Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Tweet twice for yes, once for no

February 2014

I didn't use social media until the start of this year. No Facebook account, no Twitter, no LinkedIn, nothing. The whole concept interests me not even slightly. I have good friends with whom I enjoy keeping in touch through emails, letters and phone calls, and I make new friends by meeting them in person. I like to see who I'm talking to. It's just more interesting that way.

I know this makes me odd, but I've lived with being odd for decades so it doesn't worry me. And even now I'm not unique: globally, more people don't have an active social media account than do.

I do now have a LinkedIn account and I am grudgingly prepared to admit that it's been useful in tracking down old work colleagues. But that's as far as I'll go.

Being outside the social media revolution has its advantages. It gives me a different perspective on life. Not better or worse, just different.

What I've noticed over the past decade or so is that written communication has qualitatively declined. There's more of it, but the value of the information it contains has reduced in certain key but non-obvious respects.

You can convey a lot in 140 characters (or less than 120 plus a link) on Twitter, and many people do. And it's possible to get quite complex messages across through instant messaging and brief emails tapped out on the virtual keyboards of tiny smartphones.

But what's being lost is subtlety and nuance. And the loss persists.

When we use our brains on a daily basis to condense information into a few short sentences, our brains learn. They get better at doing it. They do it more often. It becomes easy.

After a while it becomes so easy that people don't even think about it. They communicate in short, succinct, staccato messages regardless of the medium. 140 characters via Twitter or through instant messaging on a smartphone, 140 characters via their work PC's email client and full-sized keyboard. It's just easier, because that's the way our brains work. We adapt.

So far, so fine. Social media users have become information condensers, expert at reducing text to its core meaning.

But something is missing. An old coding joke goes like this: "Every program can be shortened by at least one instruction and has at least one bug. Which means every program can be shortened to a single instruction that doesn't work."

When humans reduce and condense information into smaller packages, we lose bits. Those bits don't seem important to us, which is why they're left out. But in many cases they are important. They refine the text, clarify, elucidate and provide subtle hints that help the reader make full sense of the meaning contained within.

Among the people I know, there's a roughly age-related split. Younger people communicate tersely in short sentences, older people tend to rabbit on a bit, and those in the middle are gradually reducing their text output as they become used to the new media platforms through which they converse. These days any communication longer than a couple of paragraphs is a rarity.

And this changes our brains. It has to, because as Chomsky and others have noted, language shapes our thoughts. As our use of language changes, so does the way we think.

I find it ironic that just as large companies such as Google are processing trillions of words of human text in order to create artificial intelligence systems that think more like humans, we humans are going the other way and trying to communicate more like machines. Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurologist whose work I've admired for many years, is now helping Google's computers to cope with natural language, but he'll have to be quick or the human race will meet him halfway there.

Despite all this, people still want to read. We are consuming information on an ever larger scale. Google and other search engines are encouraging website owners to publish rich, interesting, informative and nuanced content, partly because they know people want to read it. But the gap between consumer and creator is widening.

Using LinkedIn I recently got in touch with someone I knew when she was in PR and I was an IT journalist. She's since moved up in the world considerably and a large part of that promotion has come about through her ability to produce valuable written content. As she put it, "That's one of the reasons they employed me, as nobody else can write!"

The ability to write well is being eroded by the media that people use to convey their personal and professional messages. I'm not lamenting that even slightly: on the contrary I think it's great... for Ministry of Prose. Our competition is being slowly whittled away by social media, and all we have to do is sit back and watch it happen.

Could you write thousands of words on just one aspect of your company's product or service, and make it interesting and engaging for your target audience?

We can.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and doesn't enjoy squeezing his mind into 140 characters.

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