Become a better writer by cozying up to WEIRD
Updated: Jun 25, 2022
🚀 This one about all the fun you can have exploring new concepts. Playful and unrelenting curiosity is a brain button I can't turn off: I'm always thumbing through Apollo mission manuals, toying with the number zero, and building cipher devices (if you’re from the FBI, it’s just for fun, I promise.) If you're boring or like to stick to the grain—this brain-bender probably isn't for you. So let's have a little fun, explore new perspectives, and expand on the tasty juice we can bring to our writing! 🚀
I recently overheard a conversation between a man in his mid-50s and a guy in his late 20s. The older dude was trying to explain the value of a pristine credit score.
“Without one, you won’t be able to get a good mortgage,”
“Well, why do I need a mortgage? I like to move around.”
“You won’t be able to get a good interest rate on a car loan,”
“I ride my bike everywhere.”
“They won’t give you a credit card,”
“I don’t really buy that much outside of what I earn.”
Eventually, the man ran out of reasons why a credit score was so darn important.
From his perspective, an excellent credit score was a must-have. It was a crowning achievement to be pursued relentlessly.
It was one of his foundational beliefs: he was raised to want to buy a lovely house, drive around in a fancy car, go on vacations, and imbibe in a few impulse buys. The younger fella was fine riding his bike around town and loved his little loft close to the local things he enjoyed doing. He had no interest in the things the older man took for granted.
So, what foundational beliefs do you take for granted?
If you’re in fintech and it’s words like APR or compound interest—keep screaming into the void. The National Financial Educators Council quizzed 17,000 Americans on the meaning of this money-related jargon, and the average grade was a D-minus.
When writing, understanding the “givens” you bring to the table is the difference between connecting with your audience—and doing all that hard work just to wind up shouting into a vacuum.
So how do you know when you’re operating under crumbly assumptions? How do you get better at identifying them so you don’t get so cozy with your own beliefs that it becomes impossible to write in a way that connects with others?
My advice? Once a day, read some stuff that rearranges a few brain cells.
Lots of work…deaf ears
Some people just don’t “get” restaurants where you pick your own hamburger ingredients or cars that start up without a key.
Others can’t understand why we’re forced to pick from meals cooked with ingredients someone else picked. Give them a black-bulbed key, and it wouldn’t even occur to them that it could start an ignition.
Recently, a group of professors noticed a sudden shift amongst computer science students.
Younger generations were raised on super-friendly interfaces like iPhone screens. You swipe to unlock your phone, have instant views into the software on your phone (apps), and tap on big colorful blobs (icons) to fire one up. Do you need to climb through a 10-deep hierarchy of folders to start up an application? No way.
The days of a folder tree: plodding through My Documents to find your essay or “What’s My Age Again?” track were passé, like Atkins Diet passé. iPhones washed away the concept of a “folder,” that it’s now entirely foreign. Instead of a well-organized filing cabinet, computers are now, as this article in The Verge commented, “a laundry basket where you have everything kind of together, and you’re just kind of pulling out what you need at any given time.”
So what happened?
In digital design, skeuomorphism is the concept of creating apps and experiences that mimic real-world expectations. By latching onto something you already understand, skeuomorphic designs can make it easier for your brain to learn and use an entirely fresh technology.
These little totems are like storytelling hooks: like the tropes that help writers create relatable, discernible narratives. A character on TV is holding a glass of wine at 10am—the writers are trying to give us a clue that they might have a problem. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never talked with a nefarious lion face-to-face, but the way that Scar skulks and sashays around with unbridled lese-majesty towards the others gives me the impression he might be up to no good.
The only problem with this strategy? You have to make sure your customer has the right experiences under their belt to make the connection. The analogy can become quickly outdated. The concepts underpinning many programming languages—directories and nested files and folders—were no longer common, and students struggled to wrap their brains around it.
It’s not their fault they’ve never been acquainted with the folder concept. After all, it’s a relic of a skeuomorph. Folks could better wrap their brains around a computer’s inner workings by relating it to the image of using a filing cabinet.
Other examples of skeuomorphisms:
An early precursor to iOS called Magic Cap featured an interface that felt like you were sitting behind a traditional office desk. Click the Rolodex to view your contacts or the notepad to scratch down a to-do item.
Snap a photo, and your phone plays the inherently useless yet cozy-feeling sound of a camera shutter. The very first time you took a picture with a phone might have felt foreign and mind-boggling, but when you heard that familiar shutter-click, you started to pick up on the concept.
Email is represented in a lot of media as an envelope, sometimes with a postage stamp. Who knows what the future holds for physical post, but as its popularity wanes, fewer people will “get” why email is depicted this way.
When’s the last time you used a floppy disk? Probably decades. But the relic holds strong as the go-to icon for the Save function. Consider this: if you’re under a certain age, you may not even understand the concept of “saving” at all, as many apps eliminate the step entirely by performing real-time saves. In fact, Microsoft Word online even posts an alert for anyone seeking out the "Save" button—you won't find it here, "there's no Save button, because we're automatically saving your document."
Like meeting someone who flies private or someone who has never fallen in love: they probably won’t understand your piddling about the torment of squishing into coach or the airy bliss of giggling at inside jokes and feeling rapturously consumed by hearing every detail of your partner’s day. Never assume that your reader’s experiences wholly match your own. "It's like being packed in like sardines!" you might exclaim to describe your recent main cabin flight. Do what you can to help them color in the gaps.
Learn how different minds interpret numbers and how you can present them in ways anybody will find fascinating.
Rock your foundational beliefs about your subject matter
A book I once read, The Lost Star of Myth and Time by Walter Cruttenden, proposes another notion to rearrange your brain cells: time elapsed doesn’t necessarily equal improvement.
For example, we often view history as a more erudite, elementary version of now.
People of the past used chisels to chip away at rocks and fire smoke to communicate. How prehistoric! Our circular saws and our Slack is an obvious advancement. They didn’t have iPhones or central air conditioning or non-stick pans—so they were way worse off than us, right?
Now is always an improvement on what was...right?
And then we hear about how modern construction equipment could never build the pyramids or how ancient artifacts were actually used by early brain surgeons to tunnel into skulls. We violently scoff. Impossible! How could the past possibly measure up to today’s marvels?
In today’s Zeitgeist, NFTs and crypto are jarring brain burners for a lot of people. They force you to peel back your conceptions on what makes something “exist.” Art on the wall is something you can touch (don’t, though) and something you can behold. Some of us think the internet is just a tangle of wires and cables we can use to send cuddly puppy videos and complaints about crappy bosses. It’s fun; it’s a tool and a toy. But it’s not where the real “existing” takes place. The internet may be a parallel reality, its content reflecting the real world, but it isn’t the real world.
But to others, it is. And they’re looking to carve out a space in it, to legitimize it. The internet is not an alternate reality; it’s the reality. Streaming Fortnite to 25,000 Twitch followers and tweeting with corporations that call them “bestie” is just as valuable as petting a dog or smelling the roses or basking in the sunrise.
Second Life is an online world where one million real people transform into digital avatars. They build lavish homes, sell virtual fashions and home decor for real money, and form relationships with other real-world people. If this all sounds brain-bendy to you, check out this award-winning documentary on the concept.
So never take what you think you know for granted. Ask around. Proactively find gaps to fill in. Test out lingo on friends or colleagues at other companies to make sure you’re not speaking in tongues. Play around with new ideas. Take a second look at how you present data to check if you’re scaring the living fluff out of numberphobes.
Bust open an assumption like a piñata and see what new shakes out.
And remember, once a day, read some stuff that rearranges a few brain cells.