Do you know the benefits of reading some interesting articles in English whenever you can? It's a great way to build your vocabulary and general English! It will even develop your English grammar skills. These articles can open new perspectives to you, sharing the concerns, experience, and wisdom of so many people.
This page continues the selections and links from the English Detective newsletter begun on Reading Articles to Improve Your English. That page explains how I choose the articles and why I share their links and descriptions here.
Most of the articles are intermediate level or above, so if you are just beginning to read English, don't start here. Instead, check out Easy Reading for ESL Beginners.
Each section below gives most of one English Detective newsletter starting in Jan. 2021. Each newsletter has a theme.
That means the articles will often have related vocabulary, helping you learn any new words. They also provide several different perspectives on the subject.
After introducing the theme, I tell a little about each article and why it's worth reading.. I link to it and sometimes add some vocabulary discussion or practice.
Occasionally I devote a whole page to the topic, and the article descriptions and links are on it instead. In those cases there is just a link to that page here.
If you find these articles helpful, you can subscribe to English Detective below (or learn more on Building Vocabulary.) The advantage of subscribing is that you'll get each new issue directly.
Choose the articles that interest you and build your English vocabulary a little every month (or every week if you spread them out).
I’ve been thinking (like many others in the U.S. and around the world) of recent events in Washington D.C. and about the inauguration on Wednesday. We wonder how (if it’s even possible) to restore trust and civility and to build a society based on justice and truth.
I found a number of articles suggesting ways Biden could address these things in his inaugural address. Many referred to the messages of presidents in earlier times of national crisis—and almost all mentioned the speeches of Abraham Lincoln.
The article I chose (an opinion piece from Fox News, not my usual source of ideas) quotes Lincoln extensively. I feel the author presents a very persuasive case for “extending a hand of friendship and reconciliation” toward Republicans, even people who still question whether Biden won.
It may not work, but I believe it’s necessary to try. As the second article (on Martin Luther King Jr.) begins, “bringing down the temperature of the nation and quelling partisan divisiveness is of paramount concern.” In simpler language, we need to calm down and come together.
That article lists MLK’s principles of nonviolence. It argues, as King wrote, that nonviolence, though difficult to practice, is “one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” The author discusses the origins of King’s thinking on nonviolence, its success in challenging segregation, and brief descriptions of six core principles.
I decided to add a third article that is less hopeful but also addresses an urgent need in American society. NPR asks “Can the forces unleashed by Trump’s big election lie be undone?” It talks about the results of Trump’s insistence that he actually won the election (which he claimed was then stolen from him). The attack on the U.S. Capitol was a direct consequence of the anger he stirred up in his supporters.
The article includes a seven-minute video by Arnold Schwarzenegger on the dangers of a big lie. It’s a very personal story, describing his childhood watching his father and other desperate, broken men in Austria after WW2. He cannot forget the consequences of Hitler’s big lies and makes an urgent appeal to come together to support our democracy and Constitution.
Capacity is the amount of something a person or container can hold or the ability to hold or do something.
An inauguration is a ceremony in which someone begins a new position. It’s most often used when presidents or governors take an oath of office before beginning their duties. Inaugural is the adjective. So, an inaugural address is a speech that a president gives at the beginning of his or her term.
Malice is deep, bitter hatred-- a desire to harm someone.
An opponent is someone who is against you (an enemy) or is competing with you (a rival).
A principle (as used in these articles) is a basic truth or value that guides a person’s or a group’s actions.
To resonate usually means to cause an emotional response. “Your suggestion really resonated with me.”
A rival is a competitor: someone who wants the same position you want.
You can practice different forms of words for truth or falsehood (and sort them from most definitely truthful to most dishonest) on that page on EnglishHints.
I’ve read a lot recently about “power words.” They usually refer to positive words to make a person’s resume seem more impressive, or to psychological trigger words that a sales team hopes will make their product “irresistible.” (The last link below discusses that kind of power words, if you’re interested in how they can ‘hook’ people.)
But today I especially want to also share two short, surprising articles and a talk about very common words that can have unexpected power: ‘the,’ ‘but,’ and ‘because.’
“Is this the most powerful word in the English Language?” uses Shakespeare as an example to show the power of the word ‘the.’ The writer admits that knowing when to use ‘the’ causes difficulties for people whose first languages don’t have a similar word.
However, native speakers can use it to imply negative things about a group of people simply by grouping them (“the Americans”, etc.), rather than recognizing individual differences. You may need to read this article twice—but you’ll end up with more respect for this apparently insignificant word.
An unlikely villain among ‘power words’ is the conjunction ‘but.’ This Fast Company article points out that it so often seems necessary, but (!) it expresses opposition or foot-dragging that could be avoided. Instead of meeting someone’s proposal with a negative “That’s an interesting idea, but…” try “yes, and.” For example, “That’s an interesting idea. I wonder if we could also…”
The author has several other ideas for more positive responses. (This is an idea I need to remember when talking to my family! It’s so easy for me to react quickly and “pour cold water” on ideas that could work with just a few changes.)
Janine Driver’s TEDx talk describes ”how five simple words can get you what you want.” She describes situations when someone is telling you ‘no’ but uses words that leave the door open for you to get what you need if you push. Which words? “Decided, typically, normally, or usually” you have to… (But decisions can be changed, and you’re not in a normal or usual situation…)
Then she brings out what she calls “the most influential word in the English language”: ‘because.’ Her story is so appealing because she demonstrates how an ordinary person with a big problem is able to defeat a stubborn bureaucracy with the power of words.
Finally, if you’re interested in marketing—or just want to understand it to avoid being manipulated, check out this longer article on traditional power words.
So, do you see a few plain, ordinary words in a new light now? Let me know what you think (in the comments below!)
I wasn’t even thinking of women’s history month, but two stories on fighting disease that have stood out to me recently both had unlikely heroines. These very different women resisted the strong pressures of society and scientific consensus—and ended up saving uncounted lives.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu learned the technique of smallpox inoculation from the female healers of the Ottoman Empire when her husband was an English ambassador there. (It seems that male doctors there did not use it.)
In 1721, soon after she had returned to England, a smallpox epidemic broke out. Lady Montague had her daughter inoculated and urged others to do so as well, in spite of opposition from the English medical establishment and others.
She wrote, "I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England." As the NPR article points out in fascinating detail, her efforts led to thousands of lives saved. One of those inoculated was Edward Jenner, who would later develop the (safer) smallpox vaccine.
The second article (and podcast) describes how Katalin Karikó and other scientists continued to study mRNA even when it meant risking funding, university backing, and (for Karikó, an immigrant from Hungary) deportation.
It took years of hard work, and a constant struggle for funding, before their research paid off. Now, as the article’s title mentions, “if covid-19 vaccines bring an end to the pandemic, America has immigrants to thank.” Without their stubborn belief in the value of their work, we would not have the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.
Have you heard of the “Green Revolution?” After World War 2, plant breeders developed much more productive varieties of wheat and rice. They enabled countries like Mexico and India to go from importing those staples to growing enough for their own use and to sell to other countries. Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder that started it, won the Nobel prize in 1970 for helping to prevent the mass famine that many people had feared as populations increased after the war.
Then the criticism began, and grew, as people began to see water pollution and other environmental damage as well as harm to traditional ways of life. Over time there were also questions of motive. Were western countries just pushing their own solutions and technologies, and maybe more interested in preventing communism from taking hold than in the needs of local people?
The Green Revolution’s emphasis on a few very productive grain varieties has led to a major decrease in crop diversity, replacing many more nutritious crops with large fields of a single kind of wheat or rice. Large farming operations have put poor farmers at even more of a disadvantage, since they cannot afford the fertilizer or irrigation techniques it requires.
PBS conducted three interviews with experts from different countries and perspectives on the good and bad effects of the Green Revolution, looking back on it half a century later. All three articles are interesting, but I’d recommend the third (unless you have time to skim all three.) The first two emphasize the historical context a little more. (#1 gives more background on Borlaug, & #2 on the Cold War context.
The 3rd interview discusses the tragic irony of good intentions that had unforeseen consequences. It tells how Borlaug’s work to make wheat more disease-resilient ended up making farming much less resilient (unable to deal with problems that arise.) The interview finishes with the hope that farmers can learn from each other and make changes for a better future.
National Geographic also has a fascinating (though long) article on current research—a “next green revolution”—that researchers hope will be more environmentally friendly and sensitive to the needs of small farmers and their communities. If you can take a few minutes to read the two sections and look through the pictures and diagrams, you can get a good background picture.
It starts with the increasing risks of crop failure in East Africa—specifically of cassava, now being attacked by disease-carrying whiteflies that are becoming much more common as the climate warms.
Then there’s a short, mostly positive discussion of how the Green Revolution prevented famine in the last century. “From the 1960s through the 1990s, yields of rice and wheat in Asia doubled. Even as the continent’s population increased by 60 percent, grain prices fell, the average Asian consumed nearly a third more calories, and the poverty rate was cut in half.”
The rest of the article goes into detail about competing visions for that new green revolution, using controversial genetically modified (GM) plants or other new breeding techniques and more ecologically friendly methods that show promise.
There’s a long discussion of more versatile rice crops being bred in the Philippines to solve various environmental problems.
The article also talks about E. African organic farming experiments with a more diverse set of crops as one alternative to crop failures (and also to farmer debt.)
The article’s conclusion: “It’s not choosing one type of knowledge—low-tech versus high-tech, organic versus GM—once and for all. There’s more than one way to increase yields or to stop a whitefly.” It sees hope as people apply new ecological and cultural understanding along with high-tech advances
Many people who object to wearing masks say the government is just trying to control them. They say that American authorities originally told us not to wear masks, and then changed the rules. So, they don’t believe there could be clear scientific evidence for masking.
That’s why I found this Wired article so interesting. It explains why the CDC (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) told the general public not to buy or use masks at the beginning of the pandemic. They wanted to save the masks for health care people who were in very close contact with Covid-19 patients. But they also did not believe it was necessary for most people to wear masks, since they were convinced that viruses did not remain in the air for long distances.
A few scientists who had seen definite evidence of airborne transmission of viruses fought to change the accepted explanation. The article tells their story. It’s part detective story, part turf war (people defending their branch of science or their own expertise—not really looking at the data). It’s a reminder that the scientific search for truth isn’t simple—and some of the obstacles come from within us.
”A Toast to the Error Detectors” is a much shorter article with a similar theme: “the clash between science as it is and how it should be.” It’s a strong defense of young researchers who often have gotten into trouble for finding errors in the work of more established scientists. The author argues that we need to appreciate their findings, not try to silence them.
Vocabulary (explanations of a few words used often in these articles):
Bullying is mistreatment of someone who is weaker or does not have the power to defend himself or herself effectively. Older boys in school often bully smaller children, but people of any age can be bullies.
A disease is contagious when it spreads easily from person to person.
A pathogen is a micro-organism (for example, a bacteria or virus) that can cause disease. (We commonly call pathogens ‘germs.’)
Pathogens can infect us (get into us and start causing illness.) So infections, or infectious diseases, are diseases caused by micro-organisms.
A particle is a very small piece of something.
This week I wanted to share an article and a talk, both from TED, that I enjoyed recently. They suggest insights from psychology that can help people make better decisions and avoid mental traps that can sabotage us.
The TED Ideas article describes how scenario planning and Red Teams (a form of war game) can help us make good choices. Scenario planning tries to picture various possible futures based on the way current trends might change over time.
“By forcing themselves to imagine several alternatives, scenario planners avoid the trap of the single seductive story.” Red Teams have players look at complex situations from different points of view.
Another useful planning tool is a premortem. It requires imagining that a decision turned out to be bad-- & reconstructing what caused such bad results. It’s a good way to uncover potentially faulty assumptions that you might not notice otherwise.
Adam Grant’s TED talk emphasizes the importance of rethinking. He points out that “when it comes to our goals, identities and habits, we tend to stick to our guns.” (“Stick to our guns” is an idiom coming from the military. Gunners were not supposed to abandon their positions. Over time, the meaning has shifted to a stubborn insistence to hold onto the arguments or positions we have chosen even when they no longer work well.)
Grant explains the psychology behind such stubbornness—and the importance of being willing to reconsider our decisions when circumstances change. He also points out the value of “confident humility.” He tells how much he learned from his students once he was willing to give them room to show what they could do.
He finishes by pointing out the urgency of rethinking as a society and not just as individuals. “We live in a world that mistakes confidence for competence,…that accuses people who change their minds of flip-flopping, when in fact, they might be learning.”
Have you ever considered what an amazing thing it is that one person can share complicated ideas or feelings with another by making sounds or symbols in a particular order? I know I’ve often taken it for granted!
The neuroscientists discussed in these talks and articles have made some amazing discoveries about how our brains code and decode sounds, words, and stories to create shared meaning. They have also found ways to improve this communication process.
A neurosurgeon and his team in San Francisco have even helped a man unable to speak or write to use a “speech neuroprosthetic” to write words based on his brainwaves. It’s still limited in what it can do, even after months studying his responses. But it’s a huge improvement over the way he has had to communicate—using his head to point to letters or words.
The next article (and talk) discusses “Your Brain on Communication.” I was fascinated by the talk when I first watched it on TED several years ago. I hesitated to share it, though. The speaker is brilliant, but his English is accented heavily enough that I feared it would be hard for many to understand. He’s now written a TED Ideas article sharing the same thoughts—so you can read it before or instead of listening.
Several researchers that I coach on English skills are also working to develop their leadership skills. That’s why I was thrilled to discover a recent TED talk on the importance of stories to leaders. She emphasizes the way stories affect our brains—and the difference they can make to our understanding, trust, and decision-making.
Her last example really moved me-- & the leaders involved. She describes how a student’s story moved data-oriented university administrators to understand the human needs behind that data. It’s worth remembering if you have a cause you care about. She gives so many examples of how stories can help!
This past month I’ve been impressed with two simple ideas that solve several environmental problems at once. Both involve plantings that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and make homes and cities cooler, less polluted, and more pleasant. One also can make a significant contribution to feeding people nearby.
Cairo and Dhaka, like many large cities in Africa, Asia, & Latin America, are built very densely, with little space for trees or gardens. They are already hot and heavily polluted-- and likely to get even hotter over the next decades. But organizations in both cities have been working on a solution to these problems and more: rooftop gardens.
Dhaka has no room for trees, “but we have 500,000 rooftops capable of taking the load of a rooftop garden,” according to the founder of Green Savers.
Gardens on the roofs can cool the apartments below them while reducing ozone and other pollutants and growing herbs and vegetables to eat or to sell. It hasn’t been easy for these projects to get going (or find funding), but programs in schools are generating real interest. Check out the details here.
I couldn’t decide which of two short TED talks on planting home mini-forests to share, so I’m mentioning both. (Anyway, they’re only 13 minutes combined!) Both talks are by Shubhendu Sharma, a Toyota engineer who was so inspired by a demonstration forest-planting project at his factory that he planted one at his own home.
Then he founded a company to share the precise method with the world. (The details of that story are in a four-minute talk.
He also tells how people anywhere in the world can access the plans and get help to follow them (including a probe for remote soil testing) online.
The longer talk gives the details of the process, with plenty of photos of the lovely forests that take only a few years to develop. (You can hear a bird singing in his backyard mini-jungle, and see the fruits growing there.)
He explains the process, as well as the ecological principles and the effort that goes into choosing suitable local species—and all the benefits these forests provide, whether they are in home gardens, workplaces, resorts—or even a zoo… It almost makes me wish we lived in a place that could support such a forest! (I live in an area that’s naturally desert—but I can dream!)
I recently read about two fascinating psychology research studies. One looked at the risks of inflated opinions of ourselves. The second studied the value of reappraisal in helping people cope with Covid-19.
This BBC article discussed research studying the human tendency to overestimate our abilities. Researchers found that arrogance can be dangerous, often leading to bad decisions & even fatal accidents. Unfortunately, it also spreads easily to other people.
In fact, the article compares it to a contagious disease: “Being exposed to someone who was outrageously overconfident inflated a person’s own perceived ranking by around 17%.... the illusion of superiority, caught from one peer, can then be transmitted to another… [It can] permeate through a group from a single source.”
Being ‘exposed,’ ‘catching,’ or ‘transmitting’ something are words for talking about infection. The author doesn’t want anyone to miss the metaphor’s implications!
Did you notice the variety of synonyms for arrogance the writer used for variety? I found at least five synonyms or signs of arrogance mentioned: overconfidence, superiority complex, overestimate your relative standing, swagger, brag, boastful. Did I miss any?
The second article concerns how changing the way we look at our circumstances can make a big difference to our mental health. Researchers were looking for simple ways to help people deal with anxieties caused by the pandemic.
For this study, they had some of the test participants read about reappraisal. (Reappraisal is looking for the positive aspects of a situation. There’s a better explanation in the article.)
They found that the reappraisal techniques caused a major improvement for the people who learned them. The effect was statistically significant-- & they found it in all the countries studied.
Both of these studies built on previous, well-established research. They underline the real-life consequences of our attitudes. I hope yours is a little more positive after reading this!
We’re reminded often of the great good that can come from people so motivated that they push past every obstacle that keeps them from their goal. But motivation can power evil as well. These two talks underscore the importance of understanding what moves us to act. They're good English listening (&/or reading) practice. But more than that, they have implications that are worth considering.
The first is about finding the work you really want to do. The second looks at how the deep human desire for status, if thwarted, can lead to violence and even tyranny.
I’m fortunate, because I get to do work that I love, and I get to work with people who also do work they love and research that makes a difference. But I know not everyone is so fortunate. I love what this TED talk suggests for young people just choosing their careers, or for older folks who have decided they want to make a change. (It’s great English listening practice as well as being inspiring.)
He discusses a “framework of really three simple things that all these different passionate world-changers have in common, whether you're a Steve Jobs or if you're just, you know, the person that has the bakery down the street.” His three-part framework is to understand yourself and your special strengths and abilities, to figure out what matters most to you when you make decisions, & to learn from your experiences.
Then he talks about being willing to try things that look difficult or maybe impossible. As he says, “everything was impossible until somebody did it.” I love his story about defying his fear of deep water to take a big swimming challenge—because a 13-year-old friend set an example for him.
Even more impressive was the kid who was gasping as he struggled to finish. The speaker wondered why his parents let him try—until he made it out, weak but triumphant, and his parents carried him back to his wheelchair.
“I mean, where is he going to be in 20 years? How many people told him he couldn't do that, that he would die if he tried that? You prove people wrong, you prove yourself wrong,” and you expand your sense of what is possible.
It’s worth listening to (and/or reading) the whole talk!
Here’s one more talk/article worth mentioning. This podcast (& summary) is related to last month’s article on the dangers of arrogance. It’s an interview with Will Storr, author of The Status Game.
At one point the interviewer says, “You have a pretty provocative claim in the book. You offer a definition of tyranny as something that happens when status games go bad or wrong.” He mentions Storr’s claims that ‘status games’ were at the root of what happened in Germany in the 1920s-30s. Storr answered:
“So this was one of the big revelations for me, really. Being brought up in the UK, we were obsessively taught about the Nazis and the Second World War. It’s very recent in our shared history. But the question, exactly as you put it, is how can this incredibly sophisticated nation fall so hard and so badly? The answer that I came to in The Status Game was that actually, the sophistication of that nation is part of the reason why it fell so badly.”
Storr discusses his research on serial killers. He found they had all been bullied and humiliated during their childhoods. But he points out
"also, and I think essentially, they all started off very high… I argue that this is a really deadly combination. If you take a narcissistic man and chronically humiliate them, there’s a likelihood that they’re going to become violent…"
He argues that something similar happened to Germany on a national level. They had been so proud of their country's achievements and culture, and then were humiliated so badly after World War 1. Storr argues that many Germans were so motivated to restore their nation to what they felt was its rightful place that they ended up very far from the civilized culture they had enjoyed.
I recommend reading or listening to the whole interview. I think it’s important to try to understand, because it’s talking about deep human motivations-- & those haven’t gone away…
This description of the massive transformation of the U.S. economy after Pearl Harbor is amazing. I had learned about it in school, but I had no idea of the size of the mobilization.
There’s nothing like being attacked to unite a divided people, though.
Even with all the evidence we have now, I wonder if we (Americans and others living in politically polarized countries) will decide climate change is a great enough threat to be willing to work with people on the “other” side.
I’ve heard that there was an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Our times are certainly interesting!
Can we pull it off again?
Lots of my students and the international scientists I talk to are concerned with becoming more confident English speakers. It’s a good goal-- & an attainable one when you know what to focus on.
That’s why I was interested when I saw these two articles recently. They’re concerned with being-- & with sounding—more confident at work, but that is often closely connected. (It’s hard to feel confident at work if you must frequently speak English there and feel your English isn’t good enough!)
So, I thought you might be interested in these articles, as well as a few tips I teach my students to build their confidence in English.
The first article is quite closely related to self-confidence. It talks about phrases that make a person sound weak. We’re most tempted to use them when we question our ability to clearly express our thinking, or when we’re overly concerned with not sounding too demanding.
(I have an admission to make. I often use “I’m sorry” the way the author discusses—not because I’ve done anything wrong but to avoid “coming across too strong.” I’m working on it, but some of these expressions can become habits that are hard to break—even though I’m perfectly confident in my use of English.)
Many of the expressions listed make you sound unsure of yourself (“maybe,” “I think,” “for what it’s worth…”). Others might have the purpose of sounding modest, but still come across to others as a lack of confidence.
The second article is more about leadership, although its title is “Highly Confident People Avoid These 14 Behaviors.” It’s really talking about character rather than appearing strong: the true self-confidence of leaders who know their abilities and strength well enough to be honest about their failings. That means they can make decisions and accept their mistakes rather than look for a way to blame others or to look better than them.
These character traits are a lot harder to acquire than simply changing speech habits! They are worth aiming for if you want to be a leader.
I wanted to add a few simple tips that can increase your confidence in English meetings.
Before the meeting:
1. Think about the topic of the meeting & what you want to say. What words might you need? Rehearse (practice– several times) your main arguments or the points you think are most important.
2. If possible, be ready a few minutes early so you’re not rushed & can relax.
3. Breathe deeply, smile, & stand or sit tall. (Hunching over will reduce your confidence & make you appear insecure.)
During the Meeting:
1. When others speak, relax & focus on their messages.
2. When it’s your turn to speak, don’t rush through what you want to say. Speaking at a comfortable pace makes you easier to understand. (It also sounds confident.)
3. Speak loudly enough to be heard clearly, & lower your voice a little (speak from deeper in your chest) for added confidence.
4. If you’re not sure how to answer a question, pause. It’s fine to repeat or rephrase a question to check if you understood (or to gain time.)
5. Don’t worry if you make a mistake– everyone does sometimes. Smile & finish what you were saying. Remember, your company valued your abilities & ideas enough to hire you! People are interested in your insights, not your grammar. Your suggestions can contribute to your team’s success.
Do you avoid difficult conversations?
What about negotiations?
You’re not alone! Many native speakers dread them—and they’re even harder in a less-familiar language.
But you can’t avoid them forever—and facing them will take away some of the sting. So will following the suggestions below that apply to you.
(The recommended article and talk are also excellent English reading and listening practice. They demonstrate some common English phrasal verbs and idioms as well. I’ve pointed out a few, but there are others—in a context that makes them easier to understand.)
Harvard Business Review suggests that changing the way you think about difficult conversations can help. Approach the person you need to talk to with respect, interest, and a willingness to listen more than speak. Your attitude will encourage the other person to be respectful as well.
The article has other important advice, but I want to highlight several phrasal verbs it uses to make key points. It emphasizes “Don’t put it off.” (Don’t postpone it or wait for later to deal with the problem.)
“If you’re always promising yourself that you’ll “bring it up next time it happens,” well, now’s the time.” (To “bring it up” means to bring a topic to the attention of the other person.) Talking about the problem and resolving it will let you move forward.
When you need to negotiate about something, this TED talk recommends three steps for getting what you want.
1. Do your research. (He mentions several more phrasal verbs, including to “‘figure out’ whether what you’re ‘asking for’ is realistic” and to “’find out’ the range of what is possible.” The speaker points out that you need to talk to others so you won’t miss “issues that aren’t on your radar.” (“On your radar” is an idiom referring to issues you might not have been aware of at all.)
2. Prepare mentally: expect obstacles and think of ways around them. Realize your feelings may get involved and plan ways to handle them. He suggests that sometimes you may need to “press pause”—to take a break to deal with your emotions before you finish the negotiation.
3. “Put yourself in their shoes.” I don’t know if this is an idiom—and I think it is common to many cultures. In case it isn’t in yours, it means to consider what it would be like to be the other person. What is he or she facing? How might your proposal affect them? The better you understand their position, the stronger your arguments can be.
To “lay out” your case is to spread it out in front of the other person so he can see how it all fits together.
While looking for material on persuasion recently, I found a revealing Harvard Business Review article on how the team at Apple got Steve Jobs to reconsider ideas he’d previously rejected.
Jobs is famous for Apple’s brilliant innovations, but some of the biggest required him to reverse course. Steve had vetoed the idea of making a phone (or Apple TV)-- or a few other huge Apple successes—and his team (and even a potential supplier) found ways to turn him around.
Several times he eventually acknowledged the difference they had made. (Most of the people known for going head-to-head with him ended up filling important places in Apple, as well.)
Do you need to persuade a difficult boss or a self-assured client to look at a proposal he might initially dismiss (or has dismissed!)? It’s worth taking time to ponder the methods suggested here.
Even if you don’t have a headstrong boss you need to convince, these insights are worth reviewing.
In addition, the article is great English practice! It’s not too hard, but full of words worth knowing.
If an article about scientific research can be a “cliffhanger,”* this is it. It describes a scientist’s desperate search to find a cure for his father’s mysterious muscle-wasting disease. Suspecting its genetic basis, he was working to save himself and his brother as well.
This New York Times’ article describes Dr. Sharif Tabebordbar’s research into treatments for muscular diseases. These diseases have been difficult to treat, since the disabled viruses that can deliver the therapy are toxic to the liver in the quantities needed to treat muscles.
After long trials with different viruses, Dr. Tabebordbar finally found some that target muscles directly, mainly bypassing the liver. The research has opened doors to less toxic treatments for a range of muscular diseases.
This is a long article, but well worth reading—for the story as well as for a glimpse of possible breakthroughs in gene therapy. It highlights the tremendous determination, patience, and painstaking work that makes them possible.
(As always, it also is great English practice.)
If you just want a quick read with the takeaways of the value of the research, the first 401 words works as a summary.
*Cultural side note: A "cliffhanger" is a story in which the hero goes from one extremely dangerous situation to another. It’s as if he or she is barely hanging onto the edge of a cliff, in constant danger of falling and dying.
Authors and screenwriters plan chapter breaks and commercials to come at the peak of tension so readers and viewers won’t leave. Cliffhangers are usually found in fiction—especially superhero, adventure, or spy stories.
I’ve wanted to write about metaphors for a long time, but I haven’t known how to approach them. These articles explain and show the value of metaphors so well that I don’t need to add much.
I will say this: Metaphors aren’t just for literature and language nerds. Using them can add power to a business argument or a scientific journal article as well as to a novel or student essay. Metaphors are basic to thinking and communication. They help us make sense of the world.
You probably don’t even notice most of the time when you use metaphors or similar comparisons. (I don’t!) So many proverbs and idioms use them: “You hit a home run with your presentation.” “Give me a ballpark figure.” “One more strike and you’re out.”
(All of these baseball idioms are commonly used as metaphors for business in the U.S. The first compliments someone on his or her successful presentation; the second requests a cost estimate, and the third threatens an employee who has made a couple of mistakes. One more and he may be fired!)
I’m tempted to go on and on! We have proverbs like “a stitch in time saves nine” (using mending as a way of showing the importance of acting early, before a situation gets worse. A very similar metaphor is talk of a relationship ‘unraveling.’ It’s coming apart the way an old sweater does if you pull on a loose piece of yarn.)
This brilliant BBC essay gives even better examples of metaphors.
It quotes James Geary: “The only way we have of learning something new is by comparing it to something we already know.” The article points out that metaphors can also make us look again at familiar objects we hardly notice. They can also be used by politicians and others to shape our reactions. “For example, a war metaphor immediately presupposes a ‘good’ side and a ‘bad’ side.”
There are some nearly universal metaphors (like describing understanding something as ‘seeing’ it) and others that are specific to a particular culture. (The American baseball metaphors would be examples, as well as the French food metaphors mentioned in the article.)
I also wanted to share a shorter second article that describes how to use metaphors to add “clarity, connection, and persuasion” to presentations—since so many scientists (and other professionals) need to give presentations frequently. It gives some very practical tips for how metaphors can help you explain something that’s giving you trouble, establish a better connection with your audience, and maybe even persuade them by “putting an issue in a new light.”
The world feels even more interconnected now…
The past few weeks (late Feb. to early Mar. 2022) I’ve spent more time than I should reading news and history and trying to make sense of what’s happening in Ukraine. (So have so many other people!)
The biggest impressions have been emotional: horror and disbelief at the disaster unfolding there, and awe at the courage many have shown, as well as the creative messages some have had for the Russia soldiers. (I’m thinking of the old Ukrainian woman who offered sunflower seeds to a Russian soldier. She told him to put them in his pocket, so that when he died there at least sunflowers could sprout.)
I’ve also been looking for explanations of why this attack happened, and what implications it may have for the future. I want to share two articles you may not have seen. They remind me again of how interconnected the world is.
They have terrible and hopeful news for the rest of the world (beyond the obvious inflation and energy problems.) They look at the war’s grim possible effects on world hunger and on potentially hopeful ways it may make people a little more skeptical of lies and disinformation online…
NPR points out that both Russia and the Ukraine make significant contributions to the world’s grain, sunflower, and fertilizer supplies. If the war disrupts spring planting or later harvesting and distribution, it could impact the prices of staples and add to already-growing world hunger.
The article points out it’s not likely to reduce food supplies so much that people starve—but it will raise prices so much that those most in need will go hungry—or may die—unless food distribution patterns change. (The countries with the most production and wealth have not done well in supporting poorer areas in the past.) NPR has some suggestions—if the world takes the problem seriously enough.
Wired’s article is titled The Spectacular Collapse of Putin’s Disinformation Machinery. It analyzes why Russia got away with spreading as many lies and half-truths as it did for so long, but also how an actual war broke it down so quickly.
They make some very interesting arguments about how not to wage a disinformation campaign. I liked their point about not being too arrogant. “While Zelensky engages on a human level through his accounts, Putin, Lavrov, and the other graying men sit at comically oversized tables in Moscow. Russia… should know that the very best manipulation is led by apparently humble—though morally bankrupt—and ideally anonymous groups of people who don’t take credit even when they are successful…”
The article points out another major mistake: “Lie to others, but not to yourselves. Stories from the frontlines say it all.” Russian soldiers were told they would be welcomed by Russian-speakers being oppressed by their Ukrainian rulers. They found that even many Russian-speaking Ukrainians considered them invaders. No wonder their morale has been so low!
I’m ready for some lighter listening (or reading). You too?
This week I want to share just one TED talk, on ‘”Why Great Leaders Take Humor Seriously.” It’s short (9 minutes), hilarious—and actually practical as well.
They give examples of how “our lives are full of humor, if we know how to look for it”—from only needing to comb the front part of your hair during the pandemic to signing a late-night email "Yours heavily caffeinated."
Around minute 5 they discuss the ‘priming effect’: we see what we expect we’ll see. I love what comes next: “…when we live our lives on the precipice of a smile…” A precipice is a dangerous cliff edge. But if you’re living so close that sometimes you fall off into a smile or laugh, that sounds like a good way to live!
Be sure to watch the way Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, managed to bring humor into an international incident. Also notice the use of a pet frog to help make a sale (twice!).
This (long) National Geographic article is titled “4 Solutions for Trees and Forests Threatened by a Hotter World.” It’s divided into four sections. (The first is twice as long as any of the others.)
I believe you can get the most important point it makes by reading the quick summary below, the first paragraphs in each section, and then scanning (looking quickly over) the rest. (If you have time, I highly recommend reading all of part 2, about the value and potential pitfalls of planting large numbers of trees.)
I feel this article is worth sharing, in spite of its length, because of its importance—and its optimism. It describes several practical ways people are helping save or restore forests—and what we need to keep in mind to succeed.
A quick summary:
Part 1 tells about scientists in the U.S. and British Columbia who are testing how to help trees “migrate” north as the climate in their current locations becomes too hot for them. They are trying to learn where are—or soon will be-- the best locations for various species that are already struggling. (They point out trees need help since they can’t just move to a better climate on their own!)
Part 2 discusses the value of tree planting—but only when they’re planted in the right locations, and when the planters don’t just abandon them but follow up. A Brazilian forestry expert points out that the most efficient spending on tree planting for carbon removal may be “to restore native forests, mostly in the tropics, where trees grow fast and land is cheap.”
The story tells about a University of São Paulo experiment in a former eucalyptus plantation in Brazil. As sections of the fast-growing, non-native eucalyptus are cut for lumber, they are being replaced by mixed native trees, which can fill in the spaces.
Eventually, they will have recreated a sustainable, long-term forest like the original ones that have been destroyed. While that forest is getting established, the eucalyptus grove that was already there provides some income for local people.
Part 3 talks about the value of genetic engineering to help trees resist diseases. As an example, it describes how the eastern U.S. lost most of its chestnut trees to an Asian fungal disease during the 2th century. Scientists are now trying to raise genetically-engineered chestnut seedlings to resist that blight. They hope to eventually restore the great mixed-hardwood forests the blight damaged so badly.
Part 4 discusses different approaches to forestry in Europe, including ways to deal with drought and beetle infestations and how closely to manage forests—or if a more natural approach is better.
I hope you've enjoyed reading some of these interesting articles in English!
I'd love to hear in the comments if you especially liked a particular article! Remember to keep reading in English whenever you can!