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A Review of Reviews

Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Read/Review

As a buyer, how do you use customer reviews? As a businessperson, how do you feel about reviews of your own products?

Personally, as both a buyer and a businessperson, I love customer reviews. They strike me as more valuable overall than professional reviews (and I say that as someone who wrote professional reviews during the 1990s).

The Value to a Customer

As a customer, I tend to browse the 1-star reviews first. My goal is to pinpoint potential deal breakers before I buy. It’s easy enough to skip the horribly written reviews, and the off-target ones—those that complain about the mail, or a particular retailer’s policy, or anything else not related to the product itself. (Consider these “25 One-Star Reviews People Actually Left For Famous Tourist Attractions.”) If I find a common theme about a particular product feature, however, I can decide before buying whether that feature applies to my own intended use.

Next, I browse the 5-star reviews. In this case, I’m hoping to discover the very best features of a product. Again, it’s fairly easy to skip the thoughtlessly gushing reviews (which, frankly, are sometimes the work of shills). If a common theme about a particular feature is repeated, however, that’s something to consider in relation to my own expected use of the product.

Lastly, if I haven’t yet made a purchasing decision, I spend some time in the 4-star reviews. These tend to be more well-thought-out and better expressed than the 1- and 5-star reviews. They’re also often longer, requiring more time to consider.

In my experience, the 2- and 3-star reviews are generally too non-committal to be of much value. They don’t often reveal anything damning, nor do they offer much helpful advice. Frankly, I’m not sure why people bother posting them.

The Value to a Businessperson

As a businessperson, I have pretty much the same feelings about reviews of products I’m involved in. Those 1-star reviews aren’t threatening, because they so often disqualify themselves from serious consideration by the quality of their writing. But if many of them point to a similar disappointment, that’s something worth considering in future production of the product. Similarly, the 5-star reviews are valuable only if they point out a common praise. The 4-star reviews tend to be what I learn most from, and any 2- and 3-star reviews are of dubious value.

Let me add that I generally think a large body of reviews averaging 4 stars is more valid and convincing than just a few, glowing 5-star reviews. It’s better to have an honest debate among customers than just a few devoted fans.

The Trouble with Professional Reviews

Think about “At the Movies” with Siskel and Ebert, or Ebert and Roeper. How often did these reviewers agree? Sure, watching them could be entertaining, but how much did it affect your choice of films to view?

Again, speaking as a former professional critic, I’d suggest that these sorts of reviews are more concerned with art than pragmatism. Professional reviewers tend to be people with strong opinions about a subject. Those opinions often color their reviews, leading them to write about how they wish something had been, rather than actually evaluating the thing as it is. As Mignon McLaughlin put it, in The Neurotic's Notebook, “A critic can only review the book he has read, not the one which the writer wrote.”

This is why even on a review site like CNET, I’m prone to weigh the “User Reviews” more heavily than the “Editors’ Take.” Frankly, users spend more time with a product than professionals can, which means they learn its “ins and outs” more thoroughly.

Next Up, How to Write a Review

The one advantage professional reviewers have over the average customer is writing experience. That need not be a problem for customer reviewers, however. Watch for our next blog post, in which we lay out a tried-and-true formula for quickly putting together your own most helpful product reviews.

—Lester Smith

Writing for Change

Wednesday, December 31, 2014
To Do's

One of the best things about human beings is their capacity for change.

Sometimes change comes dramatically, from a sudden insight, an “Aha” moment that gives everything after a totally different perspective.

Sometimes it comes slowly, laboriously, the intentional development of a new habit and just as intentional avoidance of an old one.

As a writer, I encounter something similar to both pretty much daily: whether it’s in a sudden inspiration that rushes me to the keyboard to get an idea down while the vision is fresh, or the slow accumulation of details to flesh out a chapter, and then another, and another, until the whole picture comes into focus.

But writing can be more than a way of simply recording change. It can be a powerful tool for effecting change. For example, I recall facing a few decisions in college so tough that only a pro-and-con list could see me through. As I jotted down details in each column, the decision took shape, until the conclusion seemed inevitable. By the same token, sometimes writing a journal entry, or a letter to a friend (even if it is never sent), brings things into focus so that we can move forward.

In business, of course, we write reports and plans and analyses, not merely to defend a course of action, but more importantly to decide on one. Business writing brings clarity and focus to our endeavors.

At this time of year, it is traditional to make a list of resolutions for the coming months. I encourage you to write your resolutions down. Then prioritize them. And as you accomplish each in the coming year, check it off. Treat your resolutions as a to-do list (or even as a bucket list), and they’re more likely to be achieved.

Let the power of your writing, even in this simple way, help you take advantage of our shared human capacity for change.

Best wishes in the coming year.

—Lester Smith

The Geometry of Communication

Monday, December 22, 2014
Red Pyramid

At its core, any communication has three main elements: sender, subject, and receiver. (Issues of medium and context also affect communication, but let’s focus on those central three for now.) This is sometimes referred to as the “Communication Triangle.” 

As sender, you’re trying to get something from inside your head into another person’s. That “something” is the subject, and that other person is the receiver.

As simple as this may seem, it’s worth some scrutiny, because any of those three elements can introduce fuzziness into the equation.

Sender

Let’s face it, if human beings fully understood themselves, less miscommunication would occur. Our wants and assumptions aren’t always clear even to our own minds. Writing to ourselves can help to shed some light, which is why some people keep diaries or journals, and why other people blog. Even talking out loud when no one else is around can help. This is also why we draft a message before polishing and sending it: a draft is a rough picture, helping us to better envision the whole. Simply put, we can write to learn what it is we want to say.

Message

Working out a draft touches on the next part of the triangle, the message. Frankly, trying to write about an unfamiliar topic is tough. Studies have shown that even college English professors writing about topics outside their field experience decreased accuracy in grammar and spelling. Their minds are so occupied grappling with the subject that there’s not enough brain power left over for correct language. Again, writing in stages can help, starting with a rough draft, then polishing it, before final editing. That process also reveals any gaps in our knowledge of the topic, which makes this a valuable part of a research process. In other words, we can write to discover what we know and have yet to learn.

Receiver

Psychologists say that most human brains don’t develop the ability to step outside their own perspective and into someone else’s until about age twenty-five. That complicates communication. Until we can imagine someone else’s reaction to a message, we can’t craft it to their needs. So everything we say is all push, sending information outward in terms we understand and relying on the other person to translate and comprehend. On the other hand, once we can actually imagine an audience and predict its responses, we can better tailor a message to their words and their understanding. It’s the difference between a pointing finger and a beckoning finger.

Achieving Balance

A balanced triangle is one of the most stable shapes in existence. (Which is why the pyramids, Old World and New World, are among the oldest surviving structures.) By paying careful attention to each part of the communication triangle—our desires as sender, our understanding of the message, and the needs of the receiver—we can use best achieve this balance in our writing.

—Lester Smith

Message in a Bottle

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"cf_message_in_a_Bottle" photo by Tony Persunis licensed under CC BY 2.0 and has been cropped.

This weekend my daughter who teaches English in Belgium told me about a conversation with a student, which went something like this:

Student: “You like to write, don’t you.”

Daughter: “How did you know that?”

Student: “Oh, you’d be surprised what someone can discover on the Internet. [Laughs.] I read your blog, and was especially touched by the entry about…” That led to further discussion, and a warm human connection.

The exchange made me think about why anybody writes anything, from blog entries, to advertising copy, to business plans. It isn’t merely to express ourselves, but rather to reach out for a connection.

To illustrate, let me turn to the 1979 song by The Police, “Message in a Bottle,” with these lines of the chorus:

I'll send an SOS to the world…

I hope that someone gets my

Message in a bottle

and these first lines of the third verse:   

Walked out this morning

Don't believe what I saw

A hundred billion bottles

Washed up on the shore

The point of the song, according to its author, is the comfort of recognizing that we’re all alike in trying to connect—to communicate.

I believe there’s a deeper lesson to be learned. It has to do with intent.

In the chorus of the song “Message in a Bottle,” the intent is inward focused. It’s all about “Hey, look at me.” However, in the third verse, the focus becomes outward focused. It’s the sudden realization of “Hey, look at all of you.”

If the flood of media gushing from the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that “Hey, look at me” doesn’t accomplish much. It’s just more noise.

“Here’s something for you,” on the other hand, accomplishes a lot. Metaphorically speaking, a sea full of bottles with the same “Here I am” messages is unremarkable, especially to another castaway. But imagine opening a bottle and finding a recipe for coconut soup, or instructions for building a raft and navigating back home, or even just a note saying “I know you feel alone, but we’re all in this together.”

The point is this: To really stand out, be helpful. When the rescue ships sail, they’ll look for the person with the coconut soup recipe first.

—Lester Smith

Stylists Aren’t Rulers

Friday, November 21, 2014
The world is waiting for your fabulousness, don't forget your crown! (CC)

In language, there are grammar rules, and then there are styles. Let’s consider, for example, using a series in a sentence.

English grammar says that a series ought to be parallel.

Don’t write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and wrote his name on the paychecks.

Do write this: Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

Then style comes into play. Oxford style says a comma should come before the last item in a series.

Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets, and the paychecks.

Associated Press style says that the final comma is unnecessary.

Laine signed the contracts, the time sheets and the paychecks.

So certain rules change according to which style you are following. Easy enough, you might say. Just use the right manual.

The trouble is, however, that grammar itself doesn’t have a rule for every situation. At the very least, some rules are obscure.

Consider, for example, the situation described in “My Big Fat Greek Blog Post.” Never in my education as an English major did anyone ever teach that adjectives are placed in order of opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, and purpose. Nor does the possessive adjective “my” fit any of those categories.

Such gaps become most evident when teaching a language to non-native speakers. One of my daughters teaches English to adults in Belgium. Recently, her students asked which of these is correct: “A friend of Mary’s” or “A friend of Mary.” She suggested that both are correct and mean the same thing, but the first puts a slightly greater emphasis on Mary.

Then the students changed one word. What about “A photo of Mary’s” versus “A photo of Mary”? In this case, of course, the meanings are entirely different. Depending on what they wanted to say, the students would have to choose one phrase or the other.

At times like these, grammarians are forced to invent a rule to describe (or fit) the situation. In a way, such scenarios define grammar—a set of rules describing how people use language. The language comes first; the description comes second. And style trails along after that.

—Lester Smith