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Memorable Moments with Children (or: You Just Said What?)

18 Jan

Castillo Dominici /

Anyone with children knows that they have an amazing super-power:

They can embarrass us with no fair warning.

At dinner tonight, we were laughing with the kids about a few good memories, most of which involve human body parts or funny twists on words:

  • When she was about 2, my daughter skipped past the small-talk of introductions upon meeting new people. She instead went straight to the point: “Do you have a penis or a vagina?” Around this same time, she was also convinced that my mother had a penis. We repeatedly reassured my mother that her first grandchild’s faux pas had no real underlying meaning–only that she was undeniably and always in charge.
  • While driving to her dance class once day, my daughter and I were listening to the radio. NPR was on, and they were talking about basketball games. Were were in the period of March Madness, and my daughter was about 5 years old. She didn’t often take in topics like this, so I was surprised when she commented, “Wow, that must be a pretty wonderful game.” “What game?” I asked. “The game where they get the big cookie,” she said. I had to think for a minute: WHAT IN THE WORLD WAS SHE TALKING ABOUT? This was basketball, pure and simple, no cookies involved. “I don’t understand, honey,” I replied. “What cookies do you mean?” “The championchip game.” Oh. Yes, that would be quite the cookie.
  • I have found that one of the best times to talk about topics no one likes to discuss is in the car. It’s the perfect setting: everyone is trapped and must listen. This works quite well for sex ed conversations, for example. Years before we had to go into the intimate details of this, my daughter blurted out the question: “Do babies really come out of your bum?” She was about 7 or 8. We have always been anatomically correct in our replies to these types of questions, so in a very matter-of-fact voice I told her from where they typically emerge, briefly. She got very quiet, then burst out laughing–loudly–saying, “No way, Mom! That canNOT be!” She was doubled over laughing for so long and didn’t really believe me on this point for some time.
  • Both of my kids nursed. My daughter did for about 1.5 years, and my son did until he was 3. (Think what you’d like — I don’t really care, and the World Health Organization recommends it up to the age of 5.) When he was 2, I took him to a professional conference with me, a conference where I was in the midst of mostly men and just a few other women. My mom (see above) was there with me to help. While we were eating dinner with the large group, I was in the line for food. Mom and my son were across the room, when suddenly I heard loud and clear: “NEW-NEW, puh-leeze!” He was not requesting new potatoes. And most people could guess what he meant. Oh, well. Everyone else was eating, too.

Opportunities for being reminded that (a) we are not in charge and (b) you can’t make this stuff up.

Never Enough Tufte

29 Nov

Edward Tufte is the guru of info design…I published this three years ago but unearthing from the vault for a redux.


I highly recommend the works of Edward Tufte to anyone who (1) likes diagrams of any sort, (2) enjoys communications about data, and/or (3) gets personal satisfaction from bridging the gap between a highly technical topic and an extremely non-technical audience.

Tufte is a Yale professor emeritus probably best known among statisticians, engineers and designers. These audiences tend to appreciate diagrams, and developing a meaningful, clean and well organized visual explanation is not easy. Edward Tufte explains how using pictures to convey information is both an art and a science. His works provide case studies of well-done and poorly executed diagrams, both of which are well worth studying. It’s good for anyone to learn how best to handle these matters and how to avoid others’ mistakes. Buying Tufte’s books is recommended for those (like me) who are tactile. The paper quality and fold-out sections deliver the adult version of a pop-up book.

Writers of any sort should better get to know Tufte. Probably the biggest reason is that many writers do not have a natural affinity for data. By nature, most people either “do” words or numbers. Some juggle both well, and those sorts will lap up Tufte like a cat with a bowl of milk. Those writers who do not take well to numbers can learn how to integrate data into copy in an engaging way, by using accurate and interesting narrative descriptions and visuals that help to tell the story.

Edward Tufte is a revolutionary communicator, in a practical way. His Powerpoint essay explains why. This is a must-read for anyone as an introduction to his approach. The Gettysburg address a la Powerpoint will make you laugh. The NASA Columbia engineers’ plight when forced to grapple with the inadequacies of Powerpoint will make you cry. Tufte’s post mortem lays out how a seemingly helpful tool such as Powerpoint contributed to the Columbia disaster. He explains, blow by blow, the right way to share highly important technical information with a business audience. Powerpoint is not the tool to use. At its best, it’s a sales tool. At its worst, it squeezes important information into a hierarchical outline format that requires a very small amount of information per slide, when it’s a proven point that people in general can absorb so much more. The comparisons to Pravda are revealing. Everything that we’ve been taught about what’s “proper” to include on a given slide in terms of information volume is sorely lacking, and Tufte explains why in his Powerpoint essay.

There are larger issues beyond Powerpoint. At the heart of Tufte’s method is a lesson for every writer willing to grow in his or her chosen field. We all know that feeling when we “nail it”–when the audience reads or hears what we are writing or presenting about, and they absorb it and take it to the next level for their own purposes. We also know when we are not able to make a meaningful translation–when the information just doesn’t stick. This is a bad feeling for us and for the reader/audience, because it wastes time. Why burn time when it could be used to communicate more productively?

In our information-rich world, it’s critical for any writer to understand how best to separate the wheat from the chaff, and Edward Tufte pioneers a quality approach. Prioritizing critical information from non-critical “phluff” is what it’s all about. If you are a writer, Tufte is worth your time.