Zipf’s law

In some older posts on this blog, I have written about Moore’s law, Metcalfe’s law, Fubini’s law, Occam’s law and Murphy’s law. Maybe you still remember what they are all about.

Today, I want to introduce you to yet another law, which is called Zipf’s law, a.k.a. the Brevity law.

The American linguist, George Kingsley Zipf, formulated this law in 1945. It states that the more frequently a word is used, the shorter that word tends to be, and vice versa. Such negative correlation between the frequency of words and their size can be found in almost any natural languages. Zipf also called it a ‘principle of least effort.’ As humans tend to be inherently lazy (or more positively said, they try to be energy efficient) they prefer to take the path of least effort or resistance. Whatever (English) text you analyse, you will always get the same top-5 of short words and their associated frequencies: the (about 6.5%), of (2.8%), to (2.6%), a (2.4%) and and (2.3%).

Some of the shortest words that public speakers often use, however, won’t show up in these statistics: the innumerable uh’s, um’s and er’s. I recently had a video recorded of one of my presentations, and when I replayed it afterwards, I was embarrassed to hear myself saying these nasty filler words. I really thought I had eliminated them from my professional vocabulary…

In another blog post, I wrote about hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, or fear of long words. Well, this time I felt more like a micrologophobia patient. But there’s some good news: like most phobias there are some cures for the latter one too…

  • Listen to yourself: this is something I hate doing, but it’s an important first step in acknowledging your bad habits and ridding yourself of those ugly words;
  • Slow down: if your mouth moves faster than your brain, you’re going to stumble a lot;
  • Punctuate: imagine periods and commas in your speech while you’re talking;
  • Pause: some speakers use fillers to avoid silent gaps, though silence may be much more powerful (read also my “P+R” post)
  • Transition: try using transition statements like “let’s now talk about…”, “on the next slide you’ll see…” or even “and now for something completely different…”;
  • Make eye contact: when you’re making eye contact with one or more persons in your audience, it will become much more awkward to say um or uh to them;
  • Be self-confident: when you spend too much time worrying about your words, you’re going to lose the focus of your presentation and… become even more muddled;
  • Practice: practice your presentation as often as possible before you give it. The better you know your narrative, the more confident you’ll be and the less you’ll stumble.

And if you still let an um or an er slip out from time to time, just think of them as a natural part of speaking. Most of the time, your audience won’t even notice. Maybe these short words should have been included in Zipf’s law after all.


Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

– Anthem by Leonard Cohen

In his song Anthem, the late Leonard Cohen sings that there is a crack in everything. But that that’s also the place where the light can get in. Cohen’s lyrics are often highly philosophical and subject to different interpretations. For me the phrase means that not everything works out, not everything is great, not everyone is perfect… but if you look at people, things and events with a positive attitude, there’s always something good in everyone, everything and every situation.

I already used the crack-and-light metaphor in another post on this blog, about champagne corks and factfulness, when I wrote about (unfortunately, also the late) Hans Rosling’s book in which the Swedish thinker iterates ten reasons why we’re wrong about the world, and why things are better than we think.

Photo by Sarunas Burdulis (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Today, most of us are locked down and locked in because of the COVID-19 virus and our daily news is dominated by the grim statistics of infections and deaths, by stories of heartbreaking personal tragedies and by gloomy economic forecasts.

But, this dark pandemic cloud has also a silver lining – a crack where the light gets through. Just look at the positive things people are doing today. The heroic dedication of health care workers. How neighbors are taking care of each other. How some (no, not all) governments and employers have become empathic leaders. How (again, some) virologists and scientists turned out to be great communicators. The (temporary?) positive effects on traffic jams and on air and water quality. The growing acceptance of tele-working and home working…

We’ll never live in a perfect world, so let’s not make perfect the enemy of good. We must learn to accept setback and imperfection. It’s all about taking the right perspective. Being positive about the post-corona future. Ringing the bells that still can ring. Thinking opportunities rather than challenges. Actually, the new normal may not be that bad after all.

Presenting behind closed doors

During the summer of 2017, I started creating infographics for some of my blogs.

Working from home because of the COVID-19 lockdown, hopping from one web meeting to another, I remembered an old post I have written, “Your audience may be virtual”.

And, then I spent a few hours creating a new visual with tips for presenting at a webcast or a webinar. Here’s the result. I hope it will help you deliver your message more effective from behind closed doors.

Virtual audience infographic L2

You may download the file through the download tab on top of this page.

Flatten the curve

A well-thought mantra or a well-designed visual may have many uses.

Today’s Twitter feed presented me with an inspiring variant of the ‘flatten the curve’ chart. The double bell curve, which is known by almost everyone today, visualizes the key rationale for keeping social distance in tough corona times. The chart explains why slowing the spread of the infection is nearly as important as stopping it and imposes a country’s health care capacity as the target upper limit for the epidemic’s growth.

The graphic I stumbled upon was attributed to the Sustainable Fashion Forum and promotes a new way of doing business that contains climate change risks by limiting natural resource consumption and carbon emission to the earth’s capacity.

The sustainable business curve does not only hold a clear message, but from a marketer’s perspective it also shows an effective way of capitalizing on a hot and widely discussed topic. What else could a casual blogger wish for writing a new post about, while staying at home to help flatten the COVID-19 curve?

When a virus goes viral

While the COVID-19 virus is spreading around the world, a video clip conquered the internet even faster.

At a press conference, a Santa Clara County health officer offered a simple advice on how people can stop the novel coronavirus from spreading: “Today, start working on not touching your face because one main way viruses spread is when you touch your own mouth, nose, or eyes.” And then… she brought her hand to her mouth and licked her finger to turn a page in her notes.

Video coverage by the Washington Post

The above video reminds me of a similar event I experienced myself long time ago. When I was attending a pedagogy course at the university, the professor in front told his students to “never wipe the chalkboard while pupils are still reading the content on it.” And then… he turned his back to the audience, took the board wiper and started erasing everything he had written during the last few minutes.”

Well, I remember quitting the aula and never returning to that pedagogy course.

For a long time, the subtitle of this blog page has been “keep your audience coming back for more”. I expect the above video will show up in many media trainings and communication courses. But when a speaker or a teacher loses credibility, his/her audience unfortunately will never come back!

Show & tell

Loyal readers of my blog will know that I made it a habit to publish a post while attending the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. In case you missed some of these articles or would like to revisit one or more of them, here’s the list to date:

Unfortunately, there’s no MWC Barcelona this year, no crema catalana this week and no special blog post today.

The GSMA, who organizes this yearly mega event, has cancelled MWC 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak. The day before, my company had already announced that they pulled out for the same reason. A wise decision by both parties, since it would have been very difficult – if not impossible – to safeguard the health and well-being of me and my colleagues, as well as of the tens of thousands international visitors.

Image by 3dman_eu (, CC0 1.0)

So, today, I’m writing these words with mixed feelings. I really appreciate my employer’s concern for the health and well-being of its employees and customers. But… I also spent the past months defining and creating an exciting experiential demo, which I would have loved seeing go-live in Barcelona this morning.

Well, there’s also a light on the horizon: while communicating their withdrawal from MWC 2020, my company also announced series of “Nokia Live” events with which we will go directly to our customers and showcase them the industry-leading demos we prepared for the Mobile World Congress.

For obvious environmental, family and cost reasons, however, you can’t fly a hundred demo presenters around the globe for a few months. Live streaming, digital content and virtual presence will certainly provide alternatives to physical travel. But one can also educate local people to deliver the respective demonstrations.

That’s why I’ve already started creating a Show & Tell script for the demo I was supposed to give in Barcelona today. The Show & Tell concept is dead simple and implementation doesn’t need much more effort than doing a dress rehearsal of your demonstration. Run it for your colleagues and ask one of them to record it with his/her smartphone. Or just do it in front of a mirror and use a selfie stick.

The video will translate in a two-column document. One column is to be headed “show this” and the other “tell this”. In the first column you iterate the storyboard of your demo, while in the second one you just write down the corresponding transcript of your filmed narrative.

It’s easy as pie and, believe me, your distant colleagues will truly appreciate your effort. Send them the document together with the video source. They will be able to personalize the story, adapt the demo in function of time and audience, and translate the transcript to their local language.

Stories are all about memories

“Somewhere deep in my memory there had to be a frozen mountain lake that was slowly starting to thaw.” – Herman Koch in “Finnish days” (translated)

Yesterday, I listened to a radio interview with Dutch writer Herman Koch, who talked about his new novel “Finse dagen” (Finnish days). In his book, the author tells stories about the time he spent in Finland when he was 19, making a living as a farmer and lumberjack.

Being a perennial blogger and aspiring storyteller myself, one of the excerpts from the interview, in which Koch muses about memories, particularly appealed to me. “Writing makes you remember things of which you thought you didn’t know them anymore.” Memories are records of people’s personal experience. Records of trial and error, of success and failure. Past successes will help you (and others) to gain courage and confidence to move on, while past failures will warn you against repeating them.

Koch’s also talks about becoming an author. How certain pleasant or unpleasant events in one’s life can provide useful material for later use. Already at secondary school, the future writer was observing his teacher and thought: “One day, this guy will find himself in a book.” It’s almost like one can – or maybe should? – (pro-)actively and consciously record his/her memories.

About creating an ideal mix of facts and (a tiny bit of) fiction, Koch says that “reality is sometimes not believable enough.” So, sometimes we need to repaint our memories. As I wrote earlier on this blog: all stories deserve embellishment

Unfortunately (at least for the non-Dutch-speaking readers of this post) the interview is in Dutch. If you want to replay it anyway, you can find it here. Still, after listening to Herman Koch’s inspiring words, I’m almost sure what will be the next book on my reading list.