Don’t think of a purple giraffe (and what else not to say)

giraffe-skin-background-purpleA company I admire allowed an employee to blog, “You probably don’t want to come to our conference, but here’s why I think you should.” Really? I don’t want to come to your conference? Now that you mention it–I guess I don’t!

Are you telling people what you don’t want them to think, or don’t want them do? And then are you surprised when they (your customers and clients, your children, the general public) think and do the opposite of what you wanted?

When we tell a child, “Don’t touch!” what does the child do? And at lightning speed?

Toddlers hear our command as “Touch!” The “Don’t” does not register. Grammatically, that is the imperative. And our tone makes it an urgent command. To negate what we commanded–do NOT do what we forcefully said–is linguistically sophisticated, over their tiny heads.

Even mature brains take longer to process a negative, thinking, “This–no, NOT this.” And even if ignored, negative words retain subliminal impact: “You probably don’t want to come to our conference.” “These are not the droids you are looking for.”

If we want people to understand us, possibly even do our bidding, then tell them what we want them to do, not what we don’t want.

Say your cat or your antique vase are endangered by tiny hands. Guide the tiny hand as you say and demonstrate, “Touch it gently. Gently.” You might want to supervise and remind, “Gently,” or remove the object of interest, but the child’s joy and cooperation will amaze you.

Sometimes we need to warn. If it is a hot stove, we can say, “Hot! Owie!”

ADOT (Arizona Department of Transportation) used to warn, “Don’t drive drunk!” That message includes “Drive Drunk!” That is like telling a toddler, “Don’t touch that stove!” I wanted to scream, “No! Tell them what TO do–like Designate a Driver!”

Not long ago, ADOT switched to “Drive hammered, get nailed,” which prompted at least one attorney to post billboards: “Got nailed? Call us!”

And finally this week, ADOT got it right. The signs now read, “Designate a Driver. Avoid a DUI.” YES! Give that reviser a raise! I expect the revision to prove more effective than checkpoints alone.

It’s easy to write, “Don’t think of a purple giraffe,” and forget what happens in the reader’s brain. What’s your favorite Purple Giraffe?

What’s Your Style?

This one is for those of you who already write in complete, yet not inexhaustible sentences, and wonder whether you have any style.

Of course, you do–just as you have a personality style, a speaking style, a breathing rhythm, a driving style. You can’t help it. You are an original because you are the only one. Whether you want to tweak your writing style is up to you. (My favorite book on style is Trimble’s Writing with Style.)

David L. L. Houston enumerates some of the features that distinguish one author’s style from another, and I liked his style. What’s Your Style?


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Most Beautiful Words

A reposting of a list of 100 Most Beautiful Words in the English Language has me wondering what my own favorites would be.

For example, bucolic doesn’t make my list. Its meaning, in a lovely rural setting, certainly qualifies, and that definition chimes beautifully in the ear, but bucolic’s cacophonous sound suggests it would mean sick cow.

Nor do I care for long latinate words when a more accessible word will do. I prefer cat lover to ailurophile.

I  concur on onomatopeia and panacea, but my favorite word has to be lullaby.

Remember when Bert and Ernie of Sesame Street sang the L song? Bert had “light bulb and lamp post,” while Ernie advocated the “lilting and lovely ones” like “laughter, lullaby, lollypop.” So Bert the boring came up with “linoleum!” The humor came in juxtaposing a melodic word with its pedestrian meaning.

For me, the most beautiful word captures the precise meaning you’re looking for, its phonetic symbolism matches its meaning, and its cadence fits the prosody of your passage. Good thing we can rummage around in this language with the largest vocabulary available; with a half million words to choose from, sometimes we can have it all.

What would you nominate as a most beautiful word?

Friday Flick: Real Beauty

Even if you’ve seen this classic commercial, it’s a great reminder that what we see in certain environments bears no resemblance to reality.

It’s also a reminder that some revisions go too far.

Dove Evolution of Beauty commercial

Dove Evolution of Beauty commercial


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Scheduling Improv

Listening to Krista Tippetts’ interview with musician Bobby McFerrin, it first surprised me that he ever considered joining a monastic order, and that the main attraction was the silence! He also loved the scheduled cycles of each day, the listening for God. Then it made sense.

He describes himself as a “conveyer of song. I think of myself as a catcher of songs . . . . to grab it, and pull it down, and have it come out of my mouth.” He distinguishes this process from an attitude of performing, which he recommends avoiding, even if you’re “catching song” from a stage.

He’s known for his improvisational freedom, but did you know he practices it? He recommends setting a timer for ten minutes. Then open your mouth and sing, and don’t stop, even when your body screams to stop.

That works for writing, too. Set a timer for a little longer than usual, and keep going even when everything in you screams to stop. You can work up to longer sessions and greater improvisational freedom.

(I watched the unedited version, and I plan to listen to the edited version as well–not to miss the things that will be trimmed for radio length, but for the music they’ll add. There’s another great way to look at revision!)

Bobby McFerrin Catching Song


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

In Case of Rejection

As poet Wesley McNair braved rejections, his mentor Donald Hall comforted him with these observations:

“These feelings simply do not end! Believe me I am sympathetic with your feelings, but let me tell you that when you have published a book–which you will–nothing will happen: or at least it will seem that nothing has happened. And this would be true whether it were published by New Rivers or Atheneum. Even if something happens, then you realize  that the “something” is truly nothing. And after you have published eight books of poems, you are still convinced that no one has read you, and that probably you are no good anyway. Or at least you are convinced of that frequently. I have been going through quite a bad patch, in my feelings about my own ability, my past work, and certainly my present work.

“There is only one place, or one moment, in which one finds happiness, and it is always momentary–because that is the moment of the actual writing, and of course that is not always true.

“So I do two things: I assure you that you will publish; and I tell you that it will not make any difference! But I do have a third thing to say: it makes a difference to me!”


Don Hall to Wesley McNair: typewritten text as quoted above
Poet Don Hall to (not yet published) Poet Wesley McNair

If we hang all our hopes on any dream as the condition for our happiness, naturally, we’ll be disappointed. But it is possible to take joy in the process, the learning, the growth, these moments of creation.

I loved this line: “It makes a difference to me!” What a gift–when any of us has someone, at least one person, for whom it makes a difference.

Here’s Wesley McNair speaking about the poets’ correspondence on the United States Artists site, where you can fund artistic projects you’re excited about, or request funding for one of your own!


FIRST Robotics Fans
FIRST Robotics Participants --- almost as creative as the ones I saw in person

While witnessing my first FIRST Robotics competition this spring, I was initially impressed by the enthusiasm. It’s a high school sport! Fans rock a basketball court while nerdish guys in imaginative costumes lead cheers and dance with abandon.

FIRST Robotics competition
FIRST Robotics competition

Next I was impressed by the engineering talent as giant robotic crafts negotiated competitive and cooperative tasks.

Then best of all–the part near and dear to a writer, and found only in the printed program–the mottos. They ranged from boring to inspirational to hilarious. Here are my favorites:

  • “Drive it Like You Stole It!”  (Cobra Commanders, Cactus High School, AZ)
  • “Pass the duct tape!” (Mecha-Knights, Casa Grande Union High School, AZ)
  • “There is No Spoon” (Falcon Robotics, Carl Hayden High School, AZ)
  • “Putting Others FIRST” (Beach Bots, Hope Chapel Academy High School, CA)
  • “Don’t Stop Believing” (The Phoenix, Queen Creek High School & District, AZ)
  • “Keep it simple” (Team Paradise, Paradise Valley High School, AZ)
  • “Si Se Puede” (Si Se Puede, Chandler High School, AZ)
  • “Make it work!” (Bearded Dragons, Verrado High School, AZ)
  • “Clamp it down” (Hamilton Microbots, Hamilton High School & Space Grant Robotics–ASU, AZ)
  • “GO NUTS!” (CocoNuts, Coconino High School & Flagstaff Unified #1, AZ)
  • “Dr. Gear–Sir, We Salute You” (Critical Mass, East Valley Institute of Technology, AZ)
  • “We put the ‘eek’ in Geek” (N.E.R.D.S Nifty Engineering Robotics Design Squad, Buena High School, AZ)
  • “Pride Determination Respect” (Bionic Bulldogs, Kingman High School, Kingman Academy of Learning High School, and KUSD #20, AZ)
  • “Hey this might work!” (BioHazards, Bioscience High School, AZ)
  • “Fueled by HotPockets” (Team Thundercats, Deming High School, NM)
  • “The 10th time is the charm” (Team CAUTION, AZ Community Robotics, AZ)
  • “It’s only temporary unless it works” (Sentinels, Seton Catholic, AZ)

And there was even a meta-motto:

  • “We make Robots, not Mottos” (Boxer Bots, Vail School District, AZ)

No motto was listed for 15 of the 46 teams; 22 teams named their robots: Beach Bot, Chipper, Heather, Score, Caprica, Neo, Velcro Radical 25, Dionysus, Pocket Protector, Robobuff, Aztecbot, Anthrax, Scorpio, Marmaduke, Thundertank, Goal-E, Beth, Panchobot, I, and Viper Prime. There was even a TBD–to be determined.

For those who joined the linguistic game, these mottos and names (of teams and robots) suggest the whole adventure: the thrills and heartbreaks, the persistence and resilience, the team spirit and mutual respect. Even the organization gets into word coinage, trademarking “FIRST” (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), “Gracious Professionalism” and “Coopertition.”

A study at Brandeis University concluded that FIRST Robotics participants are “roughly ten times as likely to hold an apprenticeship, internship, or co-op job in their freshman year. . . significantly more likely to expect to achieve a post graduate degree. . . more than twice as likely to expect to pursue a career in science and technology . . . more than twice as likely to volunteer in their communities.”

But win or lose on the robotics court, and pursuing whatever careers they choose, these young engineers obviously experience collaboration, sportsmanship, revision, and celebration. Sounds like a great way to build our next world leaders.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Photos from