By Niels Footman

“The road to hell,” Stephen King once said, “is paved with adverbs.”

If anyone should know what makes up the approach to eternal damnation, the most successful horror writer of all time is probably your guy. But this quote echoes a wider assertion in communications: there are are a definite set of rules you should observe when writing or speaking to get your message across effectively.

In his fascinating book Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, Ben Blatt put this to the test. By analysing the text in hundreds of classic and/or best-selling novels, Blatt asked whether, for instance, the best writers do in fact use fewer adverbs, or whether they were more sparing in their use of the word “suddenly” (in his 10 Rules Of Writing, Elmore Leonard insisted we should never use this word).

Loads of -ly

The data did indeed suggest some connection between the use of these techniques and the “quality” of the author. While Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway respectively used just 81 and 80 adverbs ending “-ly” per 100,000 words of text, E L James used a whopping 155. As for “suddenly”, while Jane Austen and, er, Elmore Leonard respectively used it eight and nine times per 100,000 words, Dan Brown chalked up a bumper 59 uses.

But here’s the thing. Among the more expected results lurked a few outliers. Jane Austen, for instance, apparently packed 128 -ly adverbs into 100,000 words, while the second-worst offender with “suddenly” was none other than Joseph Conrad, with a honking 71 uses per 100,000.

The Power of Broken Rules

So is the lesson that we should ignore all the rules? Certainly not. Whether in writing or in public speaking, those rules have proved so durable for a reason. At Early Birds, we love to see someone glide around the stage with vim and purpose, looking us in the eye as if addressing us alone, sharing a speech with clear structure and ending with a pointed and witty reference to their opening story.

But once those rules are in place, few things can be so powerful as breaking them.

So hone your craft and remember the rules. But every now and then, don’t be afraid to throw your audience of kilter by turning your back to them, or shocking them with a perfectly timed use of blunt language, or tickling them with a clumsy use of notes for comedic effect.

Because while rules may be the basis for excellent public speaking, occasional bursts of the unexpected are where magic is made