Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Digital Strategist & Rhetorician

Simple Career Advice for Communications Students (And Maybe Everyone Else)

Lately, I’ve been participating in LinkedIn’s Career Advice feature, where people who want to work in communications can message me to ask for suggestions on what they should study, finding a job, what employers look for in a candidate, etc. It’s a rewarding experience that not only helps an eager student but also gives me an opportunity to reflect on what “worked” for me when I was starting out.

Last night I gave some general advice to a student in a master’s program who wants to increase the likelihood of getting a job immediately upon graduating. The advice I gave felt obvious to me…now. But I can’t recall anyone explicitly laying out these three simple points of career advice when I was in school, so here’s what I said…

Do Things

Focus on building a strong portfolio of your skills. Employers want to see that you can *do* things. In fact, there’s a certain approach to make your portfolio stand out from your peers. As much as you can, do pro bono or discounted work for local charities or small businesses. Student projects are fine, but having items in your portfolio that resulted from work will *real* clients under *real* circumstances that helped them achieve *real* goals will give you a portfolio that employers can’t ignore. Most charities and small businesses are in desperate need of help with communications and are more than happy to work with students. An added benefit of doing work for real clients is that it can also lead to word-of-mouth recommendations for jobs.

Meet People

If there’s a specific field you want to work in, find ways to meet people in that field. Attend happy hours, meetups, conferences, seminars, etc. Get involved with professional groups like the Society for Technical Communication, the Social Media Association, the Public Relations Society of America, etc. These groups often have big discounts for students. Ask members about their work and tell them you’re interested in working in their field.

Learn Stuff

Constantly add to your skill set. Lots of communications jobs now are a mixture of social marketing, paid advertising, writing, graphic design, etc. You can add to your value in the marketplace by being able to do a little bit of everything. Even if you’re not an expert, having a broad skill set will help you intelligently evaluate the work of contractors or direct reports. Don’t rely on your classes to hone your talents. Make it a habit that you learn something new—or a new aspect of a current skillevery quarter. (I still practice this habit almost ten years out of school.) And don’t neglect to learn timeless principles like classical rhetoric, of course. 🙂

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That’s it. Simple, perhaps obvious, career advice that helped me after graduation. What advice would you give to eager students? Tweet @DanielTRichards and let me know.

Pinker’s Sensible Style – A Book Review

To write good is hard. ::ahem:: Pardon me. To consistently write well is hard. ::ugh:: Let me try again. To write consistently well is hard. (Or is it, “To write well consistently…”?) ::sigh:: (On to the book review…)

Enter Steven Pinker, psycholinguist, cognitive scientist, and author of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014). Pinker is a prolific writer with books on a variety of topics: language, violence, human nature, and the mechanics of the mind. Heady stuff.

In The Sense of Style Pinker takes on the role of writing instructor—a compelling one at that. His guidance feels more like notes from a trusted mentor than a tome of commandments. He excels at making style relevant and interesting, two qualities seldom associated with composition pedagogy. In fact, Pinker positions himself as a sort-of “anti-Grammar Nazi,” a “Grammar Ally,” interested in both prescriptive and descriptive assessments of modern writing.

This book review takes a look at Pinker’s lessons for amateurs and masters alike. Let’s dig in…

No Rules!?

D"The Sense of Style" by Steven Pinkeron’t expect stylistic dictates from this 350+ page manual. Pinker isn’t “anti-rules,” though. He’s pro-thinking:

By replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence, I hope not just to avoid giving ham-fisted advice but to make the advice that I do give easier to remember than a list of dos and don’ts. Providing reasons should also allow writers and editors to apply the guidelines judiciously, mindful of what they are designed to accomplish, rather than robotically.”

Pinker focuses on non-fiction writing, though I argue that his lessons apply to many genres. In particular, he hones in on “classic style”:

a prose style in which the writer appears to direct the reader’s attention to an objective, concrete truth about the world by engaging the reader in conversation.

Dear reader: I ask—no, beg!—that, at the very least, you read chapter 2 of The Sense of Style. Familiarize yourself with the concept of classic style. Even a basic understanding of its purpose can have a profound impact on your writing:

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.”

And how can writers help readers see the world?

The things in the world the writer is pointing to, then, are concrete: people (or other animate beings) who move around in the world and interact with objects. […] Sometimes we do have to write about abstract ideas. What classic style does is explain them as if they were objects and forces that would be recognizable to anyone standing in a position to see them.”

Clarity above all else—achieved by taking “concepts” and turning them into something the reader can “perceive.”

Clarity’s Enemy

In a Scooby-Doo-esque fashion, Pinker unmasks the unexpected and well-disguised enemy of clarity: Knowledge. Zoinks! No, Pinker doesn’t argue that stupidity leads to clarity. He contends that knowledge can create a blind spot that curses smart people with increasingly obscure prose:

The Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. […] The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn.”

Pinker spills a considerable amount of ink explaining how to lift the Curse of Knowledge to accomplish clear, meaningful communication.

If you’re someone who learns by example, you’ll have plenty to peruse as the book contains snippets from superb writing in the genres of journalism, fiction, commentary,  journal articles, and even obituaries. Hilarious obituaries. Pinker also contrasts good style with bad and asks you to see the world of clear writing for yourself. (See what he did there?)

While I recommend most of The Sense of Style without reservation, I should point out that some chapters (4, some of 5, and 6) are not for the grammatically faint of heart. In chapters 4 and 5, Pinker gets into a complex, if understandable, discussion of syntax “trees.” This information is useful but requires intense focus—especially if you’re like me and reading on the Metro or in a coffee shop. Chapter 6, too, might be better to reference than read. It’s mostly lists of common style “rules,” their history, and how to proceed when writing. (For example: The proper uses of “who” and “whom.”) But maybe you, dear reader, find that stuff particularly fascinating(!).

I also implore the critical reader to judge for him- or herself whether Pinker accurately describes the history of using “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun—or if he defers to political correctness. (I lean toward the latter. His “prevalence” argument didn’t convince me.) Regardless let’s not throw out the baby with the tired clichés.

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is worth your time and Bitcoins—especially if you’re a competent writer interested in greatness.

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Thanks to Don Watkins, a master of clarity, for recommending this book. When Don recommends anything on writing or communication, I check it out. You should, too.

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Thanks for reading this book review. If you’re interested in the concept of clarity in communication, you should read Leonard Peikoff’s Objective Communication: Writing, Speaking and Arguing and Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics (together). In the field of visual communication, no one is better on clarity than Edward Tufte (Envisioning Information).

The Power of (Splitting) Dichotomies

A dichotomy is an equal split, taking a subject and saying, “There is THIS or THAT. The end.” Implied in the dichotomy is choice. Choose one side of the dichotomy or the other because choosing both would be a contradiction.

True dichotomies follow two criteria:

  1. Everything you’re discussing fits into EITHER one side of the dichotomy or the other.
  2. Nothing you’re discussing fits SIMULTANEOUSLY in both sides.

Violate either principle and you commit the logical fallacy of “false dichotomy.” Not cool.

For instance, if Joel claims that all food is either sweet or sour, he violates the first criterion since some food is bitter, savory, salty, etc. He also violates the second criterion because some food is both sweet and sour at the same time. BOO Joel.

Legit dichotomies can be rhetorically powerful as tools for framing debates. But the greatest power in dichotomy is breaking one. Let’s discuss:

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Description v. Prescription: Why Texts Drive You Crazy

Everyone has received one of those texts. The kind that makes you tilt your head or curse. Does he really hate your new shoes? Was he teasing you? WHAT IS HE TRYING TO SAY?

Meaning and intention rarely coalesce in written communication, and the shorter the text, the more likely you’ll misunderstand. Perhaps you read a message as “angry” when the sender was being flirtatious. Or maybe you responded to your boss with a “LOL” when she wanted your two weeks’ notice.

The problem with short, written communication like text messages is that people usually confuse description and prescription.

The basic differences between the two kinds of communication are obvious. Description focuses on what is:

Darren: Your sweater is made of wool.

Prescription focuses on what should be:

Paula: All sweaters ought to be made of wool.

But look what happens when description is confused with prescription.

Darren [to his girlfriend]: You got a haircut.
Paula: You don’t like it?
Darren: I was just making an observation!
Paula: Sounded like a judgement to me…

Oy. We’ve all been in Darren’s place—and Paula’s. Being misunderstood is no fun. And that brings us to texting. Watch what happens here:

Pierre [text]: Yo. How RU?
Daphne [text]: Super tired.
Pierre [text]: U don’t want 2 talk? (confusing description with prescription)
Daphne [text]: No! U asked how I was… (now a bit angry from being misunderstood)
Pierre [text]: LOL (not perceiving the anger)
Daphne [text]: Whatever. G’night.

I admit the conversation is a bit contrived. (Who really says “How RU?”) But it demonstrates a common issue that people experience every day—especially as the use of instant messaging and texting increases.

When emotional cues are missing, it’s easy to confuse description and prescription. That’s because statements about facts are also statements about values—but in specific contexts. This is important to keep in mind. Not every factual statement is a value statement in every conversation. To a clothing designer, “That sweater is made of wool,” might be an indictment of their work, but to your girlfriend, it should stand as an observation.

Luckily we can avoid confusing description and prescription by following a few basic guidelines for communication:

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4 Tips to Make Office Email Less Painful

Pacman EmailEmail often feels like a necessary evil—or an outright, unequivocal evil when using it for work.

OK, so maybe it’s not that bad. But most work email needs improvement, right? Here’s some advice for being a better communicator via electronic mail. (I’m talking to you, too, managers.)

The problem most people have when sending work email is they don’t anticipate what the person they’re talking to doesn’t know. Put differently: it’s hard to get out of our own heads. We know what we want (usually), and we know what we know (usually). But we’re not good at giving that information to other people because we assume they know what we know!

That assumption is wrong. And it can lead to frustrating strings of email asking for clarification and passive-aggressive responses. To avoid email Hell, include these four points in your office communiqué:

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