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Here's an article I wrote for the State College Magazine in January 2012.

Even if you enjoy technical writing, it's good practice to mix it up a bit and write for different audiences. You'll see the tone and voice for this piece are very different from ones used for a peer-reviewed journal.

Tone in writing comes from the choice of words (usage) and the way the sentences are structured (syntax). Voice in writing comes from your unique personality and the way you communicate. Have you ever read a text from your mom and you could tell it was her even if you didn't see her name associated with it on your phone? That's because as a reader, there's a sound to the language, and you recognized the sound of your mother's communication style.

Tone and voice together create style. Style is used to engage your readers and give you credibility as the writer. As you read this piece, look for specific ways the style fits the audience.

Modern Mod

         It's a new year, but the hot trend isn't about the future--it's about the past. The buzzword is "vintage" and all things old are new again. 

            In lots of ways, vintage is American. Making a sow's ear into a silk purse reflects good, old-fashioned American ingenuity. The economic downturn has given us a renewed interest in making do, even if our greater resourcefulness is born out of necessity. And who doesn't feel like a champion of individualism and self-expression when scoring a one-of-a-kind item?

            Vintage is also modern. It's a form of recycling and a way of being green.

            And, it connects us to our past and to those we loved who may not be with us anymore. We feel comfort in the nostalgia.

            Our TV-centric culture reflects this trend too. Flip on the remote and you're likely to find dapper Don Draper, the quintessential '60's man of "Mad Men," or a buxom beauty as a stewardess on the new Pan Am period drama. Even old shows are new again--with the remake of "Hawaii Five-O," "book 'em, Danno," is back.

            Our local experts agree the vintage fever Hollywood contrived is happening in Happy Valley too, particularly with the decades of the '50s, '60s, and '70s. From fashion, to home décor, and the gamut of all things old that are new again, we'll give you the Centre County scoop.

            Shelley Banker, owner of The Rag and Bone, a vintage clothing store in State College, shares her insight on the historical influences on fashions of the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Patricia Gordon, owner of Riley on Main, a home décor and design service business, provides advice for incorporating period pieces into your home. And Rog Snyder, owner of Apple Hill Antiques, gives his perspective on the art of the deal.

            We begin the new year with a fresh look at old-fashioned food, events, etiquette, fashion, home décor, and all that's old is new again. Get ready to connect to your past and celebrate your groovy future.


Old Fashioned

         "I don't really have to explain the concept of vintage so much anymore," says Shelley Banker, the owner of The Rag and Bone, a vintage clothing boutique in State College. "When I started, I did. Now most people know."

            In 1993, fresh out of Penn State with a degree in advertising, Shelley Banker took a road trip to Atlanta looking for employment. "Along the way I was hitting thrift stores for clothing because I liked the creative process of finding unique clothing with a past. I also liked the romance and the thrill of the search," Banker recalls.

            She ended up with a car full of inventory, and a significant stride toward a workable business plan. "I   noticed many southern college towns had successful vintage clothing stores, so I decided if I didn't like the job in Atlanta, I'd use my purchases to open a vintage clothing store in State College."

            This was the beginning of The Rag and Bone, currently on Calder Way. According to Banker, "vintage clothing is anything from the 1920s to 1980s that is still wearable. Clothing older than this is considered antique, and may be collected, but it's not wearable." She laughs. "And, although I sometimes get requests for '90s clothing, it's not far enough away from today to be 'seasoned' yet." She tells these customers to give it time.

            She also has noticed a particular interest in clothing from the '50s, '60s, and '70s. "I think there are many reasons, but partly because of economic necessity. With vintage, you can have quality and a good price." 

            Banker views fashion as a walking history of our country. She points out that in the '50s the restrictions from World War II were gone, and women were leaving their factory jobs as the men returned from the war and took back the positions. Femininity returned and womanly shapes were accentuated with nipped waists. Fabric was more plentiful than it had been during the war when rationing was in effect, so women wore fuller skirts and men strutted proudly in their fat ties and wide-legged suit pants. In comparison to today's clothing, most fashion was uber-formal, as casual Fridays didn't exist yet.

            The '60s, from Banker's perspective, are the most fascinating fashion decade because they came in one way and exited in another. In the early '60s, Jackie Kennedy's classic style with its two-piece suits, pill box hats, and gloves, was emulated by American women. By the end of the '60s, with social turmoil from the civil rights and feminist movements and the Vietnam War, fashion was about breaking conventions: shocking hot pants, white go-go boots, super mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, bold patterns and psychedelic colors. For men, clothing items became narrower: ties, suit lapels, and pant legs went skinny. Options for less formal wear coincided with the rise in denim. The clean shaven man and the well-coiffed woman gave way to purposeful slovenliness with the introduction of the hippie culture.

            By the '70s, fashion was a slave to convenience as more women entered the work force. Clothing was marketed based on how easy the fabric was to care for. Synthetics, such as Dacron polyester and permanent press promised carefree living to the working woman.

            More options for women opened up with the acceptance of the pantsuit for work attire too. The big fashion story of the '70s was for men, reports Banker. "Men, longing for a comfortable suit for after-hours, discovered the leisure suit. Some were made in non-traditional colors too; I think I have some in my store in powder blue and bright yellow."

            The appeal to vintage clothing is the connection to the past, but it's also about making sure valuable pieces of history don't get tossed out. One of Banker's favorite stories is about the time she purchased two garbage bags full of "the most exquisite, handmade gowns from the '30s and '40s with beads and lace and incredible workmanship."   

            A man stopped in on a whim because he had cleaned out his deceased aunt's closet. "I bought everything in both bags," Banker says. "The man went away happy, but I was happier because I not only got money for them, I made sure one-by-one each of the gowns were adopted and went to loving homes."


Old Home 

       "Everything recycles, especially styles," says Patricia Gordon, owner of Riley on Main, a home décor store on the historic diamond in Boalsburg. In addition to operating her store, Patricia and her design team offer interior design services for commercial and residential projects. She's been buying and selling vintage and antique furnishings since 1988.

            "Right now, there's a tremendous interest in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, in home décor. People who are between 20 to 40 years old didn't grow up with these looks and are intrigued by them. Those who are older than 40 tell me, 'I remember my family or my parents had that, so there's nostalgia about these time periods too."

            According to Gordon, home decor in the '80s was opulent with bows and lots of fringe. The trend today is completely against this look, which also corresponds particularly well with these decades. "Today's look in home décor is much less fussy, with simple lines and an interest in 'green' design." She noticed this trend at last year's High Point Market, a large furniture exhibition in North Carolina she attends regularly.

            "Furniture makers are offering lines that reflect and revive earlier styles from influential designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Milo Baughman," Gordon says. Thayer Coggin, a leading contemporary furniture manufacturer, who was associated with Baughman, is still producing many Baughman lines through his company, despite his death in 2003.

            Baughman pieces are so popular that earlier this year when Gordon learned there was an authentic upholstered piece available at a Centre County auction, she sent one of her design assistants to bid up to $1,000 on it. Little did she know that a dealer from Philadelphia would show up prepared to bid $8,000. He took the piece home.

            Even if you can't afford an original, Gordon recommends using some of the new remakes sold by many modern furniture manufacturers. The remakes use the same lines as the originals and are usually more affordable. They're often more comfortable because improvements have been made in fill and framing materials.

            Another obstacle to overcome when incorporating decade pieces into your home is not to overdo the look. She suggests avoiding doing a whole room with pieces from any one period. "This just makes a home look like Epcot or a Hollywood set. It's too contrived. Instead, try pulling in, say a remake of an egg chair or Saarinen table to give a room vividness and character." She also recommends grouping items "to tell a story, but don't tell the same story a hundred times throughout your house. Be mindful of scale to give balance and drama too."

            To recognize the decades in furnishings, Gordon suggests thinking about the '50s as a time of bold curves and playful fabrics. "It was the fruits, flowers and animals decade. Mohair and leather were popular too, especially in high-end furnishings. Gold, chrome, plastic, glass and other metals were combined in ways previously not used."

            By the '60s, there was an interest in more natural, earth-friendly fabrics and the lines were more geometric. "It was a period of rebelliousness," and according to Gordon, "This is reflected in home décor with large contrasts. On one hand, there's the classic look of Pierre Cardin and on the other, there's the whole drug culture with bubble lamps and lava stones."

            With the '70s, international influence dominated home decor. Globalization gave middle America Pier 1 and access to exotic furnishings from faraway places previously available to only those who traveled widely. The Bohemian look, with cotton Indian prints, bamboo shades, and hand carved wood pieces, was in vogue. "Repurposing was born too," says Patricia. "Large cable spools were turned into tables, used wine bottles became candlesticks, and milk crates were all purpose."

            Many combinations from each of the decades can be mixed together. "It can be great self-expression of your personal history and taste," she says as she pauses thoughtfully, and then adds with emphasis, "but remember even eclectic has harmony when it's done well."

Treasure Hunter

          "After all these spoofy university-types go home, I'll teach you how to properly evaluate an antique," Rog Snyder, owner of Apple Hill Antiques, recalls being told by his mentor, Lester Zettle.

            In the early '60s, Lester Zettle was a well-known antiques dealer in Spring Mills who converted the corncrib and chicken coop on the family farm into his "showroom." At the time, Rog Snyder was a recent Penn State graduate living with his wife, Jan, in a modest apartment on East Nittany Avenue for $55 a month.

            The Snyders had already received their first antique, as a wedding present. "My grandfather was an antique dealer back when antique dealers were strange people," Snyder says. "[He] told me he was 'thinking about getting me a cupboard for a present.' He said he'd pay half, $75, and I could pay half. We drove his behemoth 1949 Lincoln to go pick it up, and as we were in the car returning with the high-back dry sink, he told Jan to lean over and give him a kiss. She did, and he said, 'Now we're even. That kiss was worth $75.'"

            Over the years, as the Snyders furbished their home, they took lots of trips to Spring Mills, where they befriended Zettle. "He liked us," Snyder recalls. "That day when the spoofy people left, he got me down on all fours, and we looked underneath a piece to understand the hand workmanship. Over time, he taught me how to feel the technique of manufacturing with my hands, and to examine the hardware--nails, and screws--which were all made by hand back then. I learned that the top of anything isn't where the proof of age is. The real proof is underneath."

            Although Snyder's day job was as an engineer at the Materials Research Laboratory on campus, he continued to learn about antiques through books and travels. "Jan and I liked to upgrade, so I'd buy a walnut drop leaf table for $10, refurbish it, and sell it for a hundred."

            He also found himself addicted to "the quest of the treasure." If you listen to those in the antique and vintage business for any time, it's easy to see this common thread to their stories. It may start out innocently. A good find--and then a spectacular find--and then they're hooked, forever searching for the next amazing find.

            One of Snyder's most memorable finds was by happenstance. He and Jan were early for a wedding, so they headed into an antique shop. Jan was milling about in another aisle, when Rog spotted a treasure. He reached down to a shelf and carefully pulled toward him a cobalt blue salt dip, a tiny glass bowl--about 2 ½ inches in diameter--used prior to salt shakers on dinner tables. Turning the dip over, he saw Boston and Pittsburgh stamped in the middle, an indication it was authentic Boston and Sandwich Glass. He ran his schooled fingers over the mold, and tinged it to hear the characteristic sound of lead crystal. He paid $8.10 and sold it for $400.

        These days you'll find Snyder retired from the university and giving appraisals, lectures, and sometimes even impromptu lessons to visitors of Apple Hill Antiques. "It's the teacher in me," he confesses. His avuncular manner and depth of knowledge about antiques helps him oversee over 50 antique dealers all in business at Apple Hill. He's happy to report greater interest in antiques and vintage these days, particularly with respect to the '50s, '60s, and '70s. "Those chrome and Formica tables from the '50s," he says, "can't get them fast enough!

       "The popularity of antiques and vintage is partly because there's a comfort level for customers with having things they remember their grandmothers or mothers had. There's an interest in recycling and not wasting because of economic necessity. It's made this business grow."

 






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Today's topic focuses on what you need to do before you start building your poster: plan!

Planning your message for your specific audience and purpose are key concepts for any communication, and especially for effective posters. Begin by asking two questions: what is my purpose, and to whom do I need to direct this message?

You may consider that your overall purpose is to communicate your key findings to a scientific audience. You also want to gain recognition and knowledge through your interactions with your colleagues. Your science must be credible and your poster must be concise and organized to accomplish these objectives. What additional specific objectives do you have?

Also, analyze your audience with respect to their previous knowledge, expectations, and preferences. Keep in mind the most common problem in poster design is including too much information. Ask yourself, "is this absolutely essential to this audience's understanding?" and if it's not, cut it. Make "less is more" your mantra, particularly with respect to the text. A good rule of thumb is to select approximately four to six main points. Don't try to convey too much; you will have to make choices about what's most important.

Image flickr by hooverine


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You're in an elevator. Serendipity! You find yourself riding to the next floor with the head of the company you've identified as your first choice for employment. Do you stand there mute, or do you introduce yourself and give your 30 second "elevator speech"? It probably depends on whether or not you're prepared.

The term elevator speech refers to any short persuasive speech that can be delivered in the time it takes to ride an elevator to the next floor. This week, a student writes seeking advice on her elevator speech.

I was wondering if you have any advice about approaching recruiters at the job fair. I'm a sophomore and want to attend for the first time. I would like to put together my "30 second speech" but don't really know what direction to take.

She's smart because she realizes an "elevator speech" is a necessity. Many job seekers focus on their written communications and forget about the oral communications that may be necessary in the job search process. They're unable to give a short speech that sells what they have to offer, and their oral pitch sends their listeners reaching for their earplugs.  How can you get the perfect pitch for your elevator speech?

CONSIDER YOUR AUDIENCE. This is essential to any effective message. If your short speech is not relevant to your specific audience, it's not likely to generate interest in bringing you in for an interview. In other words, the first step is to consider the key components from your listener's perspective. This means doing your homework. Know as much as you can about the companies in your field by networking, reading online and in databases such as Hoover's Online, Jobstar, Occupational Outlook Handbook, and more. You can find these through your library. For your top picks, understand why makes the company unique and why you are a good match.

KNOW YOURSELF. Of course, knowing why you're a good match means knowing who you are. What makes you unique? What are you able to do? How can you benefit your audience? Peggy Klaus is a Fortune 500 Communication Coach and author of Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It. It's an easy, interesting read and offers this "Take-12 Questionnaire" to help readers generate the raw material of their elevator speeches. It can be found online, and is also printed here.


BRAG! Take-12 Self-Evaluation Questionnaire ©
Don't feel that you have to answer these in order. You can start anywhere and skip around. As you move through the questions, you'll likely think of things you might have overlooked when answering earlier ones. In fact, you'll probably want to go over your responses once more after you have completed the evaluation. Remember, the more time you put into this exercise, the more specific details you provide, the easier it will be to create brag bites and bragologues that will be crystal clear and interesting to those who don't already know you well.
1.    What would you and others say are five of your personality pluses?
2.    What are the ten most interesting things you have done or that have happened to you?
3.    What do you do for a living and how did you end up doing it?
4.    What do you like/love about your current job/career?
5.    How does your job/career use your skills and talents, and what projects are you working on right now that best showcase them?
6.    What career successes are you most proud of having accomplished (from current position and past jobs)?
7.    What new skills have you learned in the last year?
8.    What obstacles have you overcome to get where you are today, both professionally and personally, and what essential lessons have you learned from some of your mistakes?
9.    What training/education have you completed and what did you gain from those experiences?
10.    What professional organizations are you associated with and in what ways member, board, treasurer, or the like?
11.    How do you spend your time outside of work, including hobbies, interests, sports, family, and volunteer activities?
12.    In what ways are you making a difference in people's lives?
Source: From Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It
(Warner, 2003) by Peggy Klaus

Basically, as you respond to these questions, you're generating your key points. Once you have answered the questions, underline what you want to highlight. Focus on the contributions you can make to the company.

WRITE YOUR SPEECH. Take the underlined parts and write a sentence or two to develop them. Keep it brief. If you're going to keep the entire speech under 30 seconds, you need only about 90 words. Connect the sentences by grouping similar ideas. Add logical transitions. Revise and edit. Cut all unnecessary words, and avoid repetition. Read your speech out loud slowly. If you trip over a sentence, rewrite it until it flows naturally.

PRACTICE YOUR SPEECH. Now practice the speech until it becomes rote. Stand in front of a mirror and rehearse it. Deliver it with a pleasant, controlled, authentic voice and time it. If it's too long, go back and reorganize and cut. Try it out on your friends and family. Ask for feedback. Listen to their suggestions, but remember this is your speech, and in the immortal words of George W. Bush, you are "the decider."





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Communication occurs only if the audience understands the message in the way you, as the writer intended--but how can you tell if your reader is likely to understand? 

Gobbledygook and bafflegab abound in technical writing. As scientists, it's easy to think that the job of writing technically clear and easily understood prose isn't as important as possessing the know-how to get the job done. Yet scientists spend a lot of time communicating (some studies suggest that at least 30 percent of each day), and often have to write to a variety of audiences including other scientists, co-workers (some who may not have technical backgrounds), researchers, policy makers, and others.

Consider report writing. Your primary audience is often the managerial decision-makers, but you also must include the secondary audience of production personnel, and maybe even a tertiary audience of marketing employees. Outside of your organization, you may also be engaged in writing persuasive messages to gain support and funding for your work. It's easy to see how crucial the ability to write clearly and forcefully helps improve your productivity.

Because you're often faced with how to tailor a message to a specific audience without compromising the quality of the technical information, it would be nice to be able to gauge just how readable your document is. It's tough not to assume that your reader is as familiar as you are with your material.  So how do you measure how easy or difficult your message is to read? This is the purpose of scientific readability formulas.

And there are many! For example, there is the Dale-Chall, the New Dale-Chall, the Flesch-Kincaid, the SPACHE, and these are only a few. Some are available online for purchase and can be downloaded to your computer. Each is designed to analyze the words and sentences in your document and produce a readability score.
 
There's also an easy one that you don't have to purchase, can use easily, and provides you with a quick assessment of your document. It was designed by Robert Gunning, and is found in The Technique of Clear Writing.  It's often referred to as the Fog index. Here's how to calculate it:

The Gunning Fog Index (or FOG) Readability Formula


Step 1: Take a sample passage of at least 100-words and count the number of exact words and sentences.

Step 2: Divide the total number of words in the sample by the number of sentences to arrive at the Average Sentence Length (ASL).

Step 3: Count the number of words of three or more syllables that are NOT (i) proper nouns, (ii) combinations of easy words or hyphenated words, or (iii) two-syllable verbs made into three with -es and -ed endings.

Step 4: Divide this number by the number or words in the sample passage. For example, 25 long words divided by 100 words gives you 25 Percent Hard Words (PHW).

Step 5: Add the ASL from Step 2 and the PHW from Step 4.

Step 6: Multiply the result by 0.4.

The mathematical formula is:

Grade Level = 0.4 (ASL + PHW)

where,

ASL = Average Sentence Length (i.e., number of words divided by the number of sentences)

PHW = Percentage of Hard Words

The FOG gives a snap-shot look at your document's readability. For general readership, and those who are not technically inclined, the ideal score for readability is a FOG of 7 or 8. (The numbers correspond to grade level; here, it refers to the seventh or eighth grade.) Anything above 12 is considered difficult for many people to read. For instance, academic papers average around 15-20; magazines, like Time, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal average around 11; and many small town newspapers average around 6 to 8.
 
The FOG reportedly has an 80 percent correct outcome. Yet many limitations to readability formulas exist, and human judgment should override simplistic views provided by flawed quantitative results. Shorter and simpler sentences, for instance, reduce the Fog index but may not actually make the document more understandable. If you compute the index and find an outcome incompatible with your intended audience, go back and review your word choice and sentence construction. However, be careful not to write just to the index. In other words, contemplate the delicate balance, and look for ways to revise toward a style that is more agreeable to your reader.

Of course, because you're scientist, after you revise it, you'll want to measure it again!
By the way, can you guess what the FOG is for this article?

(ANSWER: 9.0)

Reference
1. Gunning, Robert. 1968. The Technique of Clear Writing, pp.38-39. New York: McGraw-Hill.


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