Think about something good that happened to you recently. Something small, something significant, it doesn’t matter what. Can you remember exactly what occurred?
As the memory comes back to you, think about the nature of what you are actually remembering. Are you recalling the things that were said, and that you say to yourself about what happened? Or are you picturing it, and even visualising the concept of happiness? Or perhaps the memory brings up strong feelings that you can almost feel again right now in your body?
For most people, it will be one of those more than the others. People experience the world in three different ways. They either hear it, see it, or feel it. When they recall experiences, it will mainly be through sounds, pictures or physical feelings.
We are all capable of experiencing in all three ways (and more), but there is usually one way that dominates all the others: hearing (auditory), seeing (visual), or feeling (kinesthetic).
Don’t let the name put you off. The concept comes from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Don’t let that name put you off either (if you haven’t heard of NLP, now might not be the best time to start – you’ll have a lot more fun reading the rest of this post).
Have you got which way you process information yet? Auditory, visual, or kinesthetic?
Let’s break it down to make it easier. If I asked a mixed group of people to think of something good that happened to them recently:
– would remember what was said and the things they tell themselves about what happened. “Jeffrey said my blog post was lovely”. “I remember thinking ‘that’s a nice surprise’”. They have the experience in sound bites. They can hear the story in words, and will remember other sounds as well. High noise levels or silence. A bird singing. The woman’s unusual voice.
– would recall images and visual impressions of the experience. Specific snapshots of the scene, but also darkness and light, and even colours to represent how they felt. “It’s all a bit misty now”. They will recall visual details that others will have missed, such as the shadow a window frame cast on the wall.
– would locate what happened in their bodies, either specifically (“like a bubble bursting upwards in my chest”) or as a general feeling (“I felt really light”). They’ll remember how they felt and also physical parts of the experience such as contact with others, or temperature in the room. They’ll probably remember being hungry or stuffed, or carrying an injury to a part of their bodies.
You can often spot which system people favour the most by watching their eyes when they recall experiences. If they look upwards, they’re most likely to be visual. Sideways indicates auditory, and down suggests more kinesthetic. A more reliable way is to listen to the words and phrases that they repeat.
But why am I telling you about this?
You’re writing on the web to move your audience. You want them to get the picture that you’re painting. To believe your voice. If only you knew more about how they processed information…
Well now you do. People will be most receptive to ideas expressed in their dominant representational system.
Talk to auditory people in the language of hearing:
I heard an important truth and I need to tell you.
Does that sound good to you?
Let’s tone down the discussion.
Listen, we need to talk.
Show visual people what it looks like:
I saw this incredible example – does it look okay to you?
You need to see this.
Imagine the bigger picture for a moment.
Let’s make it as clear as day.
Touch kinesthetic people with physical descriptions:
Will they get a grip on this?
You’ll feel good about this tomorrow.
Hold that thought, don’t let it go.
We need to touch on the most important issue.
When writing to one person you can craft your communication to match their style (as long as you’ve found it out first). When writing to more than one, perhaps millions, on a web site for example, the important thing is to mix up the language and target all three types throughout your copy.
My writing is usually heavy with imagery and visual expressions because I experience things visually. The first challenge for me is to expand my phrases and vocabulary to embrace the listeners and feelers too.
Appealing to your audience is a must if you’re a writer. Knowing that they don’t all experience the world in the same way that you do must be a good thing, as long as you can find new ways to engage on their terms. ‘Appealing’ for example is a more auditory concept – you must enlighten and grab them as well.
What is your preferred system? Do you get trapped in one way of describing things? Does mixing it up sound like a helpful tip for writing? Can you spot the ways I’ve appealed to the auditory, visual and kinesthetic in this post?
I’m working on content for an estate agent (that’s a realtor in the US). On their old site they have one of the worst metaphors that I’ve seen on a serious commercial web site. They have a basket.
That you can put houses in.
Think about that for a moment. As you browse through the site, looking for homes that fit your criteria, you can add ones that you like to a basket. Once they are in there, you click ‘View basket’ to see a list of homes you’ve chosen. There they are, snuggled at the bottom of the basket, waiting for you to – ‘click the register button to post off your details to the agent’. Whatever that means.
It’s not just that there is no basket big enough to put a house in. Or that houses are fixed to the ground.
It’s also what process is suggested by this metaphor. When I’m shopping with a physical basket, I’m in a hurry: I put several different items in at once, and just before checkout I ditch the one I don’t need and grab something else that just caught my eye.
I buy my groceries that way. I buy books that way too, at least online. But I will never buy a house that way. Ever.
Finally, crucially, on all the other sites I use where basket shopping makes sense, I use the basket to carry items to a checkout. On a property web site I don’t. The next stage is to make an enquiry, perhaps to organise a viewing. I am not committing to anything just yet.
Without getting too metaphysical, the web relies heavily on metaphors. The ‘web’ itself is a metaphor, as is ‘web site’, ‘forum’, ‘browser’ and so on. We need familiar pictures to help us understand our engagement with this complex system. We need metaphors to shape for us an experience of the web that is useful and instructive.
That’s why naming features and concepts and processes is so important. Metaphors are vital to this task. That’s why I love ‘basket’ – on Amazon – why ‘following’ aids my understanding of Twitter but ‘streams’ confuses me a bit on Flickr.
I’m not talking about writing poetry. I’m talking about finding the pictures that will help your users to understand, enjoy, and make use of the web site you have created for them.
Baskets for houses was bad for three reasons. Flip those three objections on their heads and we’ve got three elements for a strong metaphor:
In other words, when your readers first see your metaphor, it doesn’t jar with them. The picture works in their minds. We need to avoid cognitive dissonance – which means that when people try to imagine what you have conjured up for them it doesn’t work, or works crudely. For example trying to put houses into a basket, or thinking of photographs as a stream (instead of a set, a gallery, or even a roll).
A strong metaphor should achieve the opposite. When your readers first encounter it, they should get it. It should make sense, be instantly helpful or friendly or illustrative. The visual image in their heads should work.
Of course cognitive dissonance can be used to making a shocking point, for example ‘social media is like teen sex‘; ‘meatball sundae‘; or calling religious leaders ‘whitewashed tombs’ – but that’s not usually what we’re talking about when it comes to naming a feature on your web site.
There have to be enough comparisons between your feature and the metaphor to warrant picking that label over another. And they have to be the parallels that you want people to understand, otherwise it becomes and unhelpful distraction.
Facebook’s ‘wall’ is a good example. These parallels work: if I stick things up on a wall, everyone who comes by will be able to see them. The wall will always be there whenever they come past. I can take some off (out of view), or add things on (in view again). It is physical space where I can see things that have been stuck there to be seen.
These attributes of a wall don’t work for Facebook: you can climb a wall, and see what is being kept out (or in) on the other side. But that doesn’t matter. The important parallels are public visibility, permanence, and choice of what to display on it. I get those from the wall metaphor.
Finally, the real failure of ‘basket’ for houses is that you take a basket to the checkout, whereas when you see a house online you make an enquiry about viewing it. Totally different outcomes.
Where are you leading people with your metaphors?
A good example is the ‘radio’ feature on Spotify. It actually has very little in common with a radio – which is a physical receiver for electromagnetic transmissions that you to tune into by selecting a specific frequency – but Spotify want you to end up at the same place: listening to a non-stop stream of music they have chosen for you (as opposed to the other functions of searching and creating playlists).
Spotify is not a radio, but they use ‘radio’ as a metaphor to get you listening to music. It is a metaphor chosen to bring about the right outcome.
So what would be a better metaphor for an estate agent’s list of homes than ‘basket’? It needs to create cognitive harmony (a good first impression), be a constructive analogy (say the right things), and lead to a fitting outcome.
‘Shortlist’ would work. Boring, but effective. ‘Wish list’ jazzes the process up a bit, and creates a more aspirational tone. Perhaps even ‘portfolio’ – to lend greater significance to the process of looking for houses, and suggest that it is something of value worth returning for.
Basically, anything but basket.
What do you think? What other elements are necessary for an helpful metaphor? What shrewdly effective – or terrifyingly awful – metaphors have you come across on the web?
What have Millennials, Job Snobs, Echo Boomers, the Net Generation, First Digitals, Peter Pan, and Trophy Kids all got in common?
They are all names thrown at Generation Y. Although you can never actually define a generation – these things will always be gross generalisations – people talk about a generation born between the late 1970’s and the mid 1990’s. Let’s say 1979–1994.
From my basic, generalised grasp of what Generation Y is about, we’re talking:
1. Want to be happy, and instantly
2. Concerned for their friends – very peer-orientated
3. There’s no bigger picture – less competitive, don’t trust corporate
Compare that with some observations about the way that information is accessed and engaged with on the web:
1. We want usefulness from short, scannable content
2. We use social media and constant communication
3. It’s too fast paced for big picture learning, need authority to trust
Anyone else see the connection?
Of course, it’s rather obvious. If the need wasn’t out there, we would have built a different web (or a different environment altogether). But I got thinking about what the relationship between the current teens and twenties and the emerging web really is.
On the one hand, it’s a stupid exercise, because it’s based on generalisations and can never be answered. On the other hand, I like the questions it throws up.
– then what will the next generation cause?
Early comments about Generation Z, the digital natives, have little to say as yet. They’re only small, bless ‘em. But what we can see is that they have grown up with instant, connected technology and less traditional family setups. Raised by Facebook. How can we prepare for what they will demand from the web?
And if the web has been shaped by Gen Y’s values of instant–useful–peer–personal then surely they are also demanding the same things from other offline environments: traditional communications, retail and services, and education. Is the only difference between online and offline that offline takes longer to change? In other words, never mind the differences between print and the web – all of it needs to change to be relevant. Or die.
– then what responsibility do we have for what we’re shaping?
If each time we make it easier and social we contribute to a generation being centred on instant–self–friends–happiness, is that what we wanted to create? Are we doing a good job? For example, if shorter, scannable content is leading to shorter, shallower attention engagement, should we raise the game? This far but no further?
– then we are lucky that they match so well, but shouldn’t take it for granted that the next generation will be the same.
– then all of the above apply. Where will the generations take us next, and what responsibiliity do we have in shaping them?
Just a handful of trivial questions for a Friday afternoon. What do you think?
If I tell you that there is a debate over whether to split infinitives in writing you know what I mean, right?
Because most people don’t.
Worse, many think that they probably should know, and because they don’t, that people think they’re stupid. At that point they leave. No one wants to be made to feel stupid.
So what if I tell you that an infinitive is the basic form of a verb, usually preceded by the preposition ‘to’? And that putting another word, such as an adverb, between the preposition and the rest of the verb is what we mean by splitting?
Still feel stupid? I don’t blame you.
Try this. Here is a split infinitive:
To boldly go where no man has gone before.
And here is the same infinitive, not split:
To go boldly where no man has gone before.
There’s an old, some would say outdated rule of grammar suggesting that to keep our grammar pure we should never split infinitives. Lots of people more recently say it doesn’t matter any more.
You understood that, right?
My point is not about infinitives. It’s about the fact that, especially with language, examples help people to understand far more than explaining the concepts in a paragraph. Right and wrong, before and after, simple examples can help your readers to grasp concepts the language for which is technical and misunderstood.
It takes more work to create examples, but even the simplest examples put side by side aid your readers’ understanding while helping you to ensure that you actually know what you’re talking about. So everyone wins.
As for the splitting infinitives debate, I like to write as credibly as I can. So, given an equal sounding result, I would choose to observe the rule not to split infinitives. Instead of writing:
She listened intently to completely grasp what he was saying.
– I could observe the rule and have:
She listened intently to grasp completely what he was saying.
However the rule is not sacred in the slightest, some would say is irrelevant in English and at times creates clumsy sentences. This often used example:
We expect our output to more than double in a year.
– sounds strange if the infinitive is not split:
We expect our output more than to double in a year.
Defenders of the rule would say that I should rephrase the sentence:
We expect our output to increase by more than double in a year.
– but then I’ve lost some of the punch of the shorter first version. And online especially, punch is essential.
In short, keep the rule where you can, but don’t worry about breaking it for effect.
And always give examples.
At Cambridge University one professor asked us regularly for 100 word summaries instead of the usual long essays. This appealed to our lazy resourceful sides while, more importantly, going half way to giving us a skill actually useful in the real world: precis.
The ability to summarise an argument in as few words as possible forces you to understand the material in the first place so that you can make it clear to your audience. Who might actually read it for once.
So thank you, Adrian (and this time, with words to spare).
Change comes to us in many forms in business. Usually it feels like just as we’ve got used to a way of working – something changes. New personnel, new roles, new management, new expectations, new clients, new equipment, new web sites, new applications, new policies; it can all become a whirl of chaos in which we wonder how we’re ever going to get anything done.
When Google released their new web browser Chrome a colleague of mine reeled with horror. ‘It has no home button!’ he shouted. ‘I hate change’. Being a developer, it only took him few seconds to add the missing feature himself. But his reaction was telling.
Google are trying to change the way that we browse the web, by integrating searching and surfing history into the browser itself. It’s a small jump to browsing more intuitively, one that could make home pages and search bars redundant.
But it’s still a jump.
And for one developer, it was the jump that he noticed first. Perhaps he really cared in the long run about having a home button (probably). Yet I wonder if his reaction was more about having to jump – having to change – than it was about the actual alteration.
In other words, his relationship to change itself.
If change is a problem for us then any change is inconvenient, however small. If change represents new possibilities and opportunities to us, then any change can bring delight.
Nearly all change – big or small – follows the same pattern in our emotional response to it. The change and our response comes in four stages.
The first stage is disruption and the first feeling is usually one of loss. Something is being taken away from us. Security, knowledge, position, or comfort can all be threatened at the beginning. Because this is the feeling that we experience first of all, we often resist the change as soon as we hear about it. After all, who wants to experience loss?
It gets worse. The second stage is disorder. We enter personal chaos. Under threat, anxiety and fear can pop up. Sometimes we oscillate between stages one and two by refusing to live with the anxiety, and so denying that change needs to occur. But that just pushes us back towards having to accept that change is inevitable, and the loss kicks in all over again. Yet if we hang in there, the good news eventually arrives.
Stage three is where a new order is formed. Out of the confusion we begin to think about what we might need to thrive in our new environment. We begin to see how it might work, and surprisingly, this leads us on to thinking about what good things might come out of the change.
And by stage four – when a new relationship is formed to things – we are confident that we can thrive with the change, and focus on what has improved and the new possibilities now available.
To simplify, feeling only the loss and fearing the disorder will make us hate change. But being able to look ahead and anticipate the confidence, improvements and new opportunities that will inevitably arrive will help us to embrace it.
And embrace it we must, because we all know what happens after stage four is complete. It’s back round to disruption and loss as something else shifts in the way that we work.
Now the browser home button has gone, nothing is sacred. At least we know how to surf the changes when they come.