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A Note to Writers: Choose Your Voice and Your Media Carefully

Dave Pollard, How to Save the World
Richard Preston’s new book contains some important lessons for writers. Preston is an accomplished storyteller, and his biological exposés The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer are riveting. His latest book The Wild Trees is the story of the young men and women who have, recently and without much support or acclaim, discovered a phenomenally rich ecosystem within and atop the world’s tallest trees — the Coast redwood, Douglas fir, and mountain ash — by climbing them.

It’s an interesting story, since these pioneers had to invent much of the technique and many of the tools they use to climb these 350-foot giants, and the idea that the canopy of these trees is so strong and intertwined that you can play in it like a huge jungle gym (see top photo, of Preston, above, taken from his website).

…The other major lesson for writers (and publishers) is the fact that this is largely a visual story. The book has some useful black-and-white maps and sketches, but what Preston is describing is unimaginable, even with the help of an excellent story-teller, without rich visual images. And in the 21st century, there is no excuse for not providing them.

Preston’s site has some excellent photos that not only add immediate clarity and drama to his story, but also introduce us personally to the climbing pioneers he profiles in a way that no rich biographical information can do. Marie Antoine and Michael Taylor, particularly, look nothing at all like how I pictured them when I read the book.

The publishers could have put the colour photo spread inside the book. But they could have done something even bolder and richer: National Geographic is making a TV special based on Preston’s book. The book could be cued to images and video clips from the special, so that the reader pauses at prescribed points and goes online for the next clip. The resulting multimedia experience would have been amazingly rich. The merging of online and print media could, just like Preston and his brave climbers, have pioneered something rare, extraordinary and important.

It’s not too late. If Preston were to work with National Geographic to do this, and add in some video clips of his family talking about their passion for climbing and how it emerged, and some video clips teaching us how to climb safely (just small trees will do), and then sync this with a second edition of his book, I’d go out an buy another copy just for the URLs of the clips positioned appropriately throughout the book. And then this book could be as revolutionary and eye-opening as The Demon in the Freezer.

Anyone currently writing, or thinking of writing, a book should imagine the possibilities of enriching it with video clips, interviews and other multimedia content. It is no longer awkward to have both a book and the Internet at your fingertips at the same time. There are things that a hard-copy book just cannot do, and things that only a hard-copy book can do. It’s now possible to have your cake and eat it too.
(28 May 2007)

Communication Tools: Make Them Simple and Ubiquitous or They Won’t Be Used

David Pollard, How to Save the World
As part of my current work contract, and in some of my blog posts, I’ve grappled with the ineffective and inappropriate use of the various communication tools that are available in the workplace. I’ve developed a variety of ‘tool choosers’ — decision trees and charts that identify the criteria for use of different tools. And I’ve written articles on when not to use e-mail.

I didn’t expect enormous success in using these levers for change in information behaviours. Things are the way they are for a reason. In studying the use (and non-use, and mis-use) of various tools, I’ve come to the realization that some pretty simple rules govern whether, and how, communication tools are used:

1. A tool has to be both simple (intuitive to learn, comfortable and versatile to use) and ubiquitous (everyone needs to have access to it) before it will be extensively used.

2. Most people are looking for just enough tools to manage both 1-to-1 and group communications, and both synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous communications. The fewer the better as long as they cover those bases.

3. Most people will tolerate more than one tool in a category if and only if each offers unique and important functionality that is absent in the others.

4. Comfort with and access to various communication tools varies between generations, and with it their propensity to use certain tools.

… what I’m now focusing on, to bring about information behaviour change, is this approach:

1. Make complicated tools easier to use: Strip out unneeded and confusing functionality. Use templates. Set people up with one-click, one-step mechanisms to use the tool the way they most often use it. You want to get the geezers in your company to blog instead of sending bulk e-mails to everyone? Make the blog site an e-mail address, so that all s/he has to do is e-mail to that address and voilà, s/he’s a blogger. Want people to share their stuff on the Intranet? Make saving documents on, and sending documents to, the organization’s websites the default, automatic, so that you have to do something extra in order not to share.

2. Make limited-access tools ubiquitous: Give everyone default access to all the tools in your company’s communication toolkit: Skype, IM, desktop videoconferencing (with a personal meeting-space URL for every employee), personal web pages, RSS aggregator pages, etc. If they’re simple enough to use and available to everyone, a certain number of people will start using them, provided they meet a need that other tools cannot. Usage will likely steamroller from there, as the pioneers keep exposing others to these tools until they become second nature to everyone.

3. Only once you have done the above, help people differentiate when to use the various tools that are simple, ubiquitous, and somewhat interchangeable (i.e. which are in the same quadrant of the charts above). Each tool has its unique advantages, and each is inappropriate in some situations. Once everyone has IM, for example, people will be open to understand when it is preferable to use that tool instead of the phone or e-mail, and when IM should not be used.
(29 May 2007)

Not everyone’s a Feynmann

JMG, Grist
..Mann, one of the brains behind, is a giant, one of the most important people in the world of climate history, climate modeling, and projections. A fair number of people came to this talk, including a lot of teens with their parents, eager to hear him speak on global climate change.
After the talk, not so much.

Now, in terms of content, I’m not worthy of cleaning, much less carrying, Mann’s briefcase. But I have enjoyed some good training on public speaking and presentations and have done a fair amount of teaching and presenting. So I would like to thank Mann by offering some tips for scientists who are asked to to out and talk to the “civilians” — a lay audience — about their professional work. ..
(1 Jun 2007)
Nobody enjoys criticism, but I’m betting Mann can take it. Even if he can’t, better communication is more important than hurt feelings.-LJ