Blogging: Keep your posts on track with storytelling and the eye of a journalist

Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Want to improve the chances your company blog posts will actually be read by someone? 

Tell a story. Make it relatable to your audience. And have a little fun.

That’s what Scott Money does in this Metrolinx post updating the status of passenger railway track repairs:

It could easily have derailed into an overloaded recitation of work at any big construction site.
Instead, Money uses a journalistic eye to highlight details. He informs and entertains while keeping the story moving smoothly along the tracks.

I recommend you use his approach as a how-to guide in writing your own blog posts. These are efficient and effective ways of gaining and retaining audience attention. The blogging tips I highlight here are communication tactics familiar to anyone who’s written under daily deadlines in newspaper, radio or television newsrooms. They’re key tactics you can use to create compelling content for your blog.

What’s it like?

Money pulls readers into the construction zone with his selective descriptions. He invites them to ponder what it’s like as construction working with Highway 401 traffic zooming behind their backs. It’s Canada’s busiest highway roaring beside workers toiling on Canada’s busiest railway corridor.

There’s a photo with the blog post, but the construction site description provides emotional details the image can’t supply.

Money efficiently and confidently explains the what and the why. What’s happened and what’s next? Descriptions are clear and vivid. He focuses on the change and why it’s important. He salts the prose with a dash or two of railway jargon. I also liked his dinosaur reference to help readers wrap their minds around the magnitude of the project. 

Did you read all the way to the end of his blog post?

I did.

Cookies, wine and bitter beer tell all my secrets

Photo by Pietro De Grandi on Unsplash

“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.”

George Bernard Shaw

I agree.  But why do I like certain foods?  And not others?

Not to worry: I never let such thoughts interrupt my eating.

It seems I’m not alone in my pondering over puddings, potatoes or perogies.  

Scientists also take a keen interest in what we eat and how we eat and what it all means.  

Here’s a taste of what I’ve uncovered about how people interact with food. Maybe it will help me prepare for my next dinner gathering. 

When you pick up a gingerbread man, do you rip off his head first?

Guess what:  that probably means you’re a leader. 

Seriously.  

According to Dr. Alan Hirsch, Neurological Director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, the first bite of the cookie can provide insight your underlying personality. He says so in 2010 research on behalf of Dunkin Donuts.

Here’s how the cookie crumbles. 

Heat bite first?  “It indicates an achievement-oriented individual, a natural leader, who won’t take no for an answer,” he says.

Go for the right arm off the top? You’re skeptical and pessimistic.

Left arm?  Creative and extroverted.

Amputate the legs in a pre-emtive strike?  Good news, my friend: “you tend to be more sensitive, reveling in the company of others” 

I wonder what psychiatrist Sigmund Freud would say about all this. 

Maybe a gingerbread man should come with a little couch.  And a free counselling session?

What to drink with our cookies?

How about some wine? Don’t laugh. I’ve done it.

It turns out wine drinkers have a tough time figuring out how much they actually pour, compared to what they planned. So say researchers at Cornell University.  They have a wine program there. 

Photo by K15 Photos on Unsplash

I haven’t been able to sort out if red wine is indeed better than white wine. But I have found out if you drink white wine, you will probably pour more than you think you did.

Researchers told college students in the test to pour a standard wine serving. That’s five ounces.  

Then, researchers put 10-ounce glasses in front of them. No, the college students didn’t all pour 10 ounces.  

On average, white wine drinkers tended to pour about 10 percent more wine than did students with red wine bottles. Average pour was around five-point-five ounces. That’s better than I would do.

The reason?  The low colour contrast of white wine in a clear glass can make it difficult to choose the appropriate level.

Those same researchers – after pouring wine all day long — also discovered that the style of glass you use is important to how much you think you pour. 

People also tend to pour about 12 percent more wine – red or white — in a wide, red wine glass.  People tend to consistently pour less wine into in narrow, white wine glasses. 

It seems most people can’t calculate volumes in their heads.  Instead, they think a narrower glass gets fuller faster, as the level rises faster. At least the first time they pour.

And people tend to pour about 10 percent more wine into a glass held into someone’s hand. Moving target, perhaps?

When drinking wine in moderation, here’s the checklist:

Stick to red wine

Pour it into a narrow, white wine glass.

And make sure the glass sitting on the table when you do.  

That’s a lot to remember. Maybe it’s time to consider other popular beverages instead. 

But here’s hoping you don’t like both coffee and dark, bitter beers like I do. 

Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

Apparently, liking both beer and coffee makes me a psychopath.  Researchers have found people who like bitter foods were also more likely to score highly in measures of psychopathy, sadism, and aggression.  

“Taken together, the results suggest that how much people like bitter-tasting foods and drinks is stably tied to how dark their personality is,” the study says.

Apparently, an affinity for bitter foods was a better predictor of personality than any of the other tastes in the research effort. Like sweet.  Or sour.

With all that in mind, let’s plan my next dinner party.

To get a good reading on the personalities of everyone who arrives, I’ll pass out gingerbread men at the door.  Then watch carefully.  And take a few notes. 

As a responsible host, I’ll pull aside the “leaders,” ask them set aside their decapitated cookies, and ask them to pour white wine.  Only into narrow glasses sitting on the table, so nobody drinks too much.

If people start asking for coffee or dark beer, I’ll be extra careful where I put the little seating cards around the table.  I’ll make sure to mix up the psychopaths with sensitive, amicable guests still munching on the legs of the gingerbread men. 

What could go wrong?

And after all that, I’ll hope people really like my meatloaf.  Inoffensive, comfort food. A warm hug kind of meal. 

Unless I invited vegetarians.

Adapted from a speech presented at Cambridge Toastmasters, January 26, 2017

Fake News? AI fact-checking not all good news

Fake news has been around long before social media empowered it.

Every time I hear people talk about how artificial intelligence will save us all from fake news, I get uneasy.

It’s an appealing idea.  People blame social media and Google (on computers) for the unchecked spread of fake information (via computers) and demand the tech companies (computer experts) do something about the problem on social media and Google (those darn computers!).

So tech companies announce they’ll use artificial intelligence (AI, or computers that learn) to protect us from all the false news filling our social media feeds (on the little computers we keep in our pockets).

Here’s a recent pitch by a technology company to protect us from the ills of technology: Fake news detecting technology developed by DarwinAI

The Waterloo, Canada company wants to good by making AI do good for us dumb humans.  What’s not clear to me is how much the new AI is a partner with humans in identifying fake news. Or it is simply going to decide what’s truth for us? 

Fake news solution?

My fear is many people worried about fake news will grasp for new AI technology, and let computers solve our problems. Except that it’s people creating and profiting from fake news by encouraging people to use computers to solve all our problems.  And they’re using AI to create more fake news, too. Awkward.

Alternative facts” and deceptions dressed up as news has around long before computers and artificial intelligence.  People have long twisted the truth, stirred negative emotions and counted on entrenched group think to spread their version of “truth.”  Human brains react to threats in a heartbeat. It’s a hard-wired negative bias to the world around us.

That emotional self-protection circuitry is in control before the logical part of our brain processes more details for a nuanced response to a range of inputs. Think about you how you respond to rumour and innuendo in the workplace.  What does it feel like when you’re the target of gossip on the schoolyard? How effectively do you uncouple your emotions when talking politics over the dinner table? None of that will magically disappear whenever mercenary AI-powered truth detectors start scrubbing junk news from our computer screens. Learning and practicing measured responses to what I hear, see and read is the best way I know to manage a world of differing opinions. It’s also how I approach the concept of AI-sanitized storytelling in my social media feeds.

The only way I know to find truth is habitual questioning everything I see and hear.  What’s the source?  What emotion does the “news” I am told stir inside me?  What details am I missing?  Who benefits from the story I’m being told? 

If a news story stirs negative emotion in me and offers a simple answer to complex problems, I go on Fake News Alert.

Healthy scepticism

In 30 years as a newspaper journalist, I learned questions are wonderful things.  So is a healthy skepticism of everything I see and hear.  Trust, but verify.

Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin writes about how easy it is to trick our brains if we aren’t careful.  I’m a fan of his book “A Field Guide to Lies” (also published as “Weaponized Lies”) and encourage everyone to read it.  Here’s a video of Levitin speaking at Google (and I appreciate that irony):

Source: https://youtu.be/3hK7Gd8UgmI

I’m all for fighting fabricated news with all the tools smart and inventive people are able to develop.   What I am not ready to yet do is blindly trust technology to protect us from fake news.  That’s the same complacency purveyors of fake news count on to enable their strategies.

Sifting truth from facts is work.  It’s often hard work.  And it’s worth it.

I have no plans to outsource the job and blithely trust someone else — or something else — to interpret what’s truth or lies. 

What do you think about fighting fake news with artificial intelligence?

Teaching Journalism 35 years after I finished school

Kevin Swayze at Conestoga College, Kitchener, 2019
Kevin Swayze returned to Conestoga College in 2019 to teach, 35 years after he first attended classes at the Doon Campus in Kitchener.

I went back to the future this month.

I am back at Conestoga College, 35 years after I first attended classes there.

Last time, I was there as a student – and graduated with honours from the Journalism-Print program. Found a job and made a 30-year career at newspapers. 

This time, I am an instructor.  I’m teaching “citizen journalism” for online presentations.  Both were unknown when I was learning how to stitch words together like a newspaper reporter.

I feel more than a twinge of nostalgia as I walk the halls as a journalism professor. It’s a long way from the farm where I grew up near Hamilton, Ontario. I realize I have far less hair now than I did in the 1980s.

Nostalgia in the halls

The Doon Campus building in Kitchener is where it always was, along Highway 401.  It’s now about twice as large as when I attended classes, after multiple additions to the buildings since I graduated.

On-campus parking enforcement remains as enthusiastic as I remembered from 1984.  Back then, I remember buying paper parking passes and put them on the dashboard of my two-door 1977 Pontiac LeMans gas-guzzling car.

Today, I pay for parking using an app on my Blackberry.  Tap, Tap, Tap to process a credit card payment.  It must be working since I’ve not yet found a metal clamp from parking services on the front wheel of my utilitarian 2010 Ford Focus.

There’s now an on-campus Tim Hortons coffee shop just inside Door 3.  Across the hallway is a student life centre.  And just down the hall is a beautiful, extensive library with big windows and glassed-in study rooms – but few books on the shelves.

And now after working 30 years as a newspaper journalist, my brain starts asking questions. Comparing today to yesterday’s so long ago.

All the students!  Far more than I ever remember.  Thousands of students. I’d guess there are double – maybe triple – the students now at Doon than I ever remembered before.

International students

Stepping back inside Conestoga also reminded me how things changed from the Ontario of my youth.

I don’t remember anyone who didn’t look or talk more or less like me or talk like me when I arrived at Conestoga in 1984 and walked the concrete-block walls.

Today, a third of Conestoga’s 18,000 full-time students are from outside Canada.  Most are from India and Nigeria this semester.

Conestoga College Hallway in 2021.
Conestoga College Hallway in 2021.

More than three-quarters of my class are international students.  It’s a blast. 

I’m learning international students are likely planning to stay in Canada, as part of a national immigration effort started about five years ago.  Students must complete two years of studies here – at three times tuition for Canadians. That earns them a work permit to stay and practise skills they’ve learned and, eventually, preferred path when applying for landed immigrant status.  

Staying in Canada

In several seminars for new teachers, the situation is described as a win-win-win.

A win for Conestoga, because there’s a decline in Canadian students applying for classes as the Canadian birthrate declines. A win for international students – most of them from middle-class families – are eager for a respected Canadian education – with the bonus of potential citizenship in a safe, stable country.  A win for a country that needs more educated, enthusiastic young people to keep the economy growing.

At the same time as international students are filling Conestoga, there’s a widespread effort encouraging enrolment from young people in Canada’s Indigenous communities. It’s part of a national effort to begin mending Canada’s ugly history of racism toward First Nations communities.  One of many steps towards reconciliation.

And there’s also an overriding effort to assist all students to succeed — with mental health counselling a phone call away and assistance for students with learning disabilities.  

All part-time teachers at Conestoga must attend five, three-hour training sessions to learn how to support and engage with students.   I understand something like half of the students at Conestoga have learning disabilities, diagnosed or not. I don’t remember hearing anything remotely like this when I was a student.

Walking the same halls I walked as a journalism student more than three decades ago, prompts me to pause.  

I think about what’s changed.  And a few things that haven’t.

And I still wish I had more hair.

This blog post is adapted from a speech presented at Cambridge Toastmasters, Jan. 19, 2019.

Please use the form below to contact Kevin Swayze, so he can put his business storytelling experience to work helping you find, shape and share your message with impact.

Contact Kevin by email or contact him by mobile phone: 226-924-4237.

Want people to listen to you? Talk less

‘Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.

Bernard Baruch

I encourage you to listen – really listen – to someone today.

Yes, it’s easy to say.  And hard to do.

When was the last time you felt someone listened to you?  Heard you?  Really heard what you were saying?

And when was the last time you really listened to what someone was saying? Really listened?  Really heard what someone else was saying – and didn’t interrupt or try to change their minds?

Last day? Last week? Last month? Ever?

And how did you feel after that conversation? 

When I have a good conversation – and keep my mouth shut for most of it – I feel energized.  I feel confident.  And since I’ve been listening, there’s was a good chance I learned something.

For me, listening to someone is a fundamental offer of respect. In fact, I like to be treated just that way.

Talk less, listen more

So I promote an 80:20 conversation rule. That’s 80 percent listening;  20 percent talking.

And, yes, I don’t meet my standard as often as I would like.

‘If you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested.

Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

My thoughts and responses want to bubble up.  I want to be heard.  After all, it’s all about me. That’s what social media and celebrity worship teaches me to be successful. Right?  

Well, no.  

I remember both my grandmothers telling me that I’ve got two ears and one mouth. So listen twice as much as I speak.  

I believe listening is about building people up.  I succeed when others succeed. 

Easy to say, hard to do. I find it takes practice and self-awareness. It is worth the effort.

Set a goal to have a conversation with someone.  Pick a place where there are no interruptions.

Turn off your phone. Put it away out of sight.

Offer your complete attention. At a business meeting.  Backyard barbecue. Over a coffee.

Make sure to get your head in the game. Use active listening skills. Forget having to “be right” about everything – or anything.  You’re listening.  Not lecturing.

Perhaps start by talking first, then let go.  Ask about what they think about something in the news? Ask them what made them happy today? How are things going?

Let them know you want to hear what they say. Prove it by your actions.

Talk about what they want to talk about, not what you want to talk about.

Be ready with open-ended questions.  What’s next?  How did that happen?   Wow! What can you do about that?  

Be wary of making it an interrogation.  Especially if someone starts to open up about personal, private worries.

Don’t interrupt

Never interrupt. Instead, empathize.  Don’t criticize.

Mirror your partner’s body language.  Keep eye contact when they’re talking – listen with your eyes.

To keep someone talking – especially in a conversation that’s leaning toward an argument – try echoing what they say.  Show you understand. That you want to hear more. And aren’t telling them what to do.

 “This is so frustrating and upsetting,” you might hear.

“You’re frustrated and upset,” you might reply.

“Yes — it is so frustrating but I think I can…” you might hear as the conversation continues.

You listened.  Your conversational partner is empowered. I suggest you’ll be remembered.

Silence is golden

My favourite conversational tactic is silence.  I often frame it with a gentle nod. Sometimes I purse my lips a little as I lean a little closer.

Silence during an interview was one of my go-to tactics as a newspaper reporter for 30 years.  Ask an awkward, open-ended question. The other person answers. Then I don’t immediately ask another question. 

Let conversational anxiety nudge your partner to respond and fill the silence.  Golden.

Try slipping a little silence into your next a friendly conversation — or carefully into a disagreement. 

It’s a tool to be used with tact in a full-blown family fight.  I don’t advise glaring at your spouse with your mouth closed during an argument.  Based on personal experience, that’s not a communication tactic likely to produce an amenable response.

Now, after all that talk about listening to build up other people, I have a confession.

I like a good conversation because it usually builds me up just as much as my conversational partner.  And in truth, it’s a way to build my network of people.  Perhaps advance my career. Boost my ego.

To be, dare I say, admired as someone who listens. Someone who is remembered.

Beyond that, I am convinced listening trains me to better control and enjoy my life.

It’s confidence practice. Exercising my inner virtues. 

I can’t control what people say.  I can only control my response.

Here’s something amazing.  I’ve noticed that sometimes after I’ve listened to someone 

 I changed my mind.  Yes, it really happens.  I realized I was wrong.  Or at least not right.

So, I encourage daily exercise of conversational skills by keeping quiet. Training for self-confidence. So you’re remembered. 

Keeping quiet allows you to be heard.

What tactics do you use to enable and sustain great conversations?