May 09, 2023

Bill Birchard on 8 lessons on writing for impact, clarifying thinking, better comprehension, and the power of surprise (Ep63)

“Whether people are listening or reading, they process the meaning of the words in the same part of the brain. It doesn’t make any difference.”

Bill Birchard

Tim O'Reilly

About Bill Birchard

Bill is a writing coach to leading thinkers and the author of many books, most recently the just-released Writing for Impact: 8 Secrets from Science That Will Fire Up Your Readers’ Brains, published by Harper Collins.

Website: Bill Birchard

LinkedIn: Bill Birchard

Twitter: @billbirchard

What you will learn

  • How the reward circuit of the brain plays a crucial role in consuming words and information (03:43)
  • Choosing the right information for better memory retention (05:23)
  • Having a clear purpose and goal in writing books (07:54)
  • How the book, Writing for Impact goes beyond just writing (09:03)
  • The first S’s  for amplifying cognition and making information easier to absorb and comprehend (12:49)
  • Using metaphors to make a subject more engaging (14:03)
  • Using surprising data and story to make a subject more engaging (14:33)
  • How using specifics aids comprehension and drives the reward circuit (16:27)
  • Importance of using emotion in writing (20:23)
  • Keeping the writing seductive,  smart, and insightful to make the piece more  effective and engaging (22:30)
  • How powerful finding an “aha” moment on your own is  (25:07)
  • Nurturing the unconscious or subconscious mind to initiate insights (26:01)
  • How the brain brings about dim and distant ideas (27:50)
  • Keeping the writing social and story-driven to make the piece more  effective and engaging (29:46)
  • How people process the meaning of words across languages, across mediums (31:18)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Bill, it’s awesome to have you on the show.

Bill Birchard: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Ross: Your recent book, Writing for Impact, tells us about how we can write so that it actually registers.

Bill: That’s right!

Ross: The corollary of that is if you can write well then people can read better. It’s interesting, just how much of the useful information we get comes in through words. We’d love to hear the backstory. How did you come to write this book?

Bill: I’ve been writing my whole life. I started though, with a biology degree and never used it. It was a phonological circling back toward the latter part of my career to say, what does science say about writing; I poked around a little bit and one thing led to another. It turned out there’s this mountain of research that looks at how the mind reacts to language. How does it react to a metaphor? Does it react to simple versus complex sentences? Does it react to a story? And quickly, I started to see that from that you could infer how to write better.

Ross: Fantastic! You’ve been digging into neuroscience, how our brains function, and at a higher level, probably one of your early realizations was this is around motivation.

Bill: Right.

Ross: When you are writing, what are you trying to achieve in the mind of your reader?

Bill: In my formulation, as I’ve explained in the book, I’m trying to help readers move from being informed and educated to moving up a level to be engaged. And that is as it ends up being defined, being motivated. It turns out that everything that we respond to, every stimulus in our life, whether it’s food or drink, or it’s sex, new friends or shelter, it’s all evaluated in this part of the brain called The Reward Circuit, and that circuit sees a stimulus, it assesses it for value, it decides whether it wants to pursue it, if it consumes it and it’s pleased, then you get a little shot of natural opioids from that, and that encourages you to do it again. It turns out that principle is applicable not just to the motivation of people to get them to do the right things when it comes to eating, drinking, and so on but it applies as well to getting them to consume words. So, consuming words and information is very similar to consuming food.

Ross: Throughout I’d like to take both sides, the reader’s perspective and the writer’s perspective. What’s the lesson for a reader from that insight around the reward mechanism of reading? If you’re reading, is there a way for example, if things are not written well then you can make it more rewarding, or there are ways in which you can approach your reading so that it is more stimulating to you?

Bill: Yes, absolutely. The lesson here is choose your reading carefully. If you want to remember, if you want to have information have an impact on you, you have to choose information that’s surprising, that simplifies something, the author gets at the gist, so it has a story to it. All the techniques that are important in writing to engage are also important to make sure that you absorb that information. In my book, I have eight strategies on how to write to engage readers. It turns out that almost all of those have been shown by research to be more memorable for the reader. It’s pretty much a lesson if you want to choose your information carefully. You can choose pretty dry stuff, who wants to read that anyway. But the interesting thing is, if you read the real dry stuff, you’re not going to remember as well. That’s in part because the author didn’t drive your reward circuit, didn’t get the dopamine flowing, didn’t get the natural opioids flowing, they didn’t get you psyched, they didn’t get you hooked on a story. If you’re not hooked, then your ability to remember that is going to go downhill.

Ross: I’d like to dig down into a teaser of those eight strategies in a moment, but just to come back to that pen. As you say, you choose those who write better to essentially take that information in but can we as a reader, perhaps imbue our own excitement or surprise, or are there things to make some things that are drier to read better whatever the quality of the writing?

Bill: That’s a question of why you’re reading it. You’ve talked many times before about making sure you have a purpose and then having all these filters, etc., and framing to decide what you’re looking for. I can tell you I was very engaged in over 400 science articles to get this book written. Why was I engaged? Because I knew what those contributed to the understanding I needed to write for readers. If you know what you’re looking for, then very dry writing absolutely can be engaging. I would say that’s the major lesson there.

Ross: Is there any advice or other techniques just to be able to keep that purpose in mind as you’re reading to be able to make it more engaging?

Bill: Yes. For the last 25 years, I’ve been writing books, my own and for others, and I think that it does, it goes back to the purpose. The books are a big project. They have a broad scope, they have a big message, you have to have a purpose for those, you have to have a goal for those, you have to have buckets of information that you’re looking for at least. In the beginning, you have a thesis and you say I can break the thesis into six, eight, or ten parts, and then you’re going to be looking, it’s a treasure hunt. You’re out there looking for the stuff to fill all those pockets, and that then becomes very motivational.

Ross: I love to research because I’m always curious, always wanting to learn. But when I’m trying to learn about a particular thing, there’s a wealth of information there. It’s like, how deep do I go? How quickly can I skim? I’ve always been just sort of searching for the nuggets, as you use that metaphor of treasure hunting as you’re engaged in reading.

Bill: Yes. The next step in order to jump where my book takes us. My book is Writing for Impact. But when I was writing it, when I got to the second draft, I went through three major drafts, so when I got the second one, I had four friends and colleagues read it, and one of them came back to me and said “You know what? About two-thirds of the way through the book, I realized the book is more about thinking than it is about writing”, which is a bit of an overstatement, but you get the point. How do you think so that you make it easier for your readers to be engaged?

In the book, I have a lot of different techniques that if you use them, you are going to transform these buckets of information that you’re taking in, what I like to think of as a bucket full of scrap lead and transmuted into gold nuggets. There are a bunch of different techniques, and I use these all the time with clients that I work with on books. The first one, for example, is “Hey, we gotta get this simple”. We have to figure out what the simple one-liner is. I know that sounds very old, like the elevator pitch, but you have to winnow it, you have to take away some of the clutter. You probably have two or three ideas that are all glommed together, how do you pull them apart and say which one am I going to focus on?

For my book, Writing for Impact, in the end, what was my message? My message is three words: “Reward your reader.” But I’ll give you another example. I wrote a book 10 years ago and it was a book on how to write books, focusing pretty much on the steps you need to go through, the research, the drafts, the development of the idea, and so forth. My working thesis for a long time was practice makes perfect. Okay, that’s sort of a cliché, but that was my working thesis, you have the set of steps, you keep practicing them, you keep iterating them, and eventually, you’re going to get the book to where you want it to be.

But hey, I was on the spinning bike one morning and I realized that that really wasn’t accurate enough. You’ve got to say if practice makes perfect isn’t right, what is right? It dawned on me that seems like such a small thing but has a huge impact on how you process the information and give insights to readers. I decided it was “process makes perfect”. It’s the process that you had to go through. Follow that process, that would make the book perfect. All of a sudden, I could transform everything I was saying, all of those buckets had a new gloss over them. The reason I’m talking about each of these issues say research or outlining or first drafting etc. is because I’m explaining the process to you to make this happen. That’s the first thing to simplify.

Ross: Yes, as in my book, I point out that many people have said, write in order to think better. But in fact, you have to write well in order to think better. That’s to the point of your book, if you’re writing for impact, then clearly you are thinking well, you must have structured your thinking in a way that can have an impact.

Bill: At least by the third draft.

Ross: Yes. That’s it. It takes work. It’s not as if we immediately necessarily have crystal clear thinking. We have to go through that process of getting ourselves to thinking, which brings us to better writing.

Bill: Exactly.

Ross: Can we spin through your eight recommendations or give a teaser to what they’ll find in your book?

Bill: We certainly can. I would say by looking at the areas of your interest and your listener’s interest, I think all of these are about amplifying cognition. How do these A – help you think better and B – allow people to absorb the information to comprehend better? They all begin with an S, they are my eight S’s to hopefully help people remember them. But the first one is to keep it simple – shorter words, shorter sentences, shorter ideas, stripped of all the ornamentation. The second one is to keep it specific, get some specifics in there so that people have a concrete idea of what you’re saying. I’ve got some great examples of that. The third one is to keep it surprising – novelty, that’s really important. Sometimes when you’re trying to educate people about a subject, you forget that you also have to make it surprising, as you’re writing about something that they might already know a lot about.

Ross: Just on the surprising one. Let’s say you’re trying to find something surprising because then that means it’s useful and interesting. But let’s say it is something more mundane. How can you bring surprise into that?

Bill: One of the ways you can do it is to apply a metaphor to it. How about the book, The Perfect Storm, or the book, The Black Swan, or the book, Tipping Point, when you dig down, these aren’t altogether new subjects, they’re treated in a contemporary, deeper way that applies to all of us today. But all of a sudden, you tag them with a new form of looking at it and that’s a surprise. That’s absolutely one way to do it.

The other thing is surprising data, a surprising story, a surprising combination of two words, one that I put in my book that I happen to like, maybe it’s just me, I visited a battlefield in the western United States, and they were characterizing the nature of the soldier’s life just after the US Civil War. How did they characterize it? They called it Glittering Misery. When do you ever put glittering and misery together? But when you put them together, you get an idea of what that means. A surprise can just be in word combination, and anybody, particularly in a second draft, can say, wait a minute, this is just not quite doing it for me, can I apply one of these S’s? And that’s one of them. Can I apply one of these, just some word combination or a metaphor, etc.? Can I do that and then, therefore, engage my readers to get them to comprehend it better?

Ross: Just one thing, pulling back, I presume it’s relevant to quite a few of your points is around a metaphor, the power of metaphor in our thinking. That’s something which I’d like to dig into more myself. It’s something that I’ve touched on in Thriving on Overload, but there’s so much that we can do to improve our thinking, as well as to communicate that thinking to draw in the right metaphors and finding the right metaphors is a quest. You’ve got to find the right one. Every metaphor is wrong because they are different things, but you’re trying to bring out what evokes something useful out of that. Can you comment on that metaphor in that bigger frame of what you’re doing?

Bill: Yes. I knew it’s important when I started as a writer, but it became more apparent with the research just how powerful metaphor is. Some research shows that simple sentences with metaphors in it, I wish I could cite one from the research but simple sentences with a metaphor that says the same thing as a literal phrase are understood X percent better than those with literal phrases. What this states to us is, us being children, everything we learned in language, we learned hands-on. From the time before we could talk, we were mouthing things, we were handling things, everything was hands-on, and ultimately when we started to learn words not just metaphors, they all were connected to the parts of the brain that had to do with handling and experiencing things.

When I talk about keeping it specific, why do you want to keep it specific? Because when you keep it specific, not only the language processing part of the brain activates, which is just along the left temple, just on the left side, not bilateral, like so many brain functions, but the components for the motor circuits activate which are like a hairband across the top of your head, the sensory circuits activate, another hairband just to the rear of the motor circuits, the auditory, the olfactory, the visual circuits in the back of your head, when you engage all those senses, the brain as I like to say goes into a full brain buzz. Not only that but the specifics can activate the muscles as well. You can have an activation by using specifics instead of dry abstract wording; you’ve got the language circuits running, you’ve got the motor and sensory circuits running, and you even have the tissues and the muscles running.

In one example, I’ll just give you one experiment on this that I can remember off the top of my head. John Stins and a global team of scientists asked people to read sentences, while they were standing on a force plate. This force plate is like a bathroom scale and measured the pressure of their stance. For example, they gave them three sentences, low effort, no effort, and high effort. One was the nurse admiring a patient, no effort. Another one was the nurse lifting the patient, high effort. A third one was the nurse lifting the plant, low effort. And what happened with all these people standing on the force plate, they actually shifted their stance, forward, backward, and sideward in proportion to the effort implied in those sentences. When you use specifics, you are translating for people into a very tangible feeling, what you’re saying, and it does wonders to aid comprehension, it also happens to drive the reward circuit quite handily.

Ross: In a way that’s also about the thinking is in our body. Essentially, it’s not just our brain, that we are enacting that in the full extent of our body and how we express that.

Bill: Yes. That’s a perfect segue to the fourth essence, just keep it stirring. When people experience emotion, they usually experience it in the body, it’s in the brain as well, but they experience it in the body, and they react to that in the body, so emotion is very important. In a lot of serious business subjects, you think, I shouldn’t use emotion in that case but emotion is integral to most words, except the most basic words. You need to use that to your advantage and choose the right words so you have the right emotion. One experiment that is fascinating on this is that some researchers had people read about a fictional city called Addison that was having a crime problem. In one case, these were identical write-ups about 150 words long and they had the statistics of murders, etc. In one case, they refer to the crime wave as a beast.

And in the other case, they refer to the crime wave as a virus and then they ask people to recommend interventions to deal with the crime. What happened is, most of the people who read the version with the beast suggested more policing and more enforcement, and most of the people who read the version with a virus suggested more intervention to prevent crime, to begin with. In other words, dealing with social pathologies. That was true even after looking at people’s political affiliation, in other words, it was the metaphor and the emotion attached to that metaphor that determined how people made decisions. If you are writing and you want people to make a decision, you can see the room for manipulation here but let’s assume you have high integrity and want to present it forthrightly, you want to choose the right word, the right metaphor, and the right emotion so that you accurately portray what the situation is to make a decision on.

Ross: It’s a great story.

Bill: Yeah, let me run through the rest of them.

Ross: Please.

Bill: The next one is keep it seductive, which is not what you initially think, seductive in an alluring way, anticipation is what that means. Build anticipation, which of course is integral to fiction, suspense, and anticipation. This is funny, even the most basic writing can build anticipation, and how do you do that? You use a good topic sentence. I thought, “Oh, my goodness, the English teachers are vindicated! Topic sentences are important.” It’s not just because it helps you integrate the following information with an overall introduction to that information but it’s because you set up a little bit of anticipation, you promise something, and then you give the payoff. That, in fact, is rewarding in the brain, believe it or not, there’s a dopamine release from that. They’ve actually measured it.

Then the next one is keeping it smart and insightful, leaps of insight. There’s a huge amount of research that’s gone on about what happens when people have, what scientists call, an “aha” moment, they actually call it that. What happens is that a whole part of the right side of the brain lights up that is unique, and there’s a surge of action in the reward circuit. In other words, we like bright ideas. If you’re writing and you want to communicate, you want to aspire to those brighter ideas. People are going to be turned on by that. Of course, we can’t have one in every sentence, but we want to aspire to that.

Ross: Just on that, you might be referring to the same research that I wrote about in Thriving on Overload by Mark which is fascinating in terms of trying to uncover some of the ways we can see in the brain, how we reach that “aha” moment.

Bill: Exactly!

Ross: Just thinking about how to actually bring that to bear in writing. One way, just musing out loud, would be to set up the clues which then the person could uncover and labeling to make their own discovery process. I’m actually interested in how would you set that up. How do you bring that “aha” moment? Because this is smart, this is a great insight, which I’m presenting to you but do you try to evoke the ‘aha’ moment for the reader?

Bill: The first thing, which I found very interesting, the research shows that when you come to an “aha” on your own, which is quite powerful when you’re reading and you have an ‘aha’ on your own, something about in your community, even though you’re reading about someone else’s community, or you’re reading about some family issue, or whatever, by analogy, you come to your own insight about something, that’s very powerful. But it turns out, they’ve actually had people also go through experiments where they reveal an insight and show that even when you reveal an insight to somebody, when there’s a leap of intuition that goes on, even when you present it to people and don’t allow them to come to it on their own, there still is a surge of reward, not as much. That’s the key thing.

What you’re touching on is back to Thinking for Impact. For me, the insights come through nurturing the unconscious or the subconscious, nurturing not what’s on your mind. I know you’ve written about this but meditation, I’m a meditator, exercise, and sleep. Let’s take meditation for example, in my mind, there’s a quieting that goes on in meditation and then the key thing that is quieting is of the conscious thoughts. All these thoughts have just got their hooks into you because of the knotty problem you’re trying to deal with when you’re writing or trying to express, you’re trying to engage others. Where does the insight come from?

The insight comes from, I interviewed Mark for my book, he calls from the dim and distant connections. I love his metaphor. You might have read about it in the book, his metaphor was, it’s like looking for a very faint star at night. How do you see the faintest stars out there? You can’t see them by looking directly for them. Why is that? Because it’s only the corner of your eye that has the cones necessary to absorb very dim light. He said the analogy is the same when you’re talking about thinking, it’s how do you find an insight in the corner of your mind? You don’t look directly for it, you have to allow the dim and distant to come out. I believe that comes out when you acquire all the conscious thinking where you’ve been going through the permutations, you’ve been going through the analysis, you’ve been setting up your matrices, etc.

All of that’s terrific, but what’s the power of the brain, this is the power over AI today, what is the remaining power? And that is the dim and distant coming together in absolutely surprising ways, but they only surface when you’re not looking at them. There’s a whole other example of this, stop me if I go on too long for each of these S’s, but there’s a whole other example that I like, there was a study done probably 15 years ago, where a bunch of students were asked to assess which apartment of four apartments was the best that they would like to live in. It was rigged so that two of the apartments were in the middle of the road, one was clearly better and one was clearly the worst.

There were a lot of complicated factors, and they were given 12 factors, like noise level, convenience to the bakery, etc. to evaluate those apartments. What did we find out? There were three groups, a control group, I can’t remember exactly how they were structured, but then there was a group that was allowed to work on that problem for 10 minutes, they could look at the 12 factors, they could try to weigh them, one against the other, and then come up with what the best apartment was.

And then there was a group that was completely distracted for those 10 minutes, they had to do math problems and they couldn’t think a thing about those 12 factors or four apartments. Who do you think got all the apartment choices right? It was the people who were distracted for 10 minutes. In other words, their brain had worked on that unconsciously and had come to the rice of solution, it had sorted that out. I’m a big believer in that letting your brain sort things out. Sleep in the morning, meditation, and exercise, all of those are ways to nurture the unconscious. To me, that’s where the insights come from. Because that’s your job translating and absorbing into the gold nugget.

Let’s see, I got two more S’s, one is keep it social and that’s put some humanity in it, just to put it briefly. And the last one is keep it story-driven. There’s an awful lot written on how important it is to write stories to translate what you’re saying into a cause-effect, situation that has humans in it that are trying to do things and struggle that come to realizations, etc. That is extremely powerful. But what I like to say is that’s like the symphony of all the techniques you want to use, to communicate or engage with others. There are seven other things you can do that all pretty much go into a great story and each one of those on their own can be very powerful, just keeping it simple, or keeping it specific as we were discussing earlier, all those things can be very powerful. They allow you in a more stepwise framework to apply. In that second draft when you go, “God, it’s just not quite there!”. Yeah, story would be a great idea. But what if you don’t have a story? You’ve got seven other essentials that you can amplify people’s cognition with.

Ross: Fantastic, because they are one of the things that I’m thinking, since one of my roles as a professional speaker, that everything all applies to speaking as well.

Bill: Absolutely.

Ross: You’ve said we’re writing for impact, but speaking for impact, will everything be just as applicable?

Bill: Yes. I think what you’re referring to is the part in the book where I learned, this is fortuitous for me, that whether people listen, or whether they’re reading, they process the meaning of the words in the same part of the brain, it doesn’t make any difference. And the other thing is it translates across languages, people in every language process, the same kinds of stuff in the same places in the brain. All this applies not just to people writing English but to any language, and it applies to any subject.

Ross: Those are fantastic lessons, Bill. It’s really valuable to get those condensed. I believe very much in the value of studying neuroscience so that we can get actually get some proper insights into how we work. It’s a real service to have dug into that, to enable us to write for impact, which I suggested early of means that we do have to be thinking better. I presume you can get it as the saying goes, at any good bookstore.

Bill: That’s right.

Ross: How else can people find you online, Bill?

Bill: Yeah, at You can find me there. There’s a sort of what you might call a cliff notes version of what’s in the book right there online. If people buy the book and they send me their sales receipt, I also have a workbook that has a bit more color and a few more diagrams. It’s fun. I’m happy to email people that too.

Ross: Fantastic! Thank you so much for your time, Bill.

Bill: Yes, my pleasure, Ross.

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