In The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life (slated for November release), Jonathan Rowson calls chess a meta-metaphor. He means that chess—in its constrained freedom, broad competition, and negotiated relationships—provides a library of comparisons to help us think deeply about life. But Rowson also claims that there’s a sense in which the metaphor of chess “has greater reality and resonance than the game itself” (13).
Rowson’s point deserves unpacking, which he capably does in his book, but it’s his identification of a metaphor’s practical power that matters here.
In etymological terms, metaphor breaks apart into meta-, for change, and phor, for carrying. It’s typically consigned to the literary, but it’s used powerfully (also pitiably) in public and political discourses—think of Trump’s expedient invocation of a “witch hunt” or his specious claim to “drain the swamp.”
While politicians know that well-chosen metaphors influence people’s opinions, research confirms that metaphors change behaviors, too. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers present a study focused on the continuation of preferred behaviors after goal completion. What, for example, helps people continue eating healthfully after completing a diet program? Or, what helps college students keep at their study habits after they've aced the test?
What did researchers find? The metaphor matters. Participants who considered their attainment of a goal as part of "journey" were more likely to continue the behaviors that brought about achievement. The two other participant groups—one of which considered goal attainment a "destination," and one of which applied no metaphor at all —demonstrated no such likelihood of continuing preferred behaviors.
While metaphors will almost always add panache to your work—be it a speech, an article, or a book—it turns out that they also help us reflect on our lives and, according to recent research, live better ones.
Most of us intuitively welcome sleep as one of the best and most important things in life. Its depth and duration redound not just in the quantity of our years but in the quality of those years, too. When National Geographic took an in-depth look at the benefits of sleep, it found that during sleep, spindles stimulate the cortex and help categorize new info according to the old info we've already acquired. And in episode two of its third season, Radio Lab showed how certain tasks can be better completed (or completed in the first place) after a good night’s—or even a good nap’s—sleep.
Old research has frequently spoken to the brain benefits of this kind of “offline learning,” but new research argues that even tiny breaks are important to achieving new tasks. When we combine the ameliorating effects of resting and the incremental achievements gained through micro-ambition, we gain a better picture of “micro-offline gains”: the very small but very necessary work that enables skill acquisition.
Micro-offline gains suggest that skill acquisition depends not (or not just) on the active effort to learn a new skill or to complete a task but in the periods of rest we offer our brain to consolidate the information it’s working so hard to acquire. Ultimately, when we tax our brains with learning a new skill or staying focused on a big, integrated project, we accomplish more when we offer our brain more, very short, breaks.
Even when they're just seconds long, these tiny breaks can aid our completion of the task at hand (or at least can aid our accomplishment in the steepest part of the learning curve). Unfortunately, the breaks aren't the kind that include Instagram or other semi-conscious scrolling; rather, they’re micro-moments that mimic the consolidating effects of sleep.
Summer is a time for downshifting. Although I’ve already contributed to this cause by advocating for aiming lower, I’m now also arguing for interrupting your project with more guiltfree breaktime. This is especially true for my clients who struggle to make summer the most productive season of writing. It turns out that scheduling many opportunities for micro-offline gains can help with making connections and building arguments. The season requires it, and your brain will thank you by becoming smarter, faster.
For organizations or departments that don't have a dedicated project manager, it's no small thing to get big comms projects out the door. In our last post, we talked about how not to let the actual writing process gum up the works—namely, by allowing adequate time for writing and editing, and by uncoupling the writing process from the design process.
While that advice may be easy to heed in theory, it can be tricky in practice: Creating large documents involves tracking a lot of moving parts, including points of collaboration and project dependencies that can be challenging to accurately time. That's why creating a detailed, realistic project timeline at the outset of any big writing project is key.
Luckily, there are a lot of tools that can help—many of them free. If you're new to creating project timelines, you can start simple: Microsoft offers a free template for Excel that's incredibly easy to use (if devoid of bells and whistles).
The template allows you to enter dates, tasks or milestones, and people, and to manipulate the visual representation to optimize its readability.
Depending on the project or document management system used by your organization, you may already have tools you can configure to create project timelines. Sharepoint, for instance, offers a customizable project task list; and online tools such as Trello offer options for making more complex Gantt-style project roadmaps.
Whatever route you take, developing a project timeline for big writing projects will make your life easier, and your final product better.
Let's take a quick mental tally: In the past month, have you received a tone-deaf email from a colleague and were left to ponder what he actually meant? A memo so full of jargon that it required two or three reads to decipher? A set of instructions poorly written enough to require its own manual? A rally-the-team note from a manager or the c-suite that fell completely flat because of insipid or vague writing?
If you answered yes to any (or maybe all) of those questions, you're not alone.
It's not breaking news that Americans spend a lot of time communicating at work. But unfortunately, a lot of that time is wasted.
To be more precise, as Josh Bernoff reported in the Harvard Business Review, 81% of businesspeople say that poor writing wastes a lot of their time. All those vague emails, poorly organized presentations, and jargon-laden reports add up—and take a major blow to an organization's productivity.
Of course, it's not just the internal workings of an organization that suffer under a culture of bad writing. Bad writing filters out to customers, clients, partners, and stakeholders, too. It signals a lack of professionalism, lack of organizational self-awareness and integrity, and lack of respect for your audience. We can probably all agree that those are un-good signals to send.
So what's an organization to do?
Small steps can make a difference, if you're willing to commit time (and possibly money) to improving your organization's writing.
1. Make sure you've got polished templates and models for anything your employees routinely produce, such as project reports, slide decks, or blog posts. Templates not only save time, but they ensure that materials are consistent—and consistently well written.
2. Model good writing from the top. Management sets the tone and the standard for team members to rise (or fall) to. Even casual emails from a team lead or a department head (not to mention the ED or CEO) should be thoughtfully and properly crafted.
3. Design your organization's workflow with the writing process in mind. Make sure that all public-facing communications are adequately reviewed and vetted—for example, by building in a beta release for larger projects. And if your staffing allows it, consider providing dedicated in-house writing support for those who routinely create communications.
4. Provide training for employees, whether new hires or veterans. Everyone brings different levels of comfort and experience to writing, so it's crucial to periodically create the opportunity to ensure that everyone is aware of organizational standards and able to use best practices.
5. Bring in external support when needed. Sometimes an outside perspective helps, both to identify problems, and to conduct the necessary training to get staff up to speed. Experienced consultants can bring fresh ideas to new communications projects or old communications inefficiencies.
Now, go forth and write (better)!
The good news: your organization is growing. Maybe you've got new funding sources, your client base has expanded, or you've rolled out successful new services. You're expanding your reach, your impact, and your team. All of this requires strategy.
Growing your communications does, too.
In many ways, communications don't scale like other organizational functions. This is especially true of internal communications, which for small organizations may be completely organic. But whereas organic communications processes may be adequate (even efficient) for a team with a handful of people, they quickly become inefficient (even hazardous) when that team grows.
Growing organizations face two big problems when it comes to internal communications: lack of documentation, and lack of formalization.
Because small teams tend to function organically, there's often little or no documentation of roles and procedures. Team members know each other's strengths, pick up tasks as needed, and fall into familiar routines. But when too much lives in employees' heads, an organization can be on precarious footing when it starts to grow.
Ensuring institutional memory by creating and maintaining external records of communications is crucial for future growth.
Similarly, the organic functioning of a small team can hinder the development of formalized internal communications procedures. After all, maintaining a regular meeting schedule or planning and tracking workflow can seem cumbersome when you interact with everyone on your team every day.
But when an organization relies too much on informal communications to keep its wheels turning, it risks those wheels grinding to a halt. By formalizing communications procedures, you create the conditions for sustainable growth.
So what does it actually look like to document and formalize communications?
While the specifics are different for every organization, it means determining and codifying what works. It means finding the right tools—from calendars to trackers to meeting procedures—to accommodate your organization's growth. And it means creating and regularly updating written documents that detail communications operations in a way that makes them clear and easily adoptable for new team members.
Consciously scaling internal communications is crucial when it comes to organizational capacity-building. It's a forward-looking task that helps ensure the health of growing organizations.
This is the third part in a series about communications plans, which are crucial tools for nonprofits and businesses. Check out part I and part II for more!
A communications plan lays out a comprehensive picture of an organization's communications goals and offers executable steps for how to achieve them. It can be created or updated annually to align with the fiscal year, or it can be developed as a companion to a 1-, 3- or even 5-year strategic plan.
It’s an incredibly useful tool for mapping out future growth. But it's impossible to create without first understanding where you are now.
That's why, when we create communications plans for our clients, one of the most important steps entails laying out a comprehensive picture of an organization's current communications channels. This includes digital publications such as blog posts and email blasts, social media, print publications such as annual reports and newsletters, and events and in-person communications such as fundraisers or tours.
This can be a simple list, but it should be as comprehensive as possible. For some organizations, it might include five channels; for some, it might include 50. And for each channel, all relevant details should be included: give bullet points to the goal of the communication, the target audience, the timeline or frequency of the communication, who is responsible internally for producing the communication, and any budget and production specs available. That way, there are multiple angles available for easily slicing through the communications picture: Which members of your team currently bear the greatest communications burden? Which projects require the largest chunks of your budget? Which audiences aren't hearing from you frequently enough?
By laying out a complete picture, you can begin to see where you're putting most of your energy, what's being neglected or underutilized, where you're doubling up unnecessarily, and how content can be leveraged from one channel to another. If, for example, your primary goal is to grow your organization's membership, but all of your resources are going to annual reports and blog posts, it becomes clear that changing tack is merited.
In other words, this part of a communications plan is from whence the planning commences.
This picture can be used to develop and prioritize new communications projects, strategize ways to streamline workflow, design upcoming campaigns, revamp existing collateral, or create tools or templates for internal use. In short, it's the best foundation for an organization to ensure that it's moving in the right direction to efficiently align its communications with its long-term goals.
Whether you’re starting the new year with a new project, or looking to wrap up your dissertation or publication this semester, finding the right writing support is key. If your writing group isn’t translating to publication-ready pages and you’re considering working with a professional, it’s useful to understand what kinds of support are available and how to find the best fit for your needs.
At MWS, we often work with coauthors to develop writing plans, streamline and correlate the editing process, and prepare papers for publication. We love watching the creative possibilities that the coauthor relationship can foster, but we know from experience that the conditions for such possibilities must be thoughtfully planned. Read on to find out how to make your next coauthored project an efficiently executed success. ...
If you’ve already decided to dedicate your summer to finishing your dissertation, revising and resubmitting an academic article, or polishing an original manuscript for publication, make the most of your limited time by adopting a trick of the editor’s trade. A style sheet offers a time-saving reference that streamlines the revision process and ensures polished work. ...
With the academic year coming to a close and summer’s expanse of unstructured time looming, scholars face the perennial question of how to sustain their work, organize their writing activities, and ensure a productive season—all while relaxing and rejuvenating for the upcoming year. These tasks can be anxiety provoking, but here at MWS, our experience with academic writers and researchers has enabled us to identify ways for scholars to get the most out of summer without feeling overwhelmed. Read on for best practices for summer writing. ...
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.