Today’s special guest is Rob Ashton: writer, former scientist, founder of global writing skills consultancy emphasis, and works at the intersection of the words and the mind. Together with our beloved host Adam Markel, this episode will be an in-depth discussion on understanding writing, how words we read affect our minds, how translating thoughts into text is now an undervalued skill in the digital age, and more! Tune in now and learn all about writing and how much it actually affects us.
- 3:50 Writing is suboptimal.
- 11:57 The intersection of words and the mind.
- 29:31 The impact of words on the human psyche.
- 41:04 What organizations are doing wrong.
How do we leverage continuous uncertainty to thrive in this unprecedented new world?
The answer is to build the resilience we need to power us through the challenges we face so that we become “Change Proof.” Prepare to tackle the future with confidence by reading Adam’s latest book Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-Term Resilience.
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Understanding Writing: What The Written Word Really Means Now In The New Digital Age With Rob Ashton
Once again, you are in store for a treat. In this episode, I have Rob Ashton. He’s a writer and a former Scientist who works at the intersection of words and the mind. He’s also the Founder of a global writing skills consultancy, Emphasis, through which he has transformed the writing of more than 80,000 people worldwide, working with everyone from Google to the royal household at Buckingham Palace. He argues that in the digital age, the ability to convey thoughts in the text is probably the most undervalued of all skills and that understanding how words we read affect our minds is one of the keys to resilience. You are going to love this episode, so stay tuned.
Rob, I’m going to dive in with a question based on your bio and introduction. What is one thing that is not in that bio that you would love for people to know about you? Something that’s not written in the bio that you love for people to know.
I guess that writing or the misunderstanding of the writing and reading process is something that I’ve become obsessed with. That bio doesn’t capture that in the sense that I’ve spent a long time doing it but the longer I’ve done it, the more this has become an obsession. It’s one of those things where I see this problem everywhere now. It’s quite hard to let it go because once you see that, you can’t unsee it. I would say that.
You used the word problem, so I would love to dive right into that spot. Let’s define what the problem that you are referring to is.
Writing is one of those things or reading is one of those processes that are invisible. We don’t realize we are doing it. The whole world seems to run on written communication now. I was in a discussion with Adam Grant about this because he said that it is the most undervalued skill of our time. He had said, “The most undervalued skill of our time is the ability to write.”
I asked him, “Why do you say that?” He said, “We are doing it all the time. It used to be that the spoken word was paramount. Now it’s all about text-based communication.” He’s right. This is something I have been saying for a while now we communicate with text, and that could be emailed or messaging apps like Slack or Teams Chat.
We do that all the time, from when we wake up in the morning to when we go to bed at night. It’s ever-present. If my phone rings, I assume something is wrong. There’s something about writing or reading that’s seductive. It draws us in, and we stay there. We might be there for half an hour trying to resolve a difficult issue or even an argument by text message.
If we took that thing that we are using to text, the phone, and we took it from there to move it up to our ear, then the problem would probably be solved in a couple of minutes if we used our voices but we don’t see it that way. We don’t think of it as writing. I’m a specialist. I research writing and its impact on our lives.
People look at me in a puzzled way and think, “What do you mean writing? Do you mean creative writing? Do you mean how to write a novel? Do you mean handwriting?” I said, “No, that thing we are doing all day.” It’s invisible, and the reason it becomes the problem is that it’s not something that we evolved to do. We did not evolve to read and write. We evolved to speak and listen. The earliest examples of writing, as far as we know, are from about 5,000 years ago in what is now modern-day Iraq.
For most of the time, even since then, it’s only a couple of hundred years ago that most people had access to the written word. Even 5,000 years might sound like a very long time but in evolutionary terms, it’s a heartbeat. Now, it takes much longer than that for the brain to evolve major change. What happens when we learn to read is that we have to wire together parts of the brain that we evolve for other things.
This is what happens. We grow a network in the brain, and that takes a long time. In fact, it takes to learn to read it. It takes around ten years to learn to read properly. Whereas we can communicate with our voices out of the womb. You can’t ignore a baby’s cry. We will learn to speak, and we will learn spoken language to understand it. We will learn that passively with no tuition, just by people talking to us. Writing always remains suboptimal. It’s always something that can go wrong very easily. Partly because we didn’t involve to do it, and we expect it to do way too much heavy lifting.Writing always remains suboptimal. It's always something that can go wrong very, very easily. Click To Tweet
It’s fascinating. Not even playing the angel’s advocate here but curious that the movement toward text communication. I see this very closely to me, in my own work and with our families. Right before we hit record, we were talking about our kids. You have 2 and we have 4. Our youngest was in a conversation. We happened to be away. We were in Hawaii. Our youngest was in California.
They were having a fight, and I only knew they were having an argument, let’s say, because they were having a text argument. We happened to be with our oldest daughter, her husband, and their newborn baby, our grandbaby. She says, “I’m in a fight with a little girl by text,” and it’s what you say, Rob. I was like, “You could pick up the phone and resolve or escalate it.” There’s a chance that it could also go in the other direction.
I saw what you said live and in person. I’m curious. If we weren’t involved or the writing aspect of our communication certainly would be secondary to our verbal communication, is the shortening of it meaning to go from long hand and the writing of letters that were commonplace in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s people wrote each other letters. They wrote postcards, and now it’s gotten short, and to the point, then they wrote emails. Now they are communicating in shorter text form. Is that a movement somehow back to what is primal to us, that we don’t use writing as our main form of communication? You are the researcher.
It’s part of the problem. Getting shorter is part of the problem because we are getting faster at this writing. With those examples you gave, we didn’t do very much of that. It’s like if you’ve got a letter, it was a big thing. You might wait days for someone to write to you.
I loved it. There was so much anticipation.
It’s amazing, and you would read it again but it’s uneven memos. The email evolved from memos. In 2021, we sent and received around 319 billion emails every day. That daily figure each year is going up by another 15 to 20 billion emails every day. We are becoming more reliant on this but we do it quickly. If you are writing by hand, if you are writing one of those letters will be a slow, deliberate process. You would think about what you were writing.
It was agonizing at times.
It wasn’t but it still can be agonizing.
I mean, in a great way, when you were done, it was like you gave birth to something. At the moment, your emotional state, what was in your brain, what it is that you needed to communicate or wanted to communicate. When it was done, it was like, “Wow.” I can fold it, put it in an envelope, and stick a stamp or lick a stamp and stick it in the mailbox. There was so much patience that was involved on all on all sides to that.
Writing is cheap now.
Writing has gotten cheapened.
It’s something we do without thinking. This is part of the problem because if we are writing, whether we are tapping on the keyboard on our phone or writing on our laptop or a desktop, we are using a tool that’s become an extension of our brains. We do develop networks when we use tools repeatedly.
Think of the laptop that’s become an extension of your brain. You are looking at a screen and seeing this reflection of your thoughts on that screen. Incidentally, in that situation, you are solitary. It’s just you. The trouble is that you are also in a social situation in the sense that you are communicating with another person. Except it’s you. You are on your own communicating with another person. It’s a complete paradox.
You are using the thought processes that you would use on your own. You are thinking to yourself. You are also using the backing track if you like. You know what the thinking that goes behind what you are writing is. Not just tone. That’s very important or humor. You might be being humorous so that you can hear that.
The other person they are also on their own. This thing lands in their intro, and they open it. In isolation, they see this quite boring unadorned message where it doesn’t have a backing track. It doesn’t have the context. It’s writing, which is what psychologists call a low-capacity channel. There’s not much information you can get across or at least far less than you can with your voice.
Not only can they not hear your backing track but they are also listening to their backing track, and they’ve got their thought process. Now they could be receiving that message anywhere. They could be upset about something. They could be late dropping the kids off at school. They could be stuck in a traffic jam and open their email in a misguided attempt to get some relief from that. They could be angry and wound up, and they see your message. That’s the context it lands in. There’s so much going on that we take for granted. It’s not much of a surprise that it goes wrong often. It’s a miracle that it ever goes right.
In your work, you are known for a number of things but this intersection of words in the mind, I’m curious. Say a little bit more if you could about that.
I set up this training consultancy back in 1998. Back then, most people didn’t even have websites. In fact, back then, people were saying, “Why are you setting up a training consultancy focusing on writing?” It’s because no one is writing anymore. That didn’t quite work, did it? I’ve seen writing become dominant in the working world but also at home as you as you described that situation.
About a few years ago, because I’ve got a science background, going way back, I used to work as a molecular biologist. That curiosity about science has never gone away. I was in a fortunate position in that I could take a step back from the business and focus on looking into this and thinking, “Let’s see if there’s any research on this.”
I gave myself six months. I thought, “I will look into it. I will read up on the science. I will write a book.” It was a classic case of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I did not know what I didn’t know. Here I am, years later, only getting to grips with it because there is lots of research out there but it’s across disciplines. It’s in neuroscience and various branches of that. It’s in the various branches of psychology. Even in developmental neuroscience and developmental psychology, how we learn to read, so it’s taken a long time.
The privileged position I’m in is that I’ve spent all this time in the world of work beyond academia, and I see organizations getting this wrong again and again. What I’m trying to do is link the two together. The intersection of words in the mind that’s the key to it because it’s all about how the written word text-based communication affects us for better or worse. How we misunderstand it and how we process it normally as far as we know because this is still very much a developing field. If anybody tells you they know all the neuroscience behind this, they are lying. It’s so complex.
I don’t know if it’s even possible but to hit the nail on the head, again, what feels like a very complex set of things that interplay. I would imagine visually a Venn diagram with a lot of overlap between disciplines, as you said. Is the text a good thing or not such a good thing? What does the research tell us now about whether where the text and our use of it are currently in the way we are using it? Is it heading us in the right direction? Evolutionarily, it’s all right. It’s always all right. That’s my belief system anyway but does it feel like we are going in the right direction now or are we going backward in some way?
Not to cop out but it is so difficult to answer that because I think of the science as neutral. You can apply it in a bad way or a good way like most science. We can’t go back. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle. In fact, nor should we want to because we have grown so much because of this amazing ability to communicate at speed with anyone in the world using our keyboards. Organizations are able to grow at warp speed because of that.
Go back to 2020 when suddenly we were all working from home or most of us, a lot of us were working from home. Zoom grabbed the headlines, but it was things like Slack, email, and Teams Chat where most of the communication was. We spent less time overall in meetings than when we were working in offices, even though we had more meetings. What were we doing in between? We were writing to each other.
That dramatic digital transformation would not have been possible without communicating through the written word. Look at how much literature it has enriched our lives and the advancement of science. It’s done through publication. This is all written communication, and I don’t think it is a bad thing. It’s a fantastic opportunity. Where it does go wrong is when we overestimate how much communication or how easy it is to communicate in writing well.
Probably the biggest mistake we make is to think of it as a case of data transfer from one brain to another. If you give someone the data, it gives them the information, and then everything will be fine. It’s a more complex process than that. You can’t simply give someone the information. You can’t, for instance, give them a series of bullets which was a piece that went viral a few years ago, which recommended that.
It was about writing like the military. It was the title because it talked about the bottom line up front, which will bluff, which is very popular in the military and the UK. It was saying, “Use bullets and keep it brief.” The trouble is that although brevity can be a good thing, it’s very easy to miscommunicate when you do that, again because of this lack of context. It becomes a little bit like trying to study for an exam. Using somebody else’s study notes or lecture notes. They’ve got all the context. It triggers things in their brain and doesn’t in yours.
What I’m wanting to get at is I was being a little cheeky, I suppose, with the good or bad thing but I’m a trend follower. We do quite a bit of resilience research in the world and right on that topic. I’m a resilience keynote speaker on that, lead workshops, and work the same as you with organizations on how to develop things internally that produce longevity, produce productivity in the long run. We are following trends and looking at trajectories.
When kids are in the house, and they are texting each other from room to room, in our house, we would scream. That was the mode of communication. I’m not saying kids are not screaming at each other, siblings, and parents but at the extreme level, people are texting one another at the dinner table. There’s a lot of hyperbole around that but we see it. We see people out there. How many times have you been in a restaurant where two people sitting at the table have their phones out at the dinner table?
It’s so common.
Let’s say it’s a high-end restaurant, and now we are not talking about Millennials because they are always getting the short end of the stick for a lot of these things. I’m talking about Baby Boomer age people that are at the table with their phones out. That’s why I’m saying from a trend standpoint, a trajectory standpoint, that we are reducing our communications to these pithy little LOLs and other acronyms, which are too many to keep up with, LMAO. From a research standpoint, can we say anything about what that trajectory looks like or is it too impossible to predict those things?
We can say what the effects of doing this has on the individual. We’ve got some stuff on that but in terms of where it’s going, then that’s conjecture. Personally, I don’t think it’s a good thing. Those situations you describe unequivocally are not a great thing and not taking us in the right direction. We need to start speaking to each other more.
I’ve seen this in my own life because none of us is immune to this. I am as prone to getting irritated and inappropriately by written messages as anybody else and getting triggered by tweets or whatever. When we are writing, it’s a limit to how much we can get across through doing that. There’s some research that shows that when you are speaking, there’s some research that shows that oxytocin release is triggered. You hear a human voice and speak to somebody. It’s oxytocin release. This is this thing that has been called the love hormone but it’s more complicated than that. It’s something that’s central to human interaction.
How we are wired like our physiology.
It’s how we are wired. When we are speaking, you’ve got all sorts of things on your side because we’ve got millions of years of evolution behind us on that. There’s evidence that when we are reading something from the same person, so the same person has written something, and we are reading it. That oxytocin release generally isn’t triggered.
We don’t get that. I’ve seen this in my own life when I was in a Slack conversation with a member of my team a few years ago. I asked him for an update on a project. I said, “How is it going?” He replied with one word. He said, “Why?” That’s such a loaded thing. He’s a bright guy but I knew that sometimes these discussions could come around.
Come on, Rob, you can say it. You lost it.
No, I didn’t. Neither of us. What I did was I started treading on eggshells. Even my first question to him was so caveated and nuanced that I was on the back foot already. Anyway, long story short, I replied, and he replied, and then to his enormous credit, he said, “Should we have a chat about this?” I said, “Yes, sure.” It was that calling time out. He came into my office, and we started speaking. As soon as we started speaking, my shoulders dropped, and his shoulders dropped.
I could feel this feeling wash over me. Probably fanciful to say that was oxytocin but it was this feeling of, “That’s so much better.” I’m not kidding, immediately, the whole tension had gone, and we were starting to sort it out. Part of it is not just oxytocin that you can react to in real time. You can see that person’s reaction. You can see if they don’t get it or you can see their hesitation. With the human voice, even a pause of a few seconds, that’s a very long pause. Especially if it is a response to a question like, “I love you.”
Why do you love me?
A few seconds of hesitation there, we are going to know.
Do you love me? The pause is a little too long. It’s like, “What does that mean?”
“It’s my handle. Good luck digging this.” It’s a pause.
It’s like, “Did you get my text? I was going through the tube, and there was no service for a few minutes.”
We make a big mistake when we rely on that too much, and we don’t try and sort things out using our voices. We stay stuck in it. There is something unique about writing that draws us in. You can’t not read something, even though reading is a complex process. If you see a word, you will read it. That’s why it’s a big mistake, for instance, to have lots of text on a screen or on a PowerPoint deck if you are making your presentation.There is really something unique about writing that draws us in. Click To Tweet
Someone is going to read that, and I’m not even talking about filling the slide with text, which a lot of people do, even having a few bullet points. If you are speaking, they are not listening to you. They are reading because it’s an involved process. They have to focus on that. It’s very difficult to walk and read. I don’t know if you’ve ever done this where you are reading a text, you are walking along, and then you find yourself stopping and reading it. Even walking and reading are difficult.
Usually, when you are about to run into or walk into some other person.
Yes, probably doing the same thing.
It’s fascinating too because we can see the value. We all can see the value in being able to be more efficient. Business and personal-wise, there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot in our lives. The universe is constantly expanding so that’s normal. That makes sense that people’s lives were simpler. Maybe more boring or whatever you would want to say, 50 years ago. It’s exciting. There’s a lot going on.
We’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum, walk and read, walk and multitask, etc. on some level and yet the problems are also showing. What’s evident is that there’s heightened anxiety, and it has been attributed to the pandemic. It has been attributed to exhaustion in the workplace, which is something that we studied in the context of resilience.
The anxiety levels across the globe are so high. Almost they are off-charts. They must create new charts to measure how people are doing in that area. It would seem to me that when our communication is abbreviated in the way that it is like you said, we are not getting filled up. Our energetic tanks are constantly in a state of depletion.
[00:24:18] Normally, when we are in a conversation, as you say, if oxytocin is being produced or something else has the equivalent of filling us back up where we are being re-energized by that interaction, then we always have a little gas in the tank. If you are not getting something back through a text message or through technology, then that depletion becomes more. I would say it compounds. We cannot ignore the fact that many people are showing signs of breakdown or burnout. You must see it in your work all the time.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of that. We are relying on the written word now. We are reading from when we wake up in the morning to when we go to bed at night. Whether it’s the news, text, social media or our email, we are reading a lot. If you are talking about building resilience, then look no further as a place to start because the effect on the human psyche is enormous.
For a start, you’ve got the news media. It depends on concentrating on bad news. That’s their business model and always has been. In the beginning, when early newspapers, you would get a newspaper, and you would read it, and that would be it. Maybe just a sheet. Now, we’ve got this constitutive flow of news 24/7, 7 days a week. Wherever you happen to be, you can look at the news.
It’s not just texting that people do in restaurants. They are looking at the news and looking for something a little bit more interesting. Let’s think about that. You’ve got one person in front of you, and you could have a conversation with them or you’ve got access to all the world’s information, which is going to be more interesting.
It’s not a fair contest, is it? We end up devaluing the human relationships that we have but it also has other negative effects. You are going to get a dopamine hit from checking your email. Dopamine is all about motivation. It’s the molecule of more. It is central to drug addiction, for instance, the dopamine response. Dopamine also, by the way, mediates attention. People with ADHD have a problem with the dopamine system, a thought to affect concentration, focus on things, and switching between mind wandering and focusing on one thing.
They end up doing the two things together. You are going to get this dopamine hit from whatever it is. You are going to keep doing it but when you do that, as you say, you are emptying the tank. You are not filling yourself up. It feels like you are because you are filling yourself up with information but you are fragmenting your attention because you’ve got all these quick hits of information.
You reduce your ability to think clearly. You lose perspective. You lose your ability to solve problems, and then you can get depressed or stressed from things that immediately are going to have no effect on you but are difficult. Very bad at differentiating world events that aren’t going to affect us now from things that we need to do now. You end up worrying about these things.As humans, we’re usually very bad at differentiating world events that aren't going to affect us right now from things that we need to do now. Click To Tweet
Before we even hit the record, you and I were talking a little bit about the fact that chaos is the norm if you look at history. Pick a time when there wasn’t some form of chaos happening in the world. I was a child in the ‘60s. I wasn’t an adult then. I was born in the ‘60s, so the civil rights movement in the United States and elsewhere in the world was blowing up when I was a baby when I was a kid. The ‘70s were a time of great inflation and tumult. In the United States, there was Watergate, and Nixon resigned.
In the ‘80s, aids are on the scene, and people don’t know what the heck is going on with that. People are scared, and the wall comes down. Every decade, pick a decade, pick a time. It’s as chaotic as it is now, and yet, we are seeing that we are fragmented. Thank you for using that word. That the fragmentation, that the fraying, I would use that word too, that people are more afraid. It’s not because we are less resilient. We are more resilient than we were then. There’s something that’s also that’s pulling at us that has to be defined.
That’s why I love the work that you do, and such a pleasure to be able to set this conversation up. It’s important that we understand what our experience is, and it’s tough to understand our experience. Very difficult while you are in it like the goldfish in the bowl. You don’t know you are in the bowl. It’s helpful. It’s very helpful. I don’t know that we can do more than point to certain things. The way I mentioned earlier, we were on vacation for eight days.
I made the decision when I landed in Kauai that my phone was getting turned off. I went dark. I did not pick up the phone until we landed back in San Diego. In all honesty, I checked email once or twice on my computer but didn’t have this constant thing that is literally an appendage to my body. This cell phone that at all hours of the morning, noon or night, no matter what context.
I could be at dinner. I could be in the most intimate setting to have my grandson right next to me. I could pick this thing up and like you say, be drawn into the thought stream of other people and their agendas because the world is interesting. Politics are interesting. Things are happening that I’m curious about, and this thing is constantly drawing me into that if I allow it. During the eight days without it, I didn’t die. I can tell you that much.
Even day to day now, I find I have to do something like that. I use an app called Freedom, and I block news, social media, and anything that I know I’m going to look at when I should be doing deep work. I block that until 1:00 PM and find I have to do that. If I do it for a few days and think, “I’ve got it now. I won’t look tomorrow. I don’t need to set that,” I might not but the next day I will. A week later, I will be thinking, “Everything is fragmented. I’m not getting anything done.” You get stressed because you are not able to focus.
I did some research on this back in 2020 when we were in the fall throws of the pandemic. I did a lot of research on worldwide on the use of trigger words in media headlines. There were words like infection, for instance, or bug. You would expect those to go up. There were also words like panics or a fivefold increase in usage in the first quarter of 2020.
In some cases, it was deliberate. Some of those headlines were a masterclass on how to bring maximum anxiety out of a few words. Here in the UK, there’s a newspaper and news site called The Mirror. The headline was tragic, that’s a trigger word, “Tragic Coronavirus death toll.” You’ve got lots of very emotive words there. “The tragic coronavirus death toll rises by the lowest level or lowest amount in seven weeks.”
It’s positive news.
It’s a positive thing. It was an improvement but the way we process sentences by prediction is key. It’s central to understanding how we read. We predict what’s coming up. Our eyes are not sophisticated enough, believe it or not, to take in all the information. Most of the information when we are reading is coming from our brains, and our eyes are checking to see if we are right. That’s why we miss huge typos in PowerPoint presentations that we only spot when we are in an auditorium of 300 people. That’s why we are predicting. It’s true with email. It’s one of the reasons we lose it when we are reading the email because we are not reading it. We are predicting what’s coming up.
That prediction is a bit like predictive texting. That predictive texting works on what’s the statistical likelihood of what’s most likely to come up after those 2 or 3 words. Our brains work like that too. We have to take these shortcuts, which means that if someone has ever sent you instructions and says, “I wrote you the instructions, didn’t you follow them?” They knew what the instruction said.
This happened to me. Somebody said, “It’s very simple.” He gave me these instructions, which were anything but simple. To him, they seemed to be because he knew it already. Prediction is important but it also means that with those news headlines, the media can play on this, and it’s their job to get eyeballs on the pages. It’s not necessarily a criticism. They are doing their job but it’s being aware of it when you are reading it and being aware of the limits of reading and the effect that stuff has on you.
That, as I say, is central to building resilience. Being aware of that of how limited reading and writing are and the effect they can have on you because it’s there. It’s in your brain straight away. It’s part of your world, and you are isolated. You have no context. You are not speaking to anybody about it. It’s going straight in and straight to your amygdala. It can be combined. It can be bad news but the good news is that if you look at that, then that’s a good place to start if you want to build resilience.
You said something that organizations are getting it wrong. Would you say a little bit more about what you mean by that?
The thing is, if you look at leadership. Communication is one of the pillars of leadership but most of the time, when people talk about communication, they are talking about the spoken word. Not the written word. When they talk about the written word, they are generally talking about remedial stuff, getting the grammar and punctuation right. Getting the spelling right. It’s seen as this low-level remedial thing.
What I’ve noticed is that organizations will tend to spend around ten times as much on presentation skills training as they were on helping their people to communicate through their writing. Even though those people who get the presentation skills training probably go nowhere near lectin, most of them and yet they spend all day communicating through the written word.
We’ve got it back to front. It comes back to this invisibility. You talk about the goldfish. We are steeped. We are surrounded by writing. It’s so much a part of our world that we don’t even see it. It’s there. The good news is that it is an opportunity, and this is particularly with things like organizational change. It’s the opportunity to make the workplace so much better. It’s thereby optimizing how people are communicating with each other through their keyboards. Also, if you look at achieving strategic goals, you’ve got a strategy, execution, feedback, and refiner strategy.The opportunity to make the workplace so much better is there in writing, by optimizing how people communicate with each other through their keyboards. Click To Tweet
What’s connecting those things? Usually, it’s the written word. People will speak to each other. They will have meetings but in between, everything else is writing. It’s like the thread that runs through everything or the rising tide that lifts all boats. If you improve the writing, you improve everything else and yet, it’s not something that people tend to do. It’s not something that they even look at because they are not aware of it. Also, partly because people do what other people do. If they don’t see other people doing it, then we are far less logical than we think we are. We are social beings that work as much as anywhere else.
In your work with organizations, are you ever tasked with or hired to teach writing?
Yes. The company I founded in 1998, Emphasis, has worked with 80,000 people since then and doing exactly that. That has all pretty much been in small groups of 8 to 10s. It happens a lot. It was my privilege to work with so many people through that and to get examine that issue and tackle it. What I will say is that those organizations and we are talking the tech giants of Silicon Valley through to even the royal household here in the UK. It remains with the possible exception of that second example, that last example. It remains a minority interest. It’s something that only a few people work on.
That’s what I was thinking. In my work as a lawyer and as a writer myself, I know how excruciating writing is. Not just the longhand letters that we don’t do anymore but that I have many memories now of writing a card. I don’t know how many people still write cards to other people. Some, probably still do for birthdays and things but the art in it is quite an art and a science, I suppose. The written word and being able to communicate effectively through that is something that I went to law school. They didn’t teach writing in law school. I was in taking business courses. I was an undergrad.
There was writing. There was certainly writing taught in a little bit in high school. I was an English major in college. It taught some writing but once I got out into the business world, I’ve yet to see any focus, as you said, on this very vital and important school. I’m thinking as we are having this conversation what an important thing it would be if part of resilience is what you said, that it’s about awareness. That the concept of understanding and being aware of these things are at play.
We’ve taken in our conversation attack, where we can see that potentially it’s led to fragmentation. It’s led to more anxiety, and there are many other effects of the way the speed of communication has led to shortcutting. That this short cutting has a serious cost to it. One of the things that I want to use our last couple of minutes here to talk about is the solution side because I don’t personally love it when all I ever hear in a discussion of something is the problem of it like, “What the hell do we do about?”
It felt terrible.
“Thank you, folks. I appreciate it. I feel a little worse now than I did an hour ago or whatever.” The solution side I see as one of the possible things that organizations and individuals can focus on. We can do this at all levels is the work of our ability to communicate more effectively in writing than we have been trained to do. Some people have a facility. They are good writers or whatever it is. They have a skill at it. Some are creative, and others are not so much.
Mostly, I see bad writing. I’ve seen bad writing in emails and any number of other things for eons but we can for sure improve our writing skills. You help people to do that. Your organization, in the past, has done that with more than 80,000 people, which is remarkable. Is there something that you now share with organizations as to a process that we can introduce? I’ve got one other thing I want to bring to the table too but how do we improve our writing? Do you have any suggestions for that? For leaders.
There are lots of things people can do around the language you use, for instance. Simplifying it doesn’t mean dumbing down. It’s usually the words in between the jargon that causes the problem as long as everybody understands the jargon. I’ve got an example here. You might say, for instance, “Could you give me some assistance in making a decision?” That’s ten words. It’s fifteen syllables.
If you’ve got words in there like a decision, anything that ends in sion or tion, it should be the sound of an alarm bell. It indicates you’ve probably got too many words in there because you have to use other words to make that word work. You don’t make a decision. You can’t say, “Can you decision?” You have to say, “Can you make a decision?” You could say decide. If you are saying assistance, you could change that to help.
If you work with that, you could say, “Please help me decide,” which is 4 words and 5 syllables. If you imagine the effect of that all the way through an organization or through every document, you are massively going to reduce the brain power required to process all of that. What’s going to happen is that the message and the ideas will come through. You almost like having this release of the knowledge capital in an organization where suddenly, the ideas can start to flow a lot more. I would say talk more.
Don’t try to use writing for something that’s not good at. Don’t use it for emotive issues. If you can’t avoid that, if you need to communicate with a lot of people about something quite emotive, then don’t start with the emotive thing. This bottom line up front doesn’t work in a lot of instances. If you start with, “All leave is canceled next week,” that’s the bottom line up front but that’s a punch in the face. The way our brains work that psychology that’s something called the affect heuristic.
You will be angry, and that’s where the prediction comes in, and you will misinterpret everything else. In fact, you won’t even be reading it properly. Be very mindful of that. What I say to people is there’s even a mnemonic you can remember, which is scrap, situation, complication, resolution, action, and politeness. The situation is things that get people nodding. Things everyone can agree with.
If you think a situation is where we are now, the complication is why we can’t stay there or why there’s an issue with that. Resolution is what we can do about that. Action is what we need to do next. Politeness is rounding off on a positive. The situation, complication, resolution, action, politeness and scrap are very good ways of introducing what I call human-centered communication into your emails.
The final thing I would say, and it’s central to all of it, is to put the reader first and do everything you can to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Now, it’s not easy but it could mean taking a notepad and writing down, “What are they interested in? What are they likely to be? What are their likely thoughts on this topic? What are their priorities? How much do they know?” We vastly overestimate what people know.
In doing that, you force yourself to get into their shoes and step out of yours if you like. That can help with written communication. There is a lot you can do, and that organization emphasis is still very much alive, kicking, and doing great work. On their website, which is at Writing-Skills.com, there’s a ton of stuff there.
If you go to the blog, if you want to go direct to it, just go to Writing-Skills.com/blog. It’s probably the biggest repository library of information or how to communicate effectively in writing, probably in the world. It has been going on since 2008. There’s so much stuff on there. There’s a lot you can do to help yourself. It’s not all doom and gloom.
Often, it is that in our communications, we take an assumptive position. That is, we assume other people know what we mean. They know why and the context, and we expect people often unconsciously. More often than not, we expect others to know what we are thinking. They are expecting others to be mind readers. How often do we do that in our intermittent relationships with people that know us as well as in other areas when we assume we know the old mnemonic about that?
I appreciate the solutions and multiple solutions that you offered. I’m going to share something that’s worked for me over the last couple of years when it comes to the text thing because we are not going to get rid of the text. The communication is sped up. As you said, the genie left the bottle. I don’t even think there’s any reason to try to put the genie back in the bottle. We have to be more aware to be resilient.
For example, when I’m sending a text message these days, I would say, “Fifty percent of the time, I will send a text memo instead.” This has to do with whether you are on an iPhone or on an Android. There’s a bit of a challenge there because if you are communicating from an iPhone to an Android, you cannot leave a voice text because those platforms are not compatible in that way. Here’s a call to action to the tech folks to get rid of that barrier because that’s ridiculous.
If you are platform to platform, sending a voice memo is so much different. It takes me less time to leave a voice memo for someone as opposed to the text message that my thumbs are constantly revising and shortening to the point of like, “I’m not going to give somebody three paragraphs to read,” but by shortening it in the process of I’m not simplifying. I’m making the communication less effective and losing the nuance.
As you said earlier, so important. I had never heard this before, losing the opportunity to create that oxytocin for the person I’m sending this message to. They are not hearing the love in my voice. They are not hearing the tone that I want them to receive feedback. If it’s feedback, for example. They see the feedback in writing. It’s like, “Adam is pissed at me. He is disappointed or he is asking me to do yet another thing,” which doesn’t come across when I leave that voice text.
There are a lot of ways that we can work with this because we are not going to get the genie back nor do we want it to. What do we do to lift our resilience and be more able to leverage these technological advances to our benefit and not see them depleting us? We are seeing signs of that.
That’s such a good idea. Somebody did that if you use WhatsApp, for instance. I’m not a great user of WhatsApp because of habit. You can do that, and that is platform-independent but somebody did that with me. They left me a voice memo, and it’s not like a voicemail for some reason. I never checked. I don’t even bother leaving voicemails now but it wasn’t like that.
I could see it there. It was visual because you got a little player in the message, and then it’s like, “What’s he said?” I played it, and it was a message that was about twenty seconds long. It would’ve taken him presumably not much more than twenty seconds to record and yet said so much more because he was communicating bad news but it was okay. It worked. It’s genius. It’s a good idea.
We are going to end here but I could talk to you for days. People reading this now are feeling the same way. Rob has a wonderful website. There’s a lot that you can find about his work in the world and everything that you might want to know and how to engage him. Rob, thank you for your time and the quality of the conversation. I loved it and look forward to us being able to chat again soon.
My pleasure, Adam. It has been a great conversation. Thanks for having me.
The pleasure is all mine. Folks, if you would be kind enough to leave a comment or a review, AdamMarkel.com/podcast. You can leave a comment there. The reviews are fantastic. They help us out, so on whatever platform you might be, you can leave us a five-star review. That would be terrific but again, we thrive on the feedback.
The comments and your thoughts are ever so important. I’m personally the one to respond to those things, so I don’t think it’s some bot or somebody else. It’s me. Again, if this is an episode that you’ve gotten value from, and I got to assume you have, please share it with a friend. Find somebody who maybe could use some help with their communication skills or struggling with the communication of members of their team.
This is so prevalent these days or even people that are feeling that anxiety and don’t maybe know what it’s from. There’s some great insight into what Rob shared with us about where we might look for answers there. Again, wishing everybody a wonderful rest of your day, your evening or wherever you might be at the moment. Thank you so much for your time. We will see you. Ciao for now, everybody.
I loved my conversation with Rob. Honestly, we spoke about some of the most important things that we are all struggling with these days, how it is that we are experiencing fragmentation, and what it looks like to develop a better relationship with our text messaging. I know it sounds funny but we are so attached to these cell phones. We use that texting mechanism all the time. It’s a part of what’s happened in the information age and the technology age that we are living in now.
Communications are so fast, and many of us would like to slow them down but as Rob said, there’s no getting that genie back in the bottle. We have to learn how to use those things more effectively. We covered quite a bit of what is challenging in the space. We think about how frayed we are because of the speed and the frequency of the communications that we are all involved in. The content that we are reading and consuming each and every day.
We are in many ways frayed. We are exhausted. We are seeing a heightened level of anxiety across industries, geographies and the globe. It’s affecting all of us. At the same time, we have this heightened awareness based on some of the insights that this amazing expert shared with us. We were also able to not just put a bow around the problems and talk about them, even if some of the problems that we talked about were things that maybe you’ve never heard of before. You never spoke about it before or never heard people speaking about before.
Some of these things were brand new for me in the course of my interview with Rob. It was, to me, valuable in that area and yet, so many things, we can’t dwell in the lowlands. We can’t dwell on the plane. We have to get to the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain is always what do we do about things? How do we use our heightened awareness? How do we use our understanding to be able to make a change, plan for change or dare I say it, create solutions?
Sometimes, we can’t move into a solution too quickly. We have to sit with things. We have to be willing to marinate in them, as my daughter would say. In this instance, we all get this. We have been living with this. We’ve all had the experience of sitting in a beautiful restaurant and watching people at this beautiful restaurant on their cell phones. Sometimes communicate with each other, I suppose, in that regard. People are texting one another from different areas of the same house.
We’ve all seen these things. We’ve all experienced it. We’ve all probably judged it and been guilty of doing those things ourselves from time to time. It’s important that we have a conversation about that and yet be able to know what are the small things we can change and how we take that awareness and turn it into some action that not only makes our resilience tank. Also, our resilience score is higher but it helps to give permission to other people to do the same. That has a ripple effect, if you will, that only increases the resilience all around us, in our teams, within the organizations that we are a part of, within the organizations that are our communities, our families.
Some of the tools, tips and hacks, I would say, even that Rob shared with us are first-rate. They simply are. I did my best to keep up with him and contribute some things. I felt decent about that but he’s the expert. That’s why we have him on. This is something he has been doing, studying and researching for a very long time. How to think about the digital age in regard to the context of what Rob spoke about, for me, was elevated.
I see the digital world a little differently now because of this conversation, and you will as well. There will be people in your world that you will want to share this episode. I know I’m going to do that, even though we share this with our community, as you would imagine. There are some very specific people that would benefit from reading this. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it. Please leave a comment at AdamMarkel.com/podcast. Leave a review. We love those five-star reviews.
If you would be kind enough to do that, that’s also super helpful. Most importantly, put these things into action. There are some very actionable techniques and suggestions that come after we fully explore the problem. We did cover it quite well. You be the judge of that but let’s all work on this. This is something that we are going to see a collective benefit, worldwide benefit, even if we are all a little bit more aware, and we can take these very simple steps that Rob and I spoke about.
If you are curious about how resilient you are these days, mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually, feel free to do something that 5,000-plus leaders have done already. That is to get your Resilient Leader assessment in three minutes by going to RankMyResilience.com. We will get the job done for you, and it won’t cost you a thing. Most importantly, it will give you that heightened level of awareness, a baseline from which to build and build forward, which is what we are all busy doing now. Without saying any more than that, I will say I bid you a beautiful day, rest of your day and ciao how for now.
About Rob Ashton
Rob is a writer and former scientist who works at the intersection of words and the mind. He’s also the founder of the global writing-skills consultancy Emphasis, through which he’s transformed the writing of more than 80,000 people worldwide – working with everyone from Google to the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace. He argues that, in the digital age, the ability to convey thoughts in text is probably the most undervalued of all skills – and that understanding how the words we read affect our minds is one of the keys to resilience.