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Posts Tagged ‘Knowledge

Metaphor: The Open Road

Can we imagine any part of our life without using a metaphor? Do we need metaphors to create meaning? (Click image for credit and source)

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All is connected, all is real, and all is metaphor.

Do you think this statement is true?

Recently I ran across a website of metaphor examples. According to its author, the site is based on the idea that metaphorical relationships can be considered to be “universal” in scope: a sort of Rosetta Stone between disciplines, if you will.

A related view is that metaphors provide a set of tools to compare two (seemingly) unlike things that are alike in at least one important way. Pick the tool of your choice – simile, analogy, personification, and others – and use it to explore and better understand the unknowns.

Then there’s this definition: “A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea … Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance.”

And what of visual metaphorsCognitive metaphors? Root metaphors?

If you follow some of the links in this post, you will see that metaphors of all kinds appear to be an indispensable key to understanding as well as creating our reality. They also allow us to connect to other forms of reality and to live beyond the boundaries of our own space.

Could we write, or communicate in any way, without metaphors?

Can you think of any aspect of your life that is metaphor-free?

If you were deprived of all metaphors, could you exist?

Do you think humans are responsible for creating metaphors, or do we just notice all the connections around us and attempt to describe their interfaces and correspondences?

In a recent post titled Language: The Government Wants Your Metaphors, I discussed IARPA’s Metaphor Program, which seeks to “exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture” in order to “characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”

Although analytically and intellectually admirable, at least as a mathematical construct, such a project may ultimately prove too daunting to be practicable, because what metaphors say is so complex, interlocking and interrelated that it seems quite a challenge to untangle all the possible meanings and connections. And never mind that all of those qualities are dynamic.

If, as some suggest, metaphors are the foundation of our conceptual systems, then apparently we require them in order to think and act.

And if we can only understand or experience one thing in terms of another, that is, by using metaphors, then what don’t metaphors say?

Now it’s your turn: Do you think metaphors are the engine of communication? Could language itself be construed as a form of metaphor for life? Without communication of all kinds would life exist? Thanks for leaving your comments!   Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Make a Metaphor

Are metaphors cultural memes? Do they say something about your culture, or just you? (Click image for credit and source.)

Did you know your tax dollars will soon be hard at work mining massive amounts of text?

It seems that Uncle Sam’s spy researchers are building “software sieves” that will be able to parse automatically what English, Farsi, Russian and Spanish speakers say and write, and pluck out the metaphors lurking in their streams of words.

The Intelligence Advanced Projects Research Activity (IARPA) wants to analyze and evaluate how people use metaphors, and then map that usage to their worldview, beliefs and mindset.

IARPA describes the Metaphor Program this way in a synopsis on its website:

“The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture … performers will develop automated tools and techniques for recognizing, defining and categorizing linguistic metaphors associated with target concepts and found in large amounts of native-language text … the program will characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”

One fascinating aspect of the project is that IARPA sees metaphors as representing a general cultural mindset or worldview, rather than merely an individual’s expression of personal beliefs or attitudes.

This is interesting, because although it might be true that metaphors can influence your beliefs or how you perceive other people, events and issues, it is no doubt equally true that the arrows of influence can fly in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you can change your culture, even if only a little, by how you use language. Creativity and originality, anyone?

At any given moment, does your use of metaphors represent you, the individual, engaged in expressing your own ideas, which might run counter to those dominant in your culture or group? Or you, the “member of a culture” who merely echoes the received thematic mindset and attitudes associated with your kind?

And how could an outsider, a third-party someone (or software application) truly make that distinction with any accuracy?

As Alexis Madrigal points out in his superb article in The Atlantic: “[T]his project wants to parse, say, all the pages in Farsi on the Internet looking for hidden levers into the consciousness of a people … The assumption is that common turns of phrase, dissected and reassembled through cognitive linguistics, could say something about the views of those citizens that they might not be able to say themselves. The language of a culture as reflected in a bunch of text on the Internet might hide secrets about the way people think.”

Alright, then. What do the following metaphors say about Americans – not you as “an American,” mind you, but “Americans”? Because one implication (or perhaps, better: assumption) of the project appears to be that we are each more or less cultural cogs than we are individuals and, therefore, our use of metaphors shows “the consciousness of a people,” which tidily presumes we all agree on what a given metaphor means and only apply it to agreed-upon contexts and situations. Some American metaphors for your consideration:

That’s as American as motherhood and apple pie.

Saddle up.

Let’s roll.

It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings.

The best defense is a good offense.

He’s wearing cement booties and sleeping with the fishes.

A stitch in time saves nine.

He made it by the skin of his teeth.

May the force be with you.

Beam me up, Scotty.

Sow the seeds of progress.

They’re in default mode.

And those examples represent just “we the people” inventing and using common, every-day metaphors. What of those created by great writers, poets, scientists and thinkers?

Read any of Shakespeare’s works, say, or Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. What do the metaphors in those works say about their authors and their respective cultures?

For example, should the meaning(s) of Neruda’s metaphors be understood as saying something about the consciousness of the culture to which he belongs? And what, exactly, would that be? Do Neruda’s readers interpret his metaphors in the same way he does? If they repeat one of his metaphors, do they merely pass along the original (Neruda’s) meaning, or modify it, re-shape it, alter it and re-cast it to fit their own thinking, experiences and intent?

Let me tangentially note that many writers and editors (and readers, too) would call cultural metaphors, such as the examples in the list above, boring and unimaginative platitudes, or tired figures of speech, or hackneyed phrases, and frown on using them. Cultural metaphors are not, by definition, very original.

But do they capture the consciousness of an entire people? The truth of an entire culture?

Do they show how we understand ourselves, each other, and the world?

I think even attempting to build such a cultural-linguistic knowledge database that possesses the slimmest margin of accuracy will prove to be an extraordinarily challenging, complex, very long-term undertaking. The research will have to focus, in part, on word relationships, frames, logics, structures, processing rules, cognitive linguistics, syntactics, pragmatics, semantics, morphologies of various sorts, linguistic biases, permutations and combinations, probabilities, literal versus figurative speech, and … on and on it goes.

Language is a living substance. It is one of the outward expressions of the functioning brain. In essence, this project seeks to build a sort of linguistic Fast Fourier Transform to ingest the metaphorical statements of hundreds of millions of functioning brains and convert them into patterns that show the worldview, the consciousness, and the beliefs of their respective cultures.

What are the odds of such a project producing anything coherent, much less generating accurate, usable, actionable intelligence or insight?

If you view metaphors as cultural memes, you would do well to remember that a culture is a living organism, a society of minds in which ideas and thoughts constantly arise, emerge, evolve, transform, grow, replicate, mutate, decline, and die. Although the metaphors of any given time might mirror something about an individual as well as societal life, and vice versa, what is it?

The Metaphor Program promises to be great fun. This is one of the yummiest projects I’ve heard of in a long time.

What do you think of it? Do you feel like circling the wagons and hunkering down, or are you raring to saddle up and head out to join the effort and offer your metaphors to your country?

To help you decide, you might find it useful to read: What Do Metaphors Say?

Now it’s your turn: What do you think about the government poking around in your metaphors? Do you think such a project can capture the ceaseless realtime exchange of information between individuals and their culture, decode the meanings encrypted in metaphors, and interpret them in accurate and useful ways? Do you even like metaphors? Do you use them?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Google Traffic Generation Trends Analysis

Google Traffic Generation Trends Analysis - Video Ads vs. Social Marketing vs. Pay-Per-Click Ads vs. Search Engine-Optimization

It’s no secret that Google recently changed its search formulas.

Google’s intent was to decrease the occurrence of “content farms” in search results, because the farms were clogging the search rankings. Content farms tend to be heavy on ads, post information without much regard for quality, and often use text copied from other sources.

So good for Google! Time to stop rewarding the content farms.

Alas, however, Google’s modifications to its search algorithms also spawned some unintended (and negative) consequences for legitimate companies.

If you own or work at a small business with a web presence, then one or more of the accidental side effects may be giving you a real headache.

Recent articles on CNN Money and in the Wall Street Journal noted that, as a result of Google’s changes, many small businesses have seen dramatic declines in their web traffic and web-generated sales – think drops in sales of as much as 40 percent.

Wouldn’t that make you sit up and take notice? Thought so. As you might imagine, then, those businesses are now taking action.

Which brings us to the “silver lining in the cloud” part.

If you are a freelance writer, pay close attention here, because one tactic favored by those companies is to hire more freelance writers to customize copy.

You see, many of the affected companies sell lots and lots of different products. Formerly, they relied on the manufacturers’ product descriptions, meaning they basically just copied the text. The manufacturers certainly didn’t mind (it’s partly why they created the copy, after all), but that approach seems to have caused their sites to lose their place in Google’s rankings.

So rejoice, freelance writers. As Carol Tice says in her excellent post about this subject: “Google’s change is opening up a world of freelance writing opportunities.”

In addition to writing original product descriptions, companies also need copy for email marketing campaigns, customer Q&A, social media, direct customer communication and much more that will help each company distinguish itself from its competition.

Companies, although you’re going to suffer some short-term pain, in my opinion you have been handed a golden opportunity to make your businesses even more profitable and productive. You and your customers will eventually benefit enormously from what good freelance writers can bring to the table.

Remember, good communication is the heartbeat of a great business. (And better Google rankings.)

Bonus just for you: If you’d like to read more about substantive content and SEO, and why you should care, check out these recent posts:

Now it’s your turn: How do you present your products and services in an original, creative way? What keeps your customers coming back to your website and actually buying stuff? Writers, what do you think about the opportunities presented by Google’s changes? Please share your thoughts and keep the conversation going in the comments – thanks!  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write ideas

Basil Leaf in a Garden Context

Basil Leaf in a Garden Context

Context is a tricky word, because its meaning morphs, depending on the situation. Given this interesting quality, today I thought I’d look at some of the ways we can think of what the word context can mean in writing.

Text Level

When we speak about the text, or copy, in a document, the word context commonly refers to the elements of a sentence (or paragraph) that surround a particular word or phrase and that influence its meaning. So, what precedes and follows a word, sentence or paragraph helps to determine how readers will interpret it.

But as we know, the text lives inside a document, which in turn affects how readers understand the text.

Document Level

At the document level, the writing situation changes. Here, context is broadly understood to mean the relationship of the writer, the audience, the subject, and the purpose of the document.

As writers, we ask ourselves these core communication questions to start to get a handle on the document’s context:

  • What do I know about the subject?
  • What is the purpose of the document?
  • What does my audience know about the subject?
  • What does my audience need to know about the subject, given the purpose of the document?

And just when you think you’ve got it nailed, it’s very useful to get feedback on your document’s game plan from some test users, who should ask themselves: “What do I know about the subject now that I’ve read the document?” And, most important: “What else do I need to know?”

Of course, no document stands alone. Every piece of writing exists in a system, or setting, which helps to shape how the writer approaches the document.

Setting Level

The document itself exists in a context, an environment we can think of as the conditions that govern the document’s function or the setting in which the document is to be used.

Here are some key questions to help define the conditions/setting:

  • Where will the document be used?
  • Is this a print or online document?
  • Is the document flying solo, or is it part of a communications package?
  • Will readers have access to other help resources?

In order to clarify the complexities of the setting-document-text relationships, many writers find it helpful to use a context diagram.

How Context Works: Some Considerations (Involving Basil)

Bet you were wondering why a picture of a basil leaf opens this post.

Because, in making pesto last weekend, I ran into some context questions, which prompted me to write this post.

The pesto recipe I used calls for three cups of snipped fresh basil. Now, I happened to already know that “snipped” in this context generally means to tear each leaf by hand into rather small pieces (or use scissors to mince it).

But what if I hadn’t? Solution: For online publications, define “snipped” in context-sensitive help; in this case, a linked glossary definition or a pop-up. For print publications, use boldface on the word and, in an introductory section about conventions used in the document, tell the readers that a bolded word means the word is defined in a glossary. Another option (for both media) would be to define the audience: level of expertise, experience and knowledge.

On second thought, what if the writer of this recipe actually understood “snipped” to just mean “cut the leaf from the stem”? After all, the recipe says to use a food processor. Why hand mince the leaves if the machine will do that? How could I be fairly certain that my interpretation was probably correct? Answer: I interpreted the statement in the context of previous general knowledge. Still and all, that’s a little dicey. Maybe the author really did mean three cups of whole leaves, with the stems snipped off.

After all, recipes for a given dish can differ wildly, and who knows what the writer’s intent actually is, unless it’s explicitly stated?

Onward. Since this was my first foray into personally making homemade pesto, I didn’t know how many whole leaves to gather. How many cups of whole leaves result in three cups of snipped leaves?

So I experimented and discovered that about four cups of whole leaves very nicely turn into three cups of snipped.

The entire whole-to-snipped dilemma is another lovely opportunity for the writer to supply some context. Why make the cook guess and spend time experimenting?

Another aspect of context would be to tell readers to harvest the basil leaves before the plant flowers. Ah, tips on usage. Now that is helpful. Who wouldn’t want to know that after the plant flowers you will taste a tinge of bitterness in the leaves?

In this next picture, you can see the flower spikes on a basil plant that is just starting to blossom.

Flower Stalks on a Basil Plant

Flower Stalks on a Basil Plant

The recipe does provide substitution suggestions (walnuts or pecans) for the pine nuts, which is terrific contextual information. Pine nuts cause adverse reactions in some people, and others simply prefer another taste.

Another contextual suggestion, again involving usage, concerns storage. The recipe says the pesto can be put in a jar, covered with ¼-inch olive oil, and stored in the refrigerator or the freezer. Wouldn’t it be nice to know for how long in each case? When does the pesto go bad? What is the outside “safe” date for each method of storage?

Also of contextual interest to a cook is the best way to store something for ease of future use. Freezing the pesto in a jar means you have to thaw all of it at once. What about including the following alternative: If you intend to store the pesto in the freezer, pour or ladle it into the sections of an ice-cube tray. That way, you can conveniently access exactly the amount of pesto you need for one meal. How cool: little frozen cubes of pesto. Talk about ease of use! Wouldn’t that be nice information to offer to readers in the recipe?

As you see, this simple recipe for pesto (only six ingredients and minimal assembly work) very quickly got more complicated due to issues of context: one question at the level of text (“snipped”), and many more at the levels of document and setting.

Well then, what happens when we write user manuals, hardware assembly instructions, operations guides, policy manuals, and so many other business and technical publications?

Compared to a simple pesto recipe, those and other documents are astonishingly complex in their requirements for suitable contextual information.

We need to pay attention to all levels of context so our readers get what they really need to know in order to get a job done (without tearing their hair out).

If our audience wins, our company wins as well, because there is a bonus benefit for using context well: notice that adding these contextual elements to the pesto recipe would help readers find a lot more meaning in the recipe book. (And, of course, we would add similar contextual information for the other recipes in the book as well.) Think of the marketing opportunities! Think of the increased sales! Think of the expanding market share!

What do you think of my observations about context? What suggestions do you have for dealing with the complexities of context?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

While business writing and technical writing can be used to accomplish many goals, one of their most important purposes is to generate knowledge value.

Writing that offers knowledge value has one or more of the following attributes:

Offers New Value. This is writing that transmits new information: perhaps a new discovery, or a better process for getting a job done, or new scientific knowledge, for example. One of its key characteristics is that it makes us aware of meaningful pattern(s) in sets of data.

Offers Enhanced Value. This writing creates something new by juxtaposing older information in ways that provide new understanding or insight. In mashing up already known content, facts and information, it synthesizes knowledge in an innovative way and provides a fresh perspective.

Solves a Problem. When writing solves a problem, it helps someone to get a job done. Here, I think of the term “job” in a fluid sort of way: task, activity, mission, purpose, venture, goal, interest, endeavor, undertaking. If your readers can use what you write to accomplish something they need or want to do, then what you have written solves a problem for them.

Is Perceived As Useful. If your readers find that your writing offers value and solves problems, they will judge it to be useful to them. A useful piece of writing is a knowledge asset. It has worth and significance beyond the immediate benefit to the reader it helps.

Business, science and technology depend on writing that can generate knowledge value in order to grow and flourish. Workers in these fields know that creating meaning from a constant overflow of information is paramount to success. Meaning is their story; story is the nut of it.

Could we go so far as to say: “Tell a good story and they will come to you”?

As writers, how can we help manage and direct the deluge of data and information to create knowledge value and, thus, meaning? It seems to me that this is one of our key responsibilities – do you agree or not?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

Do you need to learn how to use a software feature? Have a question about your taxes? Interested in keeping up with the local news? Are you a life-long learner with a passion for expanding your knowledge in one or more subject areas? Are you trying to change careers and need to acquire certification in a technical field?

Day in, day out, we all need or want to know more about certain subjects. Our “need to know” is never-ending.

It is in this sense, then, that all of us have a “problem”: we need some type of information, and we must go about finding it. How do we resolve our dilemma?

We turn to writers, who supply the solutions we need.

You see, there would be no point in writing if there were no readers who needed to know something. Every piece of writing, from newspapers and magazines to fiction and nonfiction of all genres to technical documentation and beyond, seeks to satisfy someone’s need or desire to know.

The writer’s job is to recognize a specific audience’s problems (what do my readers want to know), define the problems in a way that makes sense for that audience (why do my readers want to know), respond in a way that will interest that audience, and communicate the right information.

If the writer is successful in that effort, readers will get what they need.

Good writers know that all writing is problem-oriented, in the sense that the “need to know” reflects the existence of a problem.

So, writers, let us thank our readers, for without the problem of their thirst for information, we would have no reason to write.

As readers, let us all thank the writers who have answered our questions, filled in our knowledge blanks, satisfied our curiosity, and given us so many hours of reading pleasure.

What sort of writing has helped you?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

In any document you write, your overriding objective is to make the content immediately understandable and usable by your audience.

If someone tells you that your work is not clear, the problem typically falls into one or more of these categories: planning, conceptual design, information, and language usage. To analyze the problem, start by asking the following questions:

Planning. Did you complete a thorough planning phase at the beginning of the writing project? Did you use the results in writing the document? For example, do you understand the purpose of the product? The purpose of the document? Do you know who your audience is? Do you know how your audience will use the document? You should have answered these and other planning questions at the outset, and then implemented the answers as you conceptually designed the document, gathered the information to be included, and wrote and reviewed the material.

Conceptual Design. Did you answer all of the important design questions? For example, do you know what your audience is looking for in the document? What is the most important part of the document? What are the key requirements that the document must meet? What are the editorial standards you are to use in your work? And so on. Further, did you establish page and text formatting guidelines? And, critically, did you build an outline based on your planning and design decisions?

Information. Did you scope out the content to be included in the document? Content to be excluded? Did you keep in close touch with your subject-matter experts and have them review the document, giving you feedback? How much do you yourself know about the subject matter? How good a researcher are you? Do you have the right material for the document, based on your outline?

Language. Do you have the necessary knowledge and grasp of the craft of language: spelling, grammar, syntax, punctuation, vocabulary and word usage? If you feel you need to improve in this area, do two things: read and write. Read good writing by good writers, and practice writing. Make both a daily habit. If you want regular critiques of your writing, join a local writers’ group, or check out classes for adult learners at your local university, community college, or online.

A final tip on analyzing problems involving clarity of writing: be careful of telling stories or going off on tangents when you write. All content and how you handle it must serve the purpose of the document, based on your planning and design decisions, and your outline. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

What do you think? Do you agree with these suggestions? What would you add?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  The Write Ideas  lexpower


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