Here’s a Man Who Knows How To Write

June 5, 2011

I missed the debut of the Sunday Magazine’s latest makeover, so I didn’t realize till this week that Bill Keller, Executive Editor of the NYT, is apparently on tap to open each issue.  What a gift.

If you enjoy good writing, check out his essay this week: A Theory of Conspiracy Theories

My favorite turn of phrase (after his quoting from an email whose author is sure that Kennedy wasn’t killed by Oswald!!)

… even if you regard the liberal use of exclamation points as a symptom of emotional instability….

And it just gets better from there.  Here’s a taste, but you really need to read the whole thing.

Humans live along a continuum from doubt to faith. Wander far enough in the direction of faith and you reach the land of Nostradamus and of the Rapture (recently postponed). Wander too far in the other direction, past cynicism, through misanthropy, and you get to more or less the same zone of credulity: Osama bin Laden isn’t dead, President Obama isn’t American, global warming is a hoax.


Is it the copywriting? The coupon? Or the beginnings of a neighborhood?

May 30, 2011

The headline and lead in the Sunday NYT business section naturally caught my eye. 

Funny or Die: Groupon’s Fate Hinges on Words

The e-mail marketer hopes that its staff of 400 writers and editors will keep it one step ahead of its discounting competitors on the Web.

I’d love it if catchy copywriting could carry the day for coupon web sites.  But I don’t believe it will work, and I don’t honestly believe it is the core of Groupon’s competitive differentiation strategy. 

With sales promotions, it’s all about the offer, and being clear about the offer.  Clever copywriting may have helped Groupon create the category, but it won’t be enough to keep them on top.

Compare Groupon’s headline today

71% off Seattle Drum School

With Social Living’s (the competitor from Amazon)

Chef Shop , 2.5 Hour Cooking Class, $33

Both headlines are basic, and Social Living’s offer is actually clearer.  Whether I even bother to click depends partly on my interest in drums vs. cooking, and partly how much time I have to screw around that today.

Groupon’s email teaser copy is a little more clever, but I don’t even know what the specific offer is until the second sentence.

Playing a musical instrument is a skill that will serve you throughout your entire life, like safe cracking, horse whispering, and puppy juggling. Add to your resume with today’s Groupon: for $40, you get four 30-minute private music lessons on…

Social Living’s attempt at clever is awkward but it gets the point across.

Hey, good lookin’. Whatcha got cookin’? How’s about cookin’ a little somethin’ up with us when you get this brand-new recipe for great savings out of the frying pan and into the oven? Heat things up with a 2.5-hour cooking class from ChefShop and you’ll be dazzling your dinner guests…

The NYT article hints that Groupon knows it needs a more robust idea going forward, and this idea is intriguing

The hope … is that its users will eventually perceive it as an impartial guide to a city or a neighborhood, somewhat in the manner of the local paper’s weekend section.

Smarter or dumber than I was in high school?

February 27, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I signed up to receive The Official SAT Question of the Day via email.   It’s a lot of fun.  And it has confirmed what I pretty much knew to be true already – if you don’t use it, you lose it.  When I took the SATs in high school my score was pretty decent. Most pertinently, my math and verbal scores were almost identical. 

Now most of the math questions seem impossibly difficult.  Two recent examples:

What is the volume of a cube with surface area 54x2?


A woman drove to work at an average speed of 40 miles per hour and returned along the same route at 30 miles per hour. If her total traveling time was 1 hour, what was the total number of miles in the round trip?

(didn’t I learn how to solve that second one in 6th grade?)

In contrast, the language ones seem exceedingly simple.  I haven’t missed one yet.  Two recent examples:

Part of the following sentence is underlined; beneath the sentence are five ways of phrasing the underlined material. Select the option that produces the best sentence. If you think the original phrasing produces a better sentence than any of the alternatives, select choice A.

Since William the Conqueror in 1066, every British sovereign has been crowned in Westminster Abbey except Edward V and Edward VIII, neither of them were crowned.

A.           neither of them were

B.        neither were

C.       neither of whom was

D.       with neither being

E.        with neither who had been


The alarm voiced by the committee investigating the incident had a ——- effect, for its dire predictions motivated people to take precautions that ——- an ecological disaster.

A.           trivial . . prompted

B.        salutary . . averted

C.       conciliatory . . supported

D.       beneficial . . exacerbated

E.        perverse . . vanquished   

So some days I feel really smart and other days not so.  But it’s fun to compare my performance against others and also to track my cumulative score.  I recommend it. 

On long poles, sportiness and belly buttons

January 6, 2008

Each Sunday, as those who know me well can attest, I read William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times Magazine before pretty much anything else.  If you love language, you love his column.  This week I was surprised to see him credit “long pole in the tent” as the hot metaphor emerging in the new year.  But it all made sense once he identified the expression as an “aviation term.” 

It took me back to my days at Eclipse Aviation (2000-2005), where the long pole in the tent was a topic of regular discussion.  Among the various definitions Safire ponders, the one closest to our use was the one attributed to Tony Velocci editor of Aviation Week as “the thing among a list of tasks for a project that will take the longest to do, or alternatively, the thing that will ‘hold everything up.’” 

I’d come from the high-tech world into Eclipse, a company that was composed of equal parts computer industry folks and aviation world folks with a sprinkling of military veterans.  It was a fertile environment for cross-pollinization of metaphors and buzz words.  “Long pole in the tent” was the first of many expressions I picked up there. 

Two other favorites: 

Sporty – aggressive, optimistic.  A schedule could be sporty, as could a sales target or an aircraft spec.  I believe that Ken Harness, our VP Engineering, now COO North America of Diamond Aircraft, brought this phrase with him from a previous life at Sikorsky, though fellow Eclipsers should feel free to correct me. 

Belly button – responsible person.  As in “Who’s the belly button on this?”  Gene Garnes, our VP Program Management, contributed this expression and if memory serves correctly, he brought it from his former career in the U.S. Marine Corps. 

Put them all together and you get.  “X is the long pole in the tent for getting into flight test, which we’re planning for May.  That’s sporty!  Who’s the belly button on this?”

Free Rice

November 9, 2007

I came across the site Free Rice today, courtesy of Seth Godin’s blog.   It is an ultra-simple, fast-paced vocabulary quiz.  The twist is that for every correct answer you give, the advertisers donate 10 grains of rice on your behalf to the United Nations World Food Program. You don’t even have to register. If you like words at all, you will love this site. 

We’re seeing an extraordinary escalation right now of philanthropic programs of every size and variety (read Bill Clinton’s book Giving for hundreds of anecdotes).  Free Rice is a new and welcome twist that builds giving into everyday fun.  I love its cleverness and I hope it will become a Facebook app.

Faux etymology

August 4, 2007

Meetings can be pretty dull so I love it when I learn a language tidbit unexpectedly.  Which I almost did this week.  In a client meeting about something business-y, one of the attendees shared the origin of the word “posh” with the group.  He explained that it is the acronym for Port Over Starboard Home, the equivalent of first class for wealthy travelers traveling between England and India during the ocean liner era.  Cool!  Another little language gem to add to the collection.  Alas, the Merriam-Webster folks say “not so”.  In fact, the origin of the word is obscure so I can’t even replace one tidbit with another.

The meaning of language

July 29, 2007

If you feel any fondness for the English language, be sure to check out the Oxford English Corpus web site.  I learned about it today from On Language in the New York Times Magazine. This week’s column was guest written by Erin McKean.

From the Oxford English Corpus web site:

“A corpus is a collection of texts of written (or spoken) language presented in electronic form. It provides the evidence of how language is used in real situations, from which lexicographers can write accurate and meaningful dictionary entries.”

“Words do not exist in isolation. Words have strong attractions for other words, and form patterns and associations that are often regular and predictable, though not usually rigid or permanent. These patterns form part of the innate knowledge of a native speaker of the language.”

It is this idea of statistically analyzing words in context that I find so compelling.  For example the web site tells us that “eccentric” most often refers to people, “quirky” most often refers to people’s characteristics.  Both are typically used to show fondness.  There is meaning in our combinations of words, not just in the words themselves.