How to prevent the two-martini assumption

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When I was about 16 years old, I first heard about the two-martini mistake. This wasn’t, as you might suppose, a teenage drinking behaviour. (Think about it — that would be more like the ten-beer mistake!)

A throwback to the late ’60s, the term meant two things. First, it referred to the tendency of Manhattan ad men (and they were all men in those days) to have two martinis at lunch.

This was hard enough on their livers and of course their secretaries. But it also affected their work — not by making them headachy or grouchy — but by changing their worldview. You see, they assumed everyone else was drinking two martinis, too.

But guess what? For a brief moment in history, martinis were not the drink of choice for most people — except ad men. And, ironically, these same ad men, caught up in their own impermeable thought-bubbles, were just about the only ones who didn’t realize it. Thus, evolved the second reference to the term — a mistake of assumption.

I made my own two-martini type of error last week. I mentioned TED lectures as if they were the CBS news, assuming all my readers would be familiar with the brand. I was so convinced of this that I didn’t catch the error when I went through the usual number of rewrites to my column and it didn’t even occur to me when I was proofreading.

So, for those who are unfamiliar with TED let me correct that now by saying TED is a small nonprofit devoted to their tagline “Ideas Worth Spreading.” It started in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from technology, entertainment and design. Every year, gifted speakers present to an audience in Long Beach, California. Others do the same at a TEDGlobal conference in Oxford, UK.

I’m not quite sure how TED pulls it off — they must have either a strict screening process or incredible training — but all of the speeches I’ve seen online have been fabulous. To learn more, go here.

For those of you who already knew TED, I hold up my error as a cautionary tale. Of course, we all make outright mistakes. A few months ago, for example, I accidentally gave E.B. White the moniker William — the first name of his writing partner Strunk. But it’s even easier to make two-martini errors.

When we do this, we assume that our readers are already going to be familiar with something, so we don’t explain it — as I failed to explain TED. Or we assume they’ll know the meaning of an acronym like SEO, when they don’t. (That’s Search Engine Optimization, by the way.) Or we assume they already have the desire to buy what we want to sell — say new gas-guzzling cars — when in fact, they don’t.

Assumptions are incredibly difficult to deal with because they are, by definition “outside” of our own worldview. So let me give you the secret nugget to editing — the trick I should have employed last week.

When you’ve finished your first draft — and only when you’ve finished it — treat your copy the way one of the detectives in Law and Order would handle a nasty suspect. First, let him wait in a cell for a while. (In your case, set your writing aside in an obscure file on your hard drive.) Then, after a break, turn the lights on high, go slowly and question everything.

As you re-read your own work, try to empty your mind of what you already know and ask yourself “will my readers understand this?” Ask this every paragraph. Every single one!

If I’d done that properly last week, I would have said to myself, “Whoops — not everyone will know about TED — I’d better give a bit of an introduction here.”

Don’t ever fall victim to two martinis. At least not the literary kind.

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