A Barthes sign – deliberate irony… So, last time I started at the beginning of the art and science of persuasion, looking at how Aristotle’s rhetoric is still the basis of modern marketing, via his 3-part system of:
- Ethos (basically the speaker’s credibility or brand)
- Logos (the subject & style of the message)
- Pathos (effectively the audience’s response)
For an artist, novelist, or even journalist, the first two of these are almost always the most important, with a strong emphasis on the second. While most artists and writers *want* to have a positive audience response to their work, their primary goal is to get their idea out there. Their ethos / reputation may help them reach an audience, but this is secondary to the logos of the work they’re producing: the subject they want to convey, and the way they – the authors of the work – decide to shape it is both their focus, and the focus of their audience.
In short, for an artist or writer, often it is the act of creation itself that is the goal. Getting a positive audience response is merely a bonus – and being forced to chase an audience can stifle their creativity and lead to both stress and bad work. Hence the cliche of the difficult second album…
By contrast, for marketing it’s the last of Aristotle’s three concepts – pathos, the response of the audience – which is most important. Without the right kind of audience response, a marketer’s work will have failed. Hence the birth of focus groups, testing, and the often quite derivative nature of advertising, as “creatives” are forced to shape their work not around a great creative concept in itself, as an artist would, but how that creative concept is likely to resonate with their target audience – pushing them into creativity by committee (always a killer), and a constant recycling of ideas that are known to work.
This focus on the audience’s response is how we’ve end up jumping all the way from Aristotle to Roland Barthes, the notoriously difficult to read late-20th century French semiotician. (But still, at least he’s not Pierre Bourdieu, who I may get to in a later piece in this series…)
Everything is subjective
Barthes’ most famous idea is that of the death of the author – basically the idea that the authorial/creative intentions behind a work of art/literature don’t matter; all that is important is the response of the audience.
To understand this response, Barthes – building on some of the concepts of Ferdinand de Saussure that helped give birth to semiotics, the study of signs (combined with some of Jacques Lacan’s ideas on psychology) – began to re-conceptualise the way meaning is created in culture and society.
Where for Saussure, the importance of semiotics was to help understand the connection between a symbol/sign (the signifier) – be that a sound, a word, or an image – and the thing or concept that symbol/sign was intended to represent (the signified), Barthes effectively took this one logical step further by pointing out that this two-way connection still didn’t get to the heart of the *meaning* of that sign/symbol, because meaning is entirely a matter of interpretation. The connection between signifier and signified is entirely subjective.
Why? Well, because all of us have different knowledge, experience, ideas, attitudes, needs and expectations.
Emojis and meaning
Emojis are a good example. Take this one: Originally designed to represent a Chinese dumpling, the emoji’s creator specifically had dumplings in mind when she made it, arguing:
“The dumpling is actually universal. Georgia has khinkali. Japan has gyoza. Korea has mandoo. Italy has ravioli. Polish people have pierogi. Russian people have pelmeni. Argentians have empanadas. Jewish people have kreplachs. Chinese people have potstickers and various other dumplings. Tibet and Nepal have momos. Turkish people have manti.”
As emojis are intended as shorthand signs to speed up communication, arguing for a dumpling emoji based on that logic is pretty sound.
When I first saw it, I initially thought it was a Cornish pasty – a type of food I grew up on. This wasn’t explicitly included in the creator’s initial list – but it was there in the spirit.
In other words, a symbol that means one thing to one person could mean something very different to someone else. (A bit like when my mother kept on signing off text messages with “LOL”, meaning “Lots Of Love”, and I was reading it as “Laugh Out Loud” and wondering what was so funny.)
Back to Barthes and a multitude of meanings
Anyway, all this is to illustrate one of Barthes’ key points: Meaning isn’t as simple as there being a direct connection between a signifier (word/image/sign) and signified (thing/concept). Instead you also need to consider the interpretation of both.
This led to Barthes’ modification of Suassure’s bilateral signifier-signified relationship into a trilateral model:
- Representamen: the signifier / sign / word / image / sound used to represent a concept or thing
- Object: the signified / thing / concept being represented
- Interpretant: the person decoding the meaning denoted by both Representamen and Object – a meaning that may vary wildly from interpretant to interpretant depending on their personal context
In other words, there is no single objective, definitive, “correct” interpretation of any given representamen, because the meaning of such signifiers (and even the objects/signifieds they are intended to represent) will constantly change according to context.
An alcoholic example
Take the phrase “I want some alcohol” to illustrate the point.
In one sense, “alcohol” always means the same thing – reading that word, you *think* you know what I mean by it in writing it down. But – as with the emoji example above – what kind of alcohol is, to you, representative? Beer? Whisky? Wine? Gin? A fancy cocktail with an umbrella in it?
In Japanese, the word for alcohol is sake – which is fairly familiar to English speakers as Japanese rice wine. Ask for sake in a Japanese bar (at least, if you’re obviously not Japanese, like me), and that’s what’ll be delivered, even though the word technically means all types of alcohol.
But what if you’re a surgeon, talking about medical alcohol to clean your scalpel? Or Muslim, and alcohol is forbidden by your religion? Or an alcoholic, and the very thought of it represents a constant temptation and potential relapse? Or, to a lesser degree, what if it’s nine o’clock on a Saturday morning and you’ve got a hangover?
And then there’s the time and place (kairos, for Aristotle). “I want some alcohol” if you’re the surgeon in the operating theatre above will be purposeful, urgent, obviously related to a specific medical need. Say it at the end of a long working day, it could be an sign that you’ve worked hard and deserve a reward, or that you’ve been worked *too* hard and are feeling depressed, or just that you’d like to spend some time with your colleagues in a social environment. Say it at seven o’clock in the morning, and it likely means you’re an alcoholic (unless you’ve been going all night, in which case it means you’re a bit of a party animal – unless you’ve been going all night and you’re in your forties, in which case it means you’re having a mid-life crisis, and probably a little bit sad).
Even if both you as author and interpretant as reader are agreed roughly on what specific type of alcohol you’re referring to, there are still additional contextual meanings that the interpretant will layer on top of your representamen, often subconsciously, that will trigger very different responses.
Again, Aristotle got in there first – because this is pretty much what he had in mind with the idea of pathos: the emotional response of the audience to the rhetorical approach you, as speaker, have taken.
It’s always about your audiences – plural
So, if everything is subjective, context is everything to interpretation, and the intended meaning and interpreted meaning can vary wildly from person to person and context to context, what does this mean for effective communication?
Well, it basically means that it’s very, very difficult to communicate effectively.
But there is hope – Barthes doesn’t go as far as his fellow postmodernist Jacques Derrida (of whom more another time, probably) and argue that all this means things are changing so much there is ultimately no such thing as meaning.
But what it does mean is that we shouldn’t make assumptions about how what we’re trying to say will be interpreted. We need to think more about principles of inclusive design when starting to craft our messages. We need to constantly self-criticise and consider the vast range of cultural, linguistic, social, educational, and personal experiences of our audiences. And to recognise that audiences are always plural – even if the audience is a single person, because their mindset and mood will vary depending on the context in which they encounter the thing it is they are interpreting.
To anticipate all these variants may well be impossible. But if your job is to convey meaning and to try to persuade – as it is for marketers and advertisers – then your job is to attempt to anticipate as many as possible.
Anticipating responses – and adapting accordingly
Which is why, to be a successful marketer, a basic understanding of the media, of creative techniques, of the product you’re marketing and the sector you’re in – the traditional needs of the industry – is not enough. To be effective needs a far broader understanding of the context in which your work will be interpreted by your target audiences. And these audiences are far more complex than can ever hope to be summed up on a PowerPoint slide as a “persona”. To try and anticipate their responses needs an awareness of a huge range of potential variables – far more than the simplistic, old-school advertising approach focusing on fairly simplistic demographics.
This is why, as I continue this series exploring the art of persuasion and the theories and best practices that underlie marketing, I’m going to continue to branch out into other areas – from semiotics to sociology to anthropology to literary criticism to linguistics to economics to psychology to philosophy to history and more. Because ultimately, the only way to get close to persuading is to try to understand and anticipate the vast range of ways what we, as creators, are doing can be interpreted, and construct our attempts at persuasion backwards from this knowledge.
Barthes never quite got to an all-encompassing theory of meaning to create a roadmap of how to do this, having died mid-flow at the age of 64 after being run over by a laundry van following a convivial lunch with future French President Francois Mitterand and the philosopher Michel Foucault (of whom, probably, more another time). I doubt I’ll be the one to pick up the baton. And it may well be impossible anyway – even tapping into the potential promise of AI to analyse vast datasets and interpret correlations and likely causations of meaning and influence.
But hell – it’s a way to pass the time.
The art of persuasion series:
- Aristotle’s rhetoric: the foundations of modern marketing
- Barthes and anticipating audience responses
So, as I’m going to start writing about what I’m reading (and occasionally watching or listening to), primarily to explore a bit more about what I do for a living, I should at least start at the beginning. Even if I’m likely to jump around a lot afterwards.
The true beginnings of the art of persuasion came earlier, but Aristotle was one of the first (that we have surviving records for) to start codifying it into more of a science. As with a surprisingly large amount of Aristotle, a lot still stands.
First, what does Aristotle define rhetoric as being?
“The faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.”
In other words, rhetoric is all about knowing how to select the right tactics to effectively persuade a given audience on a given topic in a given circumstance.
There are “non-technical” means of persuasion – evidence, witnesses, etc. – but these lie outside the speaker’s direct control. Instead Aristotle’s rhetoric mostly focuses on “technical” approaches, which he terms “appeals” .
These he focuses on the three key elements of the situation:
With a bit of elaboration and nuance, these become the three core elements of classical rhetoric – and remain insanely relevant today:
1) Ethos: the speaker’s character
Basically the impression you give. Your character as given through your approach – but also your past reputation. Your ethos needs to inspire confidence, and increase the perception that you are credible.
This, in other words, is pretty much your brand.
It’s built up by a combination, Aristotle reckons, of good sense, good will, and good morals. If any of these are suspect – or successfully undermined by a rival (or an annoying comment on social media pointing out a bit of hypocrisy), your attempt at persuasion is less likely to succeed.
2) Logos: the argument made about the subject
This covers both substance – what you’re arguing – and the style – how you present it.
A combination of the idea and the wording, this is what many marketers and advertisers focus on the most. It’s the concept. The copywriting. The compelling call to action.
Most important – and something I keep focusing on, frustrated with seeing far too much shallow marketing – Aristotle insists that style and substance need to work hand in hand. They need to complement each other, not compete.
Fancy words without depth are pointless sophistry, empty rhetoric – and your audience will soon find you out.
3) Pathos: the emotion conjured in the audience
Positive or negative, triggering emotional reactions in your audience makes them more likely to pay attention and remember what you’re telling them. This is now proven by science – brain scans and clinical trials have demonstrated this point pretty much conclusively. Aristotle just got in a couple of thousand years early.
The challenge, of course, is to trigger the appropriate emotional response for the argument you’re making, among the audience you’re trying to persuade, to achieve the desired response. Aristotle lists 14 emotions – fear, confidence, anger, friendship, calm, enmity, shame, shamelessness, pity, kindness, envy, indignation, emulation, and contempt – but more recent psychologists have expanded this.
Balancing the sell
To be persuasive requires a balance of all three elements. But, of course, the balance needed varies depending on subject, audience, intention, and the reputation of the speaker/brand doing the persuading.
But, let’s face it, this is pretty much the core of selling:
- Ethos: This product / brand is good / reliable
- Logos: Because it will do X in Y way
- Pathos: And make your life better / prevent it from getting worse
Of course, it’s all a lot more complicated than that. That’s why there’s so many other rhetorical devices out there to play with. Of all these, there’s one more from Aristotle it’s important to cover in an introductory piece:
4) Kairos: it’s all about timing
You can be credible, emotionally considered, and have style and substance dripping from every pore – but if you time your appeal wrong, it’s never going to work.
Take this very post…
I’m writing this on a Monday evening. That’s a decent enough time for writing – especially as I had the day off and am feeling fresh and relaxed. But is it a good time for publishing? Most advice would say no. Even if I’d clearly defined my target audience, 10:30pm UK time is just about the worst time to publish anything: European audiences are heading to bed; American audiences are finishing up work for the day; Asian audiences are still asleep. If I wanted to reach my audience immediately, publishing now would be madness.
But it’s not just about the time on the clock – it’s also about appropriateness. We’ve had plenty of examples of this in the last few months of coronavirus lockdowns – some messages simply became out of place, and various ad campaigns have had to be pulled as businesses have shut down and travel and gatherings of people stopped.
Bringing it all together – or screwing it all up
The last couple of weeks of Black Lives Matter protests has also underscored the importance of appropriateness of messaging.
While some brands were quick to put out messages of support, others dithered – making them look bad.
Of the brands that did put out supportive messages, most got the emotion (rousing, empathetic) and style right (adopting the plain black background of the main BLM movement in solidarity), but some were accused of failing on substance. Vague supportive noises were simply not seen as strong enough by many – because to be an ally is to speak up, take a stand, and act, not just stand there mumbling platitudes.
And many more brands fell down on the ethos side: They may have said the right things, in the right way, at the right time, with the right emotion – but their actions behind the scenes ensured they simply weren’t credible. How many brands were called out for their claims to want more racial equity, only to receive the (fair) response: “How many Black people are on your board?” or “What’s the racial pay gap in your company?”
Persuasion can be a technical thing, in other words. You can study the art of rhetoric to develop appropriate strategies and deploy the right tactics. But while you can fool some of the people some of the time, and persuade some people for a while, you can’t fool everyone for ever.
Still, use these four points from Aristotle as a foundation for working out your strategy, and at least you’ve got the basics in place.
Which is probably why pretty much every marketing strategy deck still includes them in some form or other, albeit in agency speak rather than ancient Greek… At my current place we do this quite directly, referring to Wisdom (a form of ethos), Wonder (a form of logos) and Delight (a form of pathos), topped off with a bit of Velocity (one approach to kairos) – as well as a few additions like Atomisation, designed to acknowledge that different audiences (and different media) require different approaches.
There’s a lot more to it than this, of course. Aristotle alone wrote enough for a whole book about it… I’m planning on following up with more on the art and science of persuasion in the coming weeks and months. Watch this space.
The art of persuasion series:
- Aristotle’s rhetoric: the foundations of modern marketing
- Barthes and anticipating audience responses
Finally, some good news!
Word is going to start showing double spaces after a full-stop/period as a mistake, preventing the daily howls of frustration from copy-editors worldwide who are continually having to find/replace the damned things.
(And yes, I know lots of people were taught to type with a double space after a full-stop. I was too – because I learned on a typewriter, which is where this came from: to improve the kerning and create more readable text. Computers / word processors are rather more sophisticated than typewriters – they sort the spacing out for you. This means using a double space on a computer actually *increases* layout issues – especially when justifying text – so achieves the precise opposite of what people who do this think it does.)
I’m fairly flexible as an editor most of the time, but along with *always* advocating the Oxford Comma, killing post-period double spaces is one of the few editing hills I’m prepared to die on.
Behind the Economist paywall, sadly, but this is the key point – always worth remembering beyond the current crisis, and something a number of political leaders need to learn:
“Recommendations that sound more advisory than mandatory seem to presume rational adults will do the right thing with accurate information. The central insight of behavioural economics is that they do not…”
Clarity of messaging is more vital now than ever – it’s become a literal matter of life and death. “Practice social distancing” is vague, confusing, advisory. “Stay home” is clear, unambiguous, mandatory. Guess which has worked better?
This is also a lesson we should take with us after this crisis has passed: If you want to be understood, make your point as clearly and plainly as possible. Otherwise you have no one to blame but yourself when people don’t pay attention to what you’re telling them – or, worse, start believing simpler-sounding misinformation.
Despite loving the near limitless possibilities of digital publishing, my first love is books. I’ve written two, reviewed them, and even worked at a book publisher for a while. Part bibliophile, part tsundoku, I buy books almost obsessively – and usually have dozens on the go at any one time. My flat could easily be mistaken for a secondhand bookshop.
So it’s probably unsurprising that I’m a big fan of the idea of collecting previously ephemeral digital content into book form to extend its (literal) shelf life. Great to see the New York Times agrees:
“Reporters leave a ton in their notebooks… The book form really gives us a chance to expand the journalism and include a lot more of the detail and texture that is never going to make it into the daily report.”
More brands – especially B2B ones – should consider following the NYT’s lead and mine their content archives to curate thematic ebooks (and even physical ones) of their best pieces.
Repackaging ideas in book form offers opportunities to expand and elaborate on points in more depth in the perfect lean-back format. Because there’s nothing better than a book for encouraging deep engagement with and deliberation over someone else’s thinking. If you’re selling ideas, the book is the perfect format.
The New Statesman has a long piece on the ongoing slow death of the advertising industry, with some fun distinctions between the ad industry (creative, visionary) and the ad business (dull, obsessed with data).
Can you guess which part the person who wrote it comes from?
Of course, the simple response to the majority of the article’s debate about whether high-impact artistic visions or hyper-efficient attempts to ensure relevancy are the best way forwards is:
But while there’s much to disagree (and agree) with throughout, it was this particular passage that sparked a realisation about the real challenge for the marketing industry:
“Now that people carry media around with them everywhere, advertisers have less incentive to create memorable brands. Instead, they concentrate on forcing our attention towards the message or offer of the moment. The ad business doesn’t care about the future of its audience, only its present.”
This, within the context of modern ad microtargeting and algorithms (as well as the general proliferation of TV channels, streaming video, and the decline in newspaper readership), is kinda true – with no clear way to ensure a follow-up interaction, the classic old ad model of trying to get a message in front of someone eight times (or whatever) and it’ll stick is no longer as straightforward as it once was. Even if you succeed, it’ll be by using cookies to track someone across multiple sites, firing the same advert at them so relentlessly that it seems desperate – and obvious.
But the obsession with the fast-paced present also shows how many marketing campaigns continue to utterly miss the point of social media.
The clue’s in the name
Social – done properly – *isn’t* simply of the moment, as much as it’s often dismissed as ephemeral.
To think of social posts as throw-away one-offs, as much marketing does, is like viewing a single frame of a film that’s designed to be watched at 24 frames per second. It’s like the blind men and the elephant – you may *think* you know what’s going on, and how your audience is responding, but you’re not seeing the whole (motion) picture.
Yes, a single tweet or Facebook post *can* work in isolation. It can have impact. A person with a couple of hundred followers can see something they post go viral and reach hundreds of thousands of likes. An influencer can amplify it to the point the original poster can monetise that single moment, or use it as the starting point to become an influencer in their own right.
But the clue’s in the name – social is *social*. It’s about relationships, not one-off interactions. And the internet is the same – again, the clue’s in the name. It’s a network. It’s interconnected. Nothing online operates in isolation.
This is why an approach to online advertising that thinks only about the advert – in isolation – is always going to be doomed to fail. (And yes, if your social media post or article or video or whatever is put out on a schedule to broadcast to your followers – whether you put paid behind it or not – if you have no plan or resources to follow up and respond to the replies, then all it is is an advert.)
Even if you aggregate all your social data to see trends over time, you may *think* you’re seeing the big picture – but you’re not seeing it from the perspective of your audience. You’re lumping them together as stats, when in reality they’re all individuals – each having a distinct interaction with your brand. The long-term trends hide the fact that your audience is not always the same audience – different people will see different posts at different times, and many won’t see some of what you’re putting out at all. This means they’ll all be getting different impressions of what it is you’re about.
I remember when all this were fields…
When I started playing about in IRC and messageboards in the 90s, it took months to be recognised as a regular. When I started blogging in the early 2000s, it again took months to build a following and reputation.
And that’s months of multiple posts a day. Multiple replies to comments. Discussions. Following commenters back to their own blogs and reading *their* stuff. Getting a sense of how they thought.
This was all pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook – but post-IRC, and after messageboards, MSN Messenger and the like had become passé. We’d encounter each other on other people’s blogs, in their comment sections, and notice we were talking about the same things through trackbacks, RSS aggregators (after 2004 or so), checking now-defunct sites like Technorati, IceRocket and the like to find other people talking about the same thing (because Google was still rubbish for realtime search back then), and occasionally directly emailing.
Looking beneath the surface
The public face of blogging was our individual blogs. The individual posts. But those were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg – the starting points for interactions between blogger and reader that in some cases have lasted years. Some of the people I met virtually through my various blogs have become real-life friends. Some discussions inspired people to take up blogging for themselves, or to pursue different careers. Some of those interactions even led to real-world, paid work (as they did for me – which, in turn, led to my transition from print journalism to digital, and from there to my current role developing multiplatform, multimedia digital marketing strategies).
All these deep, lasting, sometimes life-changing relationships started with a connection around shared interests – just as, today, algorithms try to match adverts to people who may be interested in them. Superficially, to anyone looking from outside, those initial interactions in the comment sections under individual posts would have looked like that was all there was. If you’d looked at the stats on our blogs, the numbers would have looked *tiny*.
But the *real* story was the ongoing conversations and subconscious assimilation of each others’ ideas. The discussions and collaborations that stretched over months, and led to the short-lived rise of group-blogs, real-world meet-ups, grand plans that (in my case at least) never quite came to fruition. It was about the relationships and trust we built up over time.
The *real* impact took *years*, and in some cases was more significant than any of us ever imagined when we first put finger to keyboard.
How humans work
We’re all humans. We latch onto stories. We need big ideas. Emotional connections. Things to inspire and entertain. Things that speak to our gut instincts as well as to our heads. We’ve all read Daniel Kahneman, and know these heuristics are classic marketing creative territory.
And yes – as we’re humans we can also be manipulated if we’re targeted with the right message at the right time. Some of us will be more susceptible to some messaging than others. We will all have slightly different interests, meaning you can’t speak to us all in the same way. So a data-driven approach makes sense to try and finally give some clarity to John Wanamaker’s classic “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted” conundrum.
But where big idea creative can attract attention, and data-driven targeting can increase relevance, what’s still missing for many brands is the follow-up. The vital thing that comes next.
In some cases this is where CRM comes in – but I can tell you from my blogging and chatroom days, in most cases being overly keen to initiate a conversation is going to have precisely the opposite response from the one you want. No one wants a pop-up window asking if they want help the second they land on a site any more than they want cookie notifications or requests to turn off their adblocker. Overly keen CRM = instant bounce, often with feelings of mild violation and anger. Not great for the start of a relationship. There’s a reason Microsoft killed Clippy…
My point? Let your audience go at their own pace
The reason the brief Golden Age of blogging (from around 2003-2006, by my reckoning) led to so many strong, lasting relationships is that those relationships were able to be built at our own pace.
There was no realtime chat. There was no “unread” notification to put pressure on us to respond unless and until we were ready. We all gradually built up archives of work that our readers and fellow bloggers could all check out at their leisure to get a sense of who we were and what we stood for. We linked to our past work – and each other – where relevant, showing how our thinking was developing over time, and allowing others to follow our trains of thought at their own pace to catch up and join in the conversation.
So when you encountered an unfamiliar blog or blogger – which was frequently – you could dip your toe in, test the water, and go back and check the context before engaging only when you had an idea what you were going to get involved in.
It was a slower-paced, more civilised way of communicating online that the likes of Twitter seem to have permanently destroyed with the constant need for instantaneous responses to everything.
But today’s pressure to living in the moment and make instant decisions is deeply offputting. It’s not how people like to work. It’s not how any successful relationship has ever been built. It goes against all the instincts of the high-pressured world we’re now in, but today’s emphasis on the hard sell and call to action – not just the obvious “BUY NOW!” but also the more subtle “CLICK HERE TO…” and “FIND OUT HOW…” – may give a short-term nudge but not a long-term engagement.
Engagement – true, lasting engagement – comes through recognition, familiarity, and trust. This can only ever be built over time – often a long time. It will never come through a hard sell, and rarely through a single call to action.
Rather than worry about big ideas vs targeting, what the marketing industry really needs to learn how to do is revive the art of the soft sell and the long tail. That’s the more human way of building relationships that last – but to work it needs a significantly more nuanced understanding of how people will be interacting with you than I’ve seen from pretty much any modern brand marketing campaign.
Every interaction with every part of your brand’s marketing campaign may seem like a one-off to you, but it’s part of a series to your audience. It’s all connected – but one bad experience could break the chain.
This means you need a truly integrated combination of high-impact big ideas and detailed data and longer-term storytelling and archives of the earlier bits of the story so people can catch up and targeting to the people who’ll be most interested and a true understanding of how people – and the internet – actually work.
No one said it was easy. But some things take time.
I usually hate tips for writers – writing, to me, should be a natural thing. But having seen a lot of very bad writing, more concerned with showing off the writer’s linguistic skill or subject-matter expertise than enlightening the reader, this approach strikes me as vital to keep in mind at all times:
Writing is a modern twist on an ancient, species-wide behaviour: drawing someone else’s attention to something visible. Imagine stopping during a hike to point out a distant church to your hiking companion: look, over there, in the gap between those trees – that patch of yellow stone? Now can you see the spire? “When you write,” Pinker says, “you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, and that you’re directing the attention of your reader to that thing.”
Perhaps this seems stupidly obvious. How else could anyone write? Yet much bad writing happens when people abandon this approach. Academics can be more concerned with showcasing their knowledge; bureaucrats can be more concerned with covering their backsides; journalists can be more concerned with breaking the news first, or making their readers angry. All interfere with “joint attention”, making writing less transparent.
This isn’t a “rule for writers”; it’s a perspective shift. It’s also an answer to an old question: should you write for yourself or for an audience? The answer is “for an audience”. But not to impress them. The idea is to help them discern something you know they’d be able to see, if only they were looking in the right place.