Information density

Philip Morgan

It's probably been too long since you've heard the sound of chalk on a blackboard. TEI member Stephen Kuenzli shared this excellent lecture on making your writing valuable: The lecturer, Larry McEnerney, director of the University of Chicago's Writing Program, uses chalk and a blackboard. That sound will take ya back. And forward! Forward into thinking more deeply about the role writing plays in your business, and how you might approach writing more effectively. One thing that strikes me about this lecture is the idea of information density. I've always liked writing. In part, that's because it's high in information density. Additionally, as a reader I can skim. Oh God do I love skimming because it lets me evaluate the value of a piece of writing more quickly before I commit to a deeper read. Video has long frustrated me because I've felt it lacks these attractive qualities of writing. I mutter a curse every time a web search for some "how to" question leads me to a video. Especially when it's a 5-minute software instructional video expressing what I know could be expressed with 300 words and a few screenshots. But this McEnerney lecture that Stephen shared is opening up my thinking. Here's a really great moment from the lecture:

He's pulled a hundred dollar bill out of his wallet and attached it to a handout to illustrate that those attending his lecture have 20 years of experience paying people (teachers and professors) to read their writing, and the moment they try to start using writing outside of academia, that dynamic will fall apart. He's illustrating the problem his lecture will help solve. McEnerney asks questions, and then pauses to give time to think. You can't do that in writing. You can ask the questions, but you can't create a moment of silence that encourages thinking; or a moment where a latent emotion rises into full feeling. McEnerney modulates his voice and body language with large dynamic swings. Writing compresses those dynamic swings. McEnerney moves from group to 1:1 engagement and then back again as he lectures. That's a by-product of an IRL small group interaction, but one that is also missing from writing. So at least with a lecture like this one, it's not so much that there's less information density. There's simply a different kind of information density. It's painting with a different palette. Accompanying a song with piano instead of guitar. Even if the bit about information density wasn't interesting to you, consider watching that lecture from Larry McEnerney. It's quite good: -P