielding this mallet will be able to enter the rift unscathed.  If this person then completes the 8 Labors of Worthiness, he or she will become the supreme ruler of the universe.

To see additional objects and their stories, visit www.significantobjects.com.

Clearly, stories captivate our interest and attention like nothing else.  Packaging both ideas and emotion in a narrative makes a powerful combination, and results of the Significant Objects Study provides us with quantitative evidence of this.  As stated by Walker and Glenn, “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively” (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Junk Drawer Stories

What inventive story would you write to give value to a seemingly valueless object?  Go to your junk drawer and find a physical object of little value.  Then, craft a short narrative about the background of the object.  If you are working with a group or class of storytellers, have a Significant Object Contest or a Significant Object Slam (SOS) to share your stories. (Common Core Writing 3 –

Quotation of the Day:  There are books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story… don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words–the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book. -Stephen King

 

1-Walker, Rob and Joshua Glen.  Significant Objects:  100 Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things.  Seattle, WA:  Fantagraphics Books, 2012.

 

November 19:  Gettysburg Address Day

On this day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln presented his Gettysburg Address.  The occasion was the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the Union army’s victory in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-4, 1863.  Lincoln was not the main speaker at the dedication; that position was given to the scholar and statesman Edward Everett, the best-known orator of the time.  Everett spoke for approximately two hours; Lincoln, who took the podium at the end of the long ceremony, spoke for three minutes.

Lincoln’s address may have been short, but the words were certainly not short on impact.  His 267-word speech has been called “the best-known monument of American prose” and Carl Sandburg, one of America’s great poets, called the Gettysburg Address “the great American poem.”  

Although Lincoln’s address was a speech, it can be classified as a prose poem, a composition that is a hybrid of prose and poetry.  Written in complete sentences, like prose, a prose poem nevertheless relies heavily on a variety of poetic elements that give the prose the sound and emotional impact of poetry.

Reading the speech aloud, you can hear a variety of poetic sound effects:

Consonance:  for those who gave their lives that this nation might live.

Internal Rhyme:  we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate

Alliteration:  will little note nor long remember

But what makes the most impact in the speech is the harmony between Lincoln’s form and his content.  Skillfully employing the rhetorical strategies he had acquired by reading Shakespeare and the King James Bible, Lincoln presents themes that are antithetical:  birth and death.  To bring balance and harmony to these opposing themes, he employs parallel structure, principally tricolon and anaphora.  

Notice for example the opposites (antithesis) in the following sentence from the middle of the speech:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Lincoln was at Gettysburg to honor the dead, but his purpose was also to move the living by reminding them that the war was not just about the victory of the Union, it was rather about the survival of the nation.  This theme of bringing harmony out of the chaos of war is echoed in the parallel syntax of Lincoln’s long final sentence.  Notice for example the anaphora of the “that” clause and tricolon employing three parallel prepositional phrases:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us

—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion

—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain

—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom

—and that government

of the people,

by the people,

for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Today’s Challenge:  Two Voices

How would you break up the words, phrases, and clauses of  “The Gettysburg Address” into a poem for two voices?  Transform Lincoln’s prose poem into a poem for Two Voices.  Paul Fleishman popularized this form in his book Joyful Noise:  Poems for Two Voices (See September 5:  Two Voices Day). Written to be read aloud by two people, poems for two voices are written in two columns.  Each reader is assigned a single column, and the two readers alternate, reading the lines in turn from the top to the bottom of the page.  Reader’s join their voices whenever words are written on the same line in both columns.

Play with the contrasts and the rhythms of Lincoln’s short speech to create your own unique version.  As you write, practice with a partner to create the most dramatic possible performance.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Quotation of the Day:  . . . . Lincoln was a literary artist, trained both by others and by himself.  The textbooks he used as a boy were full of difficult exercises and skillful devices in formal rhetoric, stressing the qualities he practiced in his own speaking:  antithesis, parallelism, and verbal harmony. -Gilbert Highet

November 18:  Idioms from History Day

Today marks the anniversary of a tragic event that gave birth to the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  People use this idiomatic expression today to negatively characterize someone who they feel is blindly and unthinkingly following a person or ideology.  As with many idiomatic expressions or dead metaphors (expressions that mean something different from the literal meaning of the individual words), most have forgotten the ghastly historical events that led to the phrase.

On November 18, 1978, 900 members of the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, formerly located in California, committed mass suicide at their Jonestown settlement in Guyana, South America.  Under the direction of their leader Reverend Jim Jones, the congregation, which included 300 children, drank a powdered soft drink laced with cyanide.  This tragic display of blind obedience to a cult leader was sparked by the visit of U.S Congressman Leo Ryan who was investigating allegations of human rights abuses at Jonestown. After ordering his gunmen to kill Ryan and a group of journalists who accompanied the congressman on the trip, Jones embarked on his final desperate act, ordering his followers to ingest the poison. Jones, himself, was found dead the next day of a self-inflicted gun shot shot wound.

Usually the exploration of the history or etymology of an idiomatic expression does not yield a specific known origin, much less a specific date as in “drink the Kool-Aid.”  Often an idiom’s origin derives from myth, folklore, literature, or legend, and often there are a number of competing stories behind the phrase’s origin.  For example, one idiom “the whole nine yards,” has several  possible origins according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms:

the amount of cloth required to make a complete suit of clothes; the fully set sails of three-masted ship where each mast carries three yards, that is, spars, to support the sails; or the amount of cement (in cubic yards) contained in a cement mixer . . . . (713).

Today’s Challenge:  What’s the Story?

What origins of idiomatic expressions have you heard about, or what origins have you wondered about?  The list of expressions below all have their origins in a specific historical time period.  Select one, and do some research to find the story behind the idiom.  You may not be able to find a specific date, but you should be able to find a general time period from which the expression came.  Based on your research, write the story behind the expression as well as a brief explanation of meaning of the expression as it is used today.

cross the Rubicon

jump the shark

push the envelope

a Pyrrhic victory

read the riot act

red tape

turn a blind eye

voted off the island

Quotation of the Day:  The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. -George Orwell

1-http://mentalfloss.com/article/13015/jonestown-massacre-terrifying-origin-drinking-kool-aid

 

November 17:  Animal Metaphor Day

On this date in 1970 a patent was issued for the first computer mouse.

The invention of the mouse is credited to Douglas Engelbart, who created what he called an “X-Y position indicator for a display system” in 1964 while working for the Stanford Research Institute. His invention, a wooden shell with two metal wheels was called a “mouse” while it was being developed in the lab because its cord resembled a mouse’s tail . In 1970, a decade before personal computers went on the market, there was little application for such a device.  It would be ten more years before someone stepped up to take the mouse to the big time.

In early 1980 Apple co-founder Steve Job visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where he saw a computer called the Alto. The Alto operated with a graphical user interface that used icons and a handheld input device called a mouse.  The problem, however, was that the Alto’s mouse was primitive and would cost $400 to manufacture.  To solve this problem, Jobs turned to an industrial design firm called Hovey-Kelley Design and challenged them to not only improve the durability and efficiency of the Xerox mouse, but also to reduce the cost from $400 to $35.  Hovey-Kelley took the challenge, and miraculously they succeeded.  In 1983, the Apple Lisa, the first personal computer to offer a graphic user interface, appeared on the market.

At a price of almost $10,000, the Lisa was not a commercial success, but Apple rebounded one year later with the Macintosh 128K. Like the Lisa, the Macintosh had a single-button mouse. The Macintosh and its graphic user interface revolutionized personal computing.

With the popularity of Microsoft Windows in the 1990s, the mouse became what it is today: ubiquitous (1).

Something else that is ubiquitous is the use of animals as metaphors in our language, terms like “computer mouse” that feature names but that have no literal connection to the animal that is named.

Today’s Challenge:  Waiter, There’s a Fly in My Dictionary

Can you name some two-word phrases in English that use animals as metaphors?  Brainstorm a list of ideas, and see if you can add to the list below:

black sheep

white elephant

dog days

cash cow

cold turkey

copy cat

crocodile tears

cry wolf

dark horse

eat crow

guinea pig

hornet’s nest

kangaroo court

lame duck

lion’s share

loan shark

monkey business

night owl

paper tiger

play possum

rat race

red herring

road hog

sitting duck

snail male

spring chicken

stool pidgeon

top dog

Select a single two-word metaphor, and write a definition of the phrase, explaining its literal definition as well as the story behind the phrase’s origin.  Imagine you are writing to a reader for whom English is a second language.  Make your explanation clear by using some specific examples to illustrate how and in what contexts the metaphor might be used? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The animal is ignorant of the fact that he knows. The man is aware of the fact that he is ignorant. -Victor Hugo

1-https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=37694

http://listverse.com/2011/08/06/10-origins-of-common-internet-terms/

 

November 16:  Proverb Day

On this date in 1932, the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1870-1970) published an essay entitled, “On Proverbs.”  For Russell the key characteristic of these proclamations of practical, timeless wisdom is that “they are remarkable for their terseness.”  Proverbs are models of economical writing, short, pithy, and usually anonymous.  As an example, Russell presents “More haste, less speed,” saying that it “could not possibly be said in fewer words.”

While he is impressed with the terseness of proverbs, Russell sees a problem in using them to support an argument:

The great advantage of a proverb in argument is that it is supposed to be incontrovertible, as embodying the quintessential sagacity of our ancestors.  But when once you have realized that proverbs go in pairs which say opposite things you can never again be downed by a proverb; you merely quote the opposite.

So, for example, when one person proclaims “Actions speak louder than words,” the other person can turn to the counter-proverb “The pen is mightier than the sword” (1).

One other notable aspect of proverbs is stated in a definition by philosopher and poet Moses Ebn Ezra:  “[Proverbs have] “three characteristics:  few words, good sense, and a fine image.”  Study the proverbs below, and notice how often they use imagery, usually figurative, to wrap up showing and telling into one tiny, concise package:

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

No man is an island.

Birds of a feather flock together.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

The early bird catches the worm.

A watched pot never boils

Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

A penny saved is a penny earned.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill.

Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Today’s Challenge:  A Proverbial Autobiographical Anecdote
What proverb comes to your mind when you think of wisdom you have gained based on your life experiences so far?  Write an anecdote about an incident from your life that illustrates the truth of a single proverb.  Just as Aesop told short fables followed by terse statements of general truths, follow your anecdote with the proverb that the anecdote illustrates.  Once you have finished, read your anecdote to a friend to see if he/she can guess the proverb before you reveal it.

Quotation of the Day:  Proverbs are short sentences drawn from long experience.  -Miguel de Cervantes

1-Russell, Bertrand.  Mortals and Others, 1932:  133-34.

 

 

November 15:  Balanced Sentence Day

On this day in 1859, the final installment of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities was published.  As with most of Dickens’ novels, A Tale of Two Cities was published in serial form.  Weekly installments of the novel began in April 1859 and the final installment was issued on November 15, 1859.

Tales serial.jpgDickens (1812-1870), the author of such classic works at Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Christmas Carol, was the most popular novelist of his time, and A Tale of Two Cities is the single greatest selling book of any genre with more than 200 million copies sold (1).

The book is a historical novel, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.  It’s appropriate that in a novel with two settings, the author would use the scheme called “balance.”  When writing about two or more similar ideas, writers balance the ideas by stating them in the same grammatical form using parallel structure, as in “United we stand, divided we fall.”  You can see and hear this balance in the famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities.  Notice that although Dickens is introducing contrasting ideas (best and worst, wisdom and foolishness), the clauses of the sentence follow the same grammatical structure to create balance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . .  

Using parallelism, anaphora, and antithesis, Dickens creates a long sentence that is nevertheless easy to follow because of its balanced structure.  The asymmetry of the contrasting ideas (antithesis) is brought back into balance by the symmetry of the parallel structure.

Just as Dickens opened his novel with a balanced sentence, he comes full circle in the final sentence of his novel, using a perfectly balanced sentence to express the final thoughts of one the story’s major characters, Sydney Carton:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Noticed how the two sides of the sentence, separated by the semicolon, are balanced by repetition and parallel structure.

Just as with all rhetorical or stylistic devices, you don’t want to overuse balanced sentences; however, it is a powerful club to have in your rhetorical golf bag.

Today’s Challenge:  Claim A Contrast

What claim would you make using two contrasting ideas, such as love/hate or success/failure, in the same sentence? Brainstorm a list of some contrasting ideas, such as,  joy/sorrow, freedom/slavery, war/peace.  Then, write a balanced sentence that makes a claim based on the differences in the two topics.

For example, the following balanced sentences makes a claim about the contrasting ideas logic and creativity:

Logic teaches us about the world; creativity teaches us about ourselves.

Notice how the two independent clauses of the compound sentence are balanced by parallelism.

Once you have your own balanced sentence, use it as your topic sentence for a paragraph that supports your claim using contrast, details, examples, evidence, and explanation. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever. -Mahatma Gandhi

1-http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7685510/David-Mitchell-on-Historical-Fiction.html

 

November 14:  Sentence Variety Day

On this day in 1944, writing instructor Gary Provost was born. Provost earned his living as a freelance writer, authoring over 1,000 stories and articles.  He also wrote books in a variety of genres, including young adult novels, true crime books, and books about writing.

In 1985, Provost published a comprehensive guide for writers called 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  In the book Provost covered a range of topics, from overcoming writer’s block to avoiding punctuation errors.  One particularly brilliant chapter of the book is on sentence variety.  Provost might have simply told his readers about the importance of sentence variety; instead, in one of the greatest meta-paragraphs ever written, he shows the reader:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important. (1)

As Provost’s paragraph illustrates, good writing has the rhythm and resonance of spoken language.  Writers can’t write exactly like they talk.  After all, much of our spoken language relies on nonverbal cues.  Writers can, however, imitate one universal trait of spoken language:  variety in sentence length – some long, some medium, and some short.  As you revise your writing, read it aloud.  When your sentences begin to sound monotonous, check for variety in the length of your sentences, as well as for variety in the type of sentences you write.  Often your ears will catch problems that your eyes missed.  Try it.  

Today’s Challenge:  Hold Your Ear Up to This Paragraph

What would you say is the secret to making written sentences sound as natural as spoken sentences?  The paragraph below does not have much variety in sentence lengths.  Read the paragraph aloud, and listen to where it could be improved.  Then, revise the paragraph by breaking up or combining sentences as needed.  You may eliminate any unnecessary words, but try not to eliminate any of the paragraph’s key ideas:

The words in a sentence are like Lego building blocks.  The English sentence is made up of various parts.  These parts snap together like Legos of logic.  You can construct solid, syntactical structures to make sentences.  English words, phrases, and clauses come in multiple colors and forms.  The sentence builder can use them to construct many creations. Some of these creations are small, some are medium, and some are large.  There’s no end to the fun you can have building sentences.

As you complete your revision, read it aloud.  When you have finished, write down the number of words in each sentence.  Check the range of the number of words in each of your sentences.  Do you have some that are long, some that are medium, and some that are short?  Use this strategy on your own paragraphs as a method of revision.  Read aloud.  Revise.  And try to capture the magic of the spoken word in your sentences.

Quotation of the Day:  Though the daily paper contains much that is swill, it also contains some good writing. From it you can learn to write leanly, you can learn to get to the point, and you can learn to compress several facts into a single clear sentence.  -Gary Provost

1-Provost, Gary.  100 Ways to Improve Your Writing.  New York:  New American Library, 1985:  60-61.

November 13:  TED Talks Day

On this date in 2012, TED.com presentations reached one billion views.  TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) was created by Richard Saul Wurman, who hosted the first TED conference in Monterey, California in 1984.  Attendees paid $475 to watch a variety of 18-minute presentations.  In 2009, TED began to depart from its once a year model by granting licenses to third parties for community-level TEDx events.  The TED.com website was launched in 2006, and today there are TED events in more than 130 countries.  

While the number of TED talks has increased over the years, the basic template of each talk remains the same as the first talks in 1984.  Each presentation is crafted to be emotional, novel, and memorable.

In his book Talk Like TED, communication coach Carmine Gallo acknowledges that the success of any TED presentation relies on a communication theory that goes back to an era long before TED talks:

The Greek philosopher Aristotle is one of the founding fathers of communication theory.  He believed that persuasion occurs when three components are represented:  ethos, logos, and pathos.  Ethos is credibility.  We tend to agree with people whom we respect for their achievements, title, experience, etc.  Logos is the means of persuasion through logic, data and statistics.  Pathos is the act of appealing to emotions.

Gallo suggests that speakers analyse their presentations by assigning each sentence of the speech to one of the three appeals.  The best presentations, Gallo says, will contain a high percentage of pathos.  Persuasion is defined as “influencing someone to act by appealing to reason”; however, reason alone will not win the day.  We’ve been telling stories much longer than we have been arranging formal arguments or writing our ideas down on paper.  Great speakers know the power of story and imagery to inject emotion and meaning into a speech (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Make a Persuasion Pie

What are the key qualities that make an effective oral presentation?  Watch a TED talk of your choice, and as you watch, take notes on where the speaker uses logos, ethos, and pathos.  After you’ve watched the speech, create a pie chart in which you assign each of the three appeals a percentage.  Write an analysis of the presentation in which you explain the percentages and the impact of each appeal.  For the full effect, watch a second TED Talk and compare your second pie to the first to decide which talk was more effective.

Quotation of the Day:  Dale Carnegie wrote the first mass market public-speaking and self-help book in 1915, “The Art of Public Speaking”  . . . . He recommended that speakers keep their talks short.  He said stories were powerful ways of connecting emotionally with your audience.  He suggested the use of rhetorical devices such as metaphors and analogies. -Carmine Gallo

1-Gallow, Carmine.  Talk Like TED:  The 9 Public-speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2014:  47-48.