I love Twitter, but I hate this book

December 15, 2009

I put off writing this review of “140 Characters” for far too long. The problem is, I love Twitter but I hate this book.

I think part of my problem with “140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form” is due to its subtitle. The truth is, it’s not much of a style guide.

‘140 Characters’ isn’t about how-to help

140 Characters: A style guide for the short form

140 Characters: A style guide for the short form

In the 12 years I worked in newspapers, I turned to the Associated Press Stylebook for advice on everything from the difference between Baptists and Lutherans to the correct way to note the caliber of pistol ammunition. I still keep the stylebook close at hand. But the AP Stylebook is a practical, no-nonsense guide to how to construct discrete elements of whatever it is you happen to be writing, regardless of whether it’s a serious analysis of international monetary systems or a column about a new cartoon show on TV. It spends little space trying to inspire writers to write, encouraging them to be creative or gushing about the joy of being a journalist. Even the AP’s Guide to News Writing is more “how to” than “how marvelous.” “140 Characters,” on the other hand, seems mostly concerned with convincing the reader of the unbearable wonderfulness of using Twitter.

I love Twitter. It’s interesting and informative — dare I say wonderful? — and I use it every day. I really wanted to like this book, but I don’t have any time for 179 pages of syrupy evangelism for Twitter. If “140 Characters” had been subtitled something such as “Find your voice on Twitter” and presented as an inspirational tome, the book might have been easier to swallow and might have been more clearly targeted toward the kind of people who go to writers’ groups to talk about how great it is to be a writer.

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Update on Muni express story for Spot.Us

February 18, 2009

I’ve had a couple of questions recently about the status of the story on San Francisco Muni’s express buses I’m writing for the crowd-funded journalism site Spot.Us, so here’s a quick update.

I am finishing some interviews this week and expect to file my story by this time next week. Once it’s in Spot.Us’ hands, a fact-check editor will have a go at it before publication. My belief is that they’ll publish soon after that, but it’s up to them.

This story has been pushed back longer than I would have liked. But the way Spot.Us works, there’s no definite deadline for pieces — and since I have a wife, two kids and an older house to think about, when I’ve found work that does have a deadline and also provides enough to cover the mortgage payments, I’ve taken it. The unfortunate result is that I’ve put off the Muni story.

One observation about the expresses that I’ll share now won’t surprise daily express riders, but it seems almost surreal to people used to the regular bus or the streetcar: By and large, express riders are really polite. Trying to get on most streetcars and buses can sometimes resemble a contact sport (I’ve had plenty of jabs in the ribs from people who try to shove their way in the door of the L-Taraval ahead of everyone else, regardless of how long others have been waiting), so it’s very odd to see passengers line up neatly for the express and head to the back of the line if they arrive late. And although it can be hard to get a seat, depending on the time and where you catch the bus, the ride itself usually is quiet and civilized.

I’ll post further updates if I have anything new to report, including when I file the story. In the meantime, do visit Spot.Us. Some great pieces already have been published, and others are still in need of funding.

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Sarah Palin goes ‘nucular’

October 3, 2008

Many observers of the vice-presidential debate between Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin noticed that Palin shares President George W. Bush’s mispronunciation of “nuclear” as “new-kyoo-lurr.” Why would an otherwise intelligent person mistake the correct way to say a word that isn’t any more difficult than “likelier”?

In a radio commentary from 2002, language expert Prof. Geoffrey Nunberg explained that in Bush’s case, the mispronunciation may be deliberate, a sort of modern shibboleth — a way to distinguish “us” from “them.” And in such cases, it’s used only for nuclear weapons. Could Sarah Palin be using “nucular” the same way?

In the mouths of those people, “nucular” is a choice, not an inadvertent mistake — a thinko, not a typo. I’m not sure exactly what they have in mind by it. Maybe it appeals to them to refer to the weapons in what seems like a folksy and familiar way, or maybe it’s a question of asserting their authority — as if to say, “We’re the ones with our fingers on the button, and we’ll pronounce the word however we damn well please.”

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via Geoffrey Nunberg – Going Nucular.

The ‘best’ in ‘pet’ ‘care’

April 6, 2008

Oh, dear. Where do I even start? I saw this sign outside a shop on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco the other day.


It’s perplexing on so many levels.

First, of course, is the simple misspelling.

But there are more important matters. I don’t think I’d take my dog somewhere where they used “anesthesia” instead of anesthesia. I mean, what do they do, give the dog some sort of homemade medication? Hit it over the head? Slip it a placebo? Get it drunk?

And “free” obviously means something new to me, since it still costs $105.

Or maybe I’m reading it wrong altogether. Maybe what they mean is that the procedure is simply free of anesthesia, and Fido is going to have to just tough it out.

Top 10 best and worst communicators

January 5, 2008

Communications guru Bert Decker is an expert at analyzing the way people present their messages and helping them improve the way those messages — and the people presenting them — are perceived. I spoke with Bert on New Year’s Day, and he graciously agreed to let me repost his annual list of the 10 best and worst communicators of 2007.

I used to run Bert’s list every year when I was editorial-page editor of the San Francisco Examiner, and although I don’t always with his choices for the annual list, his explanations of those choices are always fascinating and insightful.

Looking back on some of Bert’s earlier lists I think I’ve gleaned two related lessons from them. First, there can be a big difference between what you mean and what people hear. Second, if you want to deliver the right message, you can’t just be concerned about the words that come out of your mouth — you also have to pay close attention to how you say them.

Whether communicating with our family and friends, with our business contacts, or with some segment of the world at large, we all can learn from the accomplishments of people who are particularly adept communicators as well as those who consistently fail to deliver the message they intend.

Here, then, is an abridged list of the 10 best and 10 worst communicators of 2007, according to Bert Decker. If you find these lists interesting, be sure to check out Bert’s blog at www.bertdecker.com and his business Web site at www.deckercommunications.com:


This year’s List of Top Communicators highlights the best (and worst) from business, politics, entertainment and sports. Take a look to see how communications skills helped make or break these notable individuals.


1. Gov. Mike Huckabee — What but for communicating would get a presidential candidate so far so fast?

A few months ago Huckabee was almost an unknown. Now he is a front runner for the Republican Presidential nomination, and probably the fastest rise ever from relative obscurity to the cover of the weekly newsmagazines. Governor Huckabee is open in style, authentic, natural and amazingly great at thinking (and speaking) on his feet. He tells stories, and connects with people. … Powerful tools when you have to build trust and credibility visually, quickly and mostly through TV. And powerful tools for a leader. Although he has a conservative constituency, they alone could not get him this far this fast. It is his communicating.

2. Dr. Mehmet Oz — He became “America’s Doctor” in one short year, because of his communications (and Oprah of course.)

He is a unique personality, fast eyes, crisp words forcefully put — when he talks about alcohol he says hangover with a hard G. The communication experience he delivers is a man of the people — trusted by the people. He makes a good case for Dress & Appearance – always in surgical scrubs when on Oprah. He is able to synthesize complex health/medical discussions into something tangible — he talks at our level. Add to that straightforward and down to earth advice, funny and real — you have a real (and media) superstar.

3. Al Gore — Even if he hadn’t won the Academy Award, Al Gore would get the communicator’s comeback of the year award.

In a few short years he transformed himself as a speaker by becoming open vs. closed, vulnerable vs. distant, fluid vs. stiff. He worked at it, and even though he did not “invent the internet,” he did invent “global warming.” Or his film “An Inconvenient Truth” gave it the exposure to get in the popular vernacular. But it was Gore himself as narrator of the film who did the job (with a little help from our friends at Duarte Design — see Best Communicators #9 for the importance of visual support in communicating.) Some people think Al Gore deserves the Presidency. I don’t know about that, but he does deserve his many awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize and a top communicator of the year. Who would have thunk it?

The Ten Worst Communicators of 2007

1. Alberto Gonzales — He not only lied, but showed he was lying because of his behaviors.

Even when he could no longer lie and had to apologize to his fans and the general public he did it in the most non-convincing way possible. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was kept on for a long time by President Bush, but to no avail — he could not talk his way out of a very strong appearance of guilt that was caused by his communications as much as actions.

2. Michael Vick — When you want your public AND the judge’s empathy, it is not the time to “gut it out” and put on a stone face.

What Vick did was bad enough, but how he handled himself made it worse. Stiff, appearing aloof and distant, he communicated that he was as bad as his press. This is a young man who had an amazing talent and he was unable to parlay that into Character, which is the most important quality in a leader.

3. Robert Eckert — The Chairman of Mattel was caught in a toy recall disaster probably not of his making, but “the buck stops here.”

And he did not take advantage of his spokesman role to turn the tide for Mattel in the recall of lead painted toys made in China. He said the words, but his manner belied sincerity. One of the YouTube clips could be subtitled “How to be a disaster.” The hand tenting, eye communication and facial expression are vivid examples of Emerson’s quote, “What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say.”

For the full list of Bert Decker’s 10 best and worst communicators of 2007, visit his blog.

Two tips for getting along with editors

October 25, 2007

One of the biggest early-career challenges for many professional writers is learning how to get along with editors. It doesn’t have to be hard — just keep in mind what editors need.

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Five tips for every writer

October 8, 2007

As a journalist and opinion writer, my experience is with expository and persuasive writing. But most writing shares common issues and processes. Here are five tips that should save beginning writers some headaches and serve as reminders for those with more experience. I’ll explore some of these tips in more detail another time, but for now I hope you’ll find the ideas helpful. Please tell me what you think, and comment to share tips of your own.

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