I’ve started this little experiment of a blog called “The Bad Writing Blog”, a blog dedicated to what I think is a unique view of good business writing. Check it out at thebadwritingblog.wordpress.com. Here is today’s post:
I’ve noticed a trend in how I react to certain media habits. For example:
- I hated the old Jay Leno Tonight Show bit “Jaywalking”. Why? The idea — find ignorant people, ask them questions and make fun of them — was, at its core, simply mean. It’s funny because…why? They are stupid and I am not?
- Certain NPR programs, particularly On the Media and Marketplace, deliver news and comment with a kind of smug, cringe-worthy, in-the-know condescension. For an example, try Bob Garfield’s On the Media interview with Barry Levine of the National Enquirer. Listen for yourself. I can’t describe it any better than commenter Thomas Sizgorich on the show page: “The tone taken by Bob Garfield in this interview with Barry Levine was, as one other poster has noted in brief, condescending, arrogant and even by the standards of a graceless profession, rude.”
- Any use of the phrases “as everyone knows”, “we all know”, or “unless you’ve been living on Jupiter for the past three months, you know…”, or their ilk. In a media environment that combines micro-communities of interest with search-based accessibility of any post and any article to anyone, there is little that ‘everyone knows’.I do not suggest that we write only for the widest audience…quite the opposite. But as a writer, what are you adding with this tired trope? If I, the reader did “know”, like everyone else, what does it add to tell me that I know? Why not just get on to whatever you’re going to add to the story? And if I, the reader, did not “know”, you’ve made me feel foolish.
Let’s call this Principle #4: Don’t be a snob. Let us use language that treats our audiences as trusted, intelligent confidantes and colleagues. Let us drop tired, word-wasting habits that insult even our own readers.
Daniel Lyons interviewed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for Newsweek about the success of the Kindle and how he runs his company. What is clear is that Bezos’s Amazon has a culture unique from any other I’ve experienced. In particular, Bezos talks about how the Kindle was developed by “working backward from the customer”:
“There are two ways that companies can extend what they’re doing. One is they can take an inventory of their skills and competencies, and then they can say, “OK, with this set of skills and competencies, what else can we do?” And that’s a very useful technique that all companies should use. But there’s a second method, which takes a longer-term orientation. It is to say, rather than ask what are we good at and what else can we do with that skill, you ask, who are our customers? What do they need? And then you say we’re going to give that to them regardless of whether we currently have the skills to do so, and we will learn those skills no matter how long it takes. Kindle is a great example of that. It’s been on the market for two years, but we worked on it for three years in earnest before that…We had to acquire new skills….
Then Bezos talks about doing what you do and doing it well versus adding new skills to meet customer needs:
“There’s a tendency, I think, for executives to think that the right course of action is to stick to the knitting—stick with what you’re good at. That may be a generally good rule, but the problem is the world changes out from under you if you’re not constantly adding to your skill set.”
How do you work backward from the customer? Despite how it sounds, what I hear from Bezos is that Amazon isn’t simply a blank slate on which customers crowdsource new service offerings and innovations. What Amazon clearly did with the Kindle is to put smart people on the task of getting to know their most avid book buyers. They found out what they want and need, coming up with a vision what those customers were going to need, and investing in a team that could deliver it.
The result: a product that, despite it’s flaws, seemed like something we’d wanted it all along.