Microstyle: The art of writing little

A style guide that’s not a Style Guide. Ideal for writers and presenters

by Peter Watts

“Human attention is now the scare resource we all compete for”

Christopher Johnson’s “Microstyle” delivers a blueprint for how we can win our share of the scare resource. It is a travel guide for writing within the information economy.

Having read Microstyle around a year ago, I’ve had the chance to play with it’s ideas, and found them to work. The key-verb in that last sentence was “to play”. This is exactly what Christopher Johnson wants us to do.

He wants us to play with language in all it’s textures. Trained as a linguist, Johnson objects to what he calls “Big Style”; the grammarians who foam about split infinitives every time Captain Kirk utters the words “To boldly go….”

Language breathes. It lives and changes. 2,000 years ago the Roman orator Quintilian found fault with Roman grammarians attempting to set Latin style in concrete. Quintilian’s comment at the time was that if they didn’t let linguistic structures evolve, then Latin as a living language was doomed. Christopher Johnson would urge us to heed that lesson from history.

For someone who appears intent on demolishing “big style”, Johnson’s weapons of choice are a surprise. 90% originate in antiquity. He re-examines the rhetorical techniques of the Greeks and Romans, and integrates them into the modern world.

The guide shows how we can redeploy metaphor, tropes, and repetition techniques. Any Roman orator would have recognised the ideas, even if they wouldn’t have recognised the application to Twitter messages!

Along the way, Johnson exposes us as to why certain movie titles work, while others fail. He draws examples from wits such as Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde. He dives into poetry for an exploration of rhythm patterns that can make a micromessage leap off the screen. He demonstrates how to create blog and subject headings that intrigue and pull readers in.

The author states his goal as being to help social media writers achieve an “interaction of message, mind, and context, that will make meaning happen.”

He succeeds.

Social media presenting sales

by Peter Watts

The fields of social media, sales, and public speaking, can all benefit when they work together.

If public speaking can be thought of as blending a fine champagne, then the art of crafting social media is more akin to producing a cognac, distilling your message into something intense and immediate.

  • It teaches us to think in compelling sound bites
  • It teaches us to think in headlines that capture attention
  • It teaches us to give a story legs, with reasons for the audience to send the story viral.
  • It makes us think about the story-boards behind that story. Where does the message fit with our communication goals? Are we being consistent in our voice?

Disciplines for effective social media are disciplines that equally apply to public speaking. They are also disciplines that are sometimes forgotten by presenters.

A course in social media skills would be valuable learning for many!

Public speaking meanwhile, has ideas to contribute to the world of social media. At the heart of powerful speaking are techniques of word-play passed down since the times of the Greeks and Romans. These techniques of rhythm and repetition, contrast and combination are as wonderful when written as when spoken.

The Romans referred to them as being “the hidden darts”. Their role in a message is to make language stand-out, locking into the mind of the recipient.

In his book “Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little“, Christopher Johnson details how we can bring these techniques to social media messages. He states:

“We need a rhetoric for the web age – a rhetoric of the micromessage.”

This rhetoric of the web age will eventually evolve by itself, but it can come about more quickly if public speaking practitioners and social media professionals increasingly join forces and share their skills.

The disciplines of public speaking and social media are intensely complimentary. At their heart, each have the same goal: to produce audience action through the vehicle of a message.

As Johnson continues:

“A message…is like a key that opens doors.”

Public speaking has been opening doors for millennia. By understanding and combining the skills of social media, we can now open doors further and wider than ever before.

Sales meanwhile, are never afraid to ask for the business. Professional sales people maintain sight of how the product fits to the customer’s needs, and through that understanding develop the unique customer insights that lead to value. They also understand that for every customer journey, there must be an end-point; the sale. It is through awareness of the sales discipline, that public speaking and commercial social media efforts can continually focus on their goal.

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