A Sunny Square of Sidewalk

playing on sidewalk

For the past few months, since I was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer, I’ve felt my life contracting. Time is a gift that arrives in little packets, not the vast, mysterious plain it was when I thought I’d live forever. This has happened before… when my children were newborns, for example, and I got to be a stay-at-home mom for a while. Nothing that happened before they were born and nothing that was going to happen when I went back to work mattered much. The only things in sharp focus were the baby and the new routine… warm bathwater, fresh clothes, mealtime, and overpowering love.

These days, metaphorically I’m playing Barbies with little kids in a sunny square of sidewalk. I’ve developed the spontaneous mindfulness of children. My new superpower is the ability to shut off guilt and regret, anxiety, and fear, living inside the spatial perimeter of that square and the temporal boundary of that hour. Physically I’m warmed and comforted by sunlight and toddler kisses.

This works great for me, but people have questions. They want to know what I’m doing about the cancer and what’s going to happen when the chemo stops working. They’d probably like to know how long I’m going to live, too, but, politely, they don’t ask. Still, it seems as if I should care about these questions, and right now I don’t. I have to trust that when I need certain answers, I’ll get them. Meanwhile, I let the questions bounce off my square of sidewalk. Otherwise they interrupt my dancing.

In the weeks and months B.C. (Before Cancer), I fretted. My life seemed too small. Rather than appreciating the sunrises and sunsets I was dependably receiving, I chafed at limitations. I wanted to be out there in the world, doing things, going to concerts, riding my e-bike, waltzing in a pavilion, meeting friends for lunch. Truth be told, I longed to buy a mini-motor home and take to the road. These days (A.D.—After Diagnosis), I’m enchanted by late-summer sounds—katydids, crickets, and the change in the pitch of children’s voices as they wring every drop of joy out of the final days of summer vacation.

A cancer diagnosis has an unexpected cushion: People treat you like you’re special—or maybe you just feel special and people react accordingly. It’s as if they think you’re particularly brave or strong when, really, all you are is unusually conscious. And your cancer gives them something to do to demonstrate their love for you. Trust me on this—every card, letter, phone call, email… every token of friendship… means the world. Don’t for a minute think the little things don’t matter. Maybe they can’t cure cancer, but the hugs warm my heart and the prayers keep me afloat.

To be continued…

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Thoughts during Chemotherapy

Lsuhsc School Of Medicine regarding Can Chemotherapy Cure Lung CancerEveryone is kind here. They smile with their eyes. I’ve known people who bend the corners of their mouth upward mechanically, but not these people. These people are compassionate. They understand why you’d do just about anything to change places with them. And deep down, in a place they might not even be acquainted with, they’re thinking, “I feel bad for you, honey, but you have cancer and I don’t.”

I used to jolt myself out of depression this way. Maybe I was going through the heartbreak of a faithless boyfriend or the despair of an empty bank account, but there was always something worse. “At least,” I told myself smugly, “I don’t have cancer.”

I could hardly bring myself to say “cancer.” It’s an ugly, inelegant word with a flat, midwestern A, like “splat” or “blam.” Why can’t we call it “Piccadilly” or “popsicle”? The announcement, “I was just diagnosed with popsicle” doesn’t sound nearly as ominous as, “My doctor says I have cancer.”

And why do people choose to become oncology nurses? It eludes me. For seventy years I’ve run away from cancer the way mobsters fled from Al Capone. My make-believe world was cancer-free, although fate didn’t always play along. My dad died of a witches’ brew of maladies at the age of 71: Lou Gehrig’s disease, lung cancer, heart failure, and finally a stroke. But I created a cancer-immune bubble around myself and was somehow convinced that—though I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for forty years—I would live to be at least 85 and when I did succumb, it would happen in the middle of a country line dance such as “Cotton Eye Joe” or “Boot-Scootin’ Boogie.”

In any case, no one was more surprised than I was by my lung-cancer diagnosis. There was a period of four or five days between when I began to suspect that I had lung cancer and when it was confirmed. During those few days, I tried it on for size. I stood in front of the mirror, looked my reflected self in the eye, said, “I have lung cancer,” and waited for the tears and hysteria, the weeping, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth. When none of these was forthcoming, I ratcheted it up a bit.

“I have lung cancer and it will probably do me in,” I said to my reflection. Still no emotional breakdown. The best I could come up with was a peevish, “Oh, shit!” Annoyance because my last will and testament was only half completed. Anxiety—the type that comes on when you realize that it’s December 1 and you haven’t started your Christmas shopping. But the only actual trauma I experienced was the sort of knee-jerk panic that happens when you’re in a car accident, before you take attendance and realize that everyone is more or less all right.

I am sad for my friends and family, though I have every intention of lurking around after my demise in such a way as to make their lives interesting, dropping in whimsical surprises now and then. But, try as I might, I can’t work up a sense of tragedy for myself. I’m pretty sure that the change we call “death” is just exactly that—a change leading to a new way of being. I suspect it’s a thrilling ride, but I could be wrong. It could be a huge yawn, or it could be oblivion, which is what it looks like from the outside. Either way, it makes no more sense to fear dying than to fear falling asleep.

The way I see it, quite a few people have died—trillions, probably more—and hardly any of those people have been known to suffer horrendously after death. We do know that chickens run around with their heads cut off for a while after the decapitation has occurred, but that hardly qualifies as suffering. If anything, the chickens seem quite chipper, almost gleeful, as one might feel when one discovers that one can carry on without one’s head for a bit. But being merely operational could get tedious after a while, and we humans are conditioned to aim higher than merely “not suffering.”

Stage 4 lung cancer is not the diagnosis you want if you are a college freshman with aspirations to be a neurosurgeon, but it’s an excellent primer in mindful living. You’re going to live one day at a time whether you want to or not, so you might as well focus most of your attention on the sunny square of sidewalk you’re sitting in, playing Barbies with your grandchildren. Right now I’m perched next to a small machine whose purpose is to poison me without killing me. The machine is dispensing precise amounts of chemicals that are designed to destroy fast-growing cells—cancer cells, but also cells of skin, nails, hair, and bone. This is why I am wearing a wig so obvious it might as well bear a sign that screams “wig” through a bullhorn. I thought I’d have a few weeks to prepare for wearing the wig. I didn’t expect to reach up one day, pat my head, and look down at a hand that might belong to Chewbacca… or to brush at a snarl and find half my hair on the hairbrush.

Fortunately, I had bought a wig about two years ago for no particular reason. Finding myself suddenly and virtually hairless, there was nothing to do except take my wig to the beauty salon, have it trimmed, and emerge as a comparatively hirsute redhead. To tell the truth, the wig looks much better than my real hair, which is thin, gray, limp, lifeless, and—at the moment—absent. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t improve your appearance one-hundred percent by spending $11.11 on eBay. My son Eli sent me a much nicer wig from Amazon, so I now have a go-to wig and a backup—something every moderately vain 70-year-old chemo patient needs if she wants to show her face in public.

I believe in the sort of reincarnation in which you continue to make progress as you move from one life to the next. I hope that one’s hair makes progress too—although it might be that as one grows spiritually one cares less and less what one looks like. Vanity, I believe, is not a hallmark of spiritually advanced life.

To be continued….

Creating News

mike

You’re writing a media release (formerly called a “press release”) announcing the hiring of a new president.

Your opening paragraph might look something like this:

XYZ Corporation is announcing the hiring of Mary Doe as president. Mary has been with Acme Widgets for twelve years, the past six as vice president for product development. She invented the Writing Widget, which surpassed revenue projections by more than 150 percent in the first twelve months….

After you scribble a few more paragraphs about Mary and her background and achievements—having said everything that might be considered pertinent for a media release—you’re ready to edit. As you read what you’ve written, tweaking the vocabulary and correcting the punctuation, you might notice something that many writers of media releases notice when they review their first drafts:

It’s boring. It’s not news. There’s no “hook,” nothing to grab the reader’s attention.

Media releases: What’s news?

Writing a media release is more about promotional savvy than writing skill. The fact that your company has lured Mary away from Acme offers little news value unless Mary is famous, has climbed Mount Everest in a bikini, is 14 years old, or stands out in some other way. Being hired is not newsworthy.

Whatever the anomaly that makes Mary special or her hiring a reason to celebrate, you owe it to your audience to share that information. As you are seeking to serve your readers or listeners, you need to give them something useful, interesting, amusing, or otherwise beneficial. Without that, all you’ve done is throw more words onto the massive pile that grows by the trillions minute by minute. I suspect that all that hot air is the real cause of global warming.

Let’s assume that if there were nothing remarkable about Mary you wouldn’t have hired her. It’s possible, though, that her qualifications are esoteric, not of interest to the general public. If that’s the case, then the newsworthy portion of your media release might be the open house that XYZ Corp is going to host in order to introduce Mary to the community.

Once you’ve etched the bare facts onto your shitty first draft, checked it out to see if it makes its point and that point is worth reading, and revised it if necessary, then it’s time to rewrite—making it succinct, well organized, grammatically correct, and so forth. Finally, ask someone else to look it over for those same attributes. Every company has an employee who seems to have a knack for proofing. Enlist that person’s aid.

The finished product might begin like this:

Meet Mary Doe, the new president of XYZ Corporation and inventor of the Writing Widget, the popular handheld device that supplies instant vocabulary on thousands of topics.

Mary will present five free 30-minute Widget Workshops at the times and places listed below. Sign up and you’ll automatically enter a drawing for a free Writing Widget, a $49 value.

Why is the final media release so different from the first draft? XYZ Corp has wisely determined that Mary’s new job, in itself, has little news value but could be a vehicle for exposure of its hottest product.

Not every media release requires a lot of fanfare. News stories should answer the basic questions—who, what, where, when, why, and how? But you should put all your media releases to the final test—the key question—which is “so what?” If you pass the draft around to colleagues and the typical reaction is a very long yawn, you’d better go back to the drawing board and find a way to pump up your story so that media will be interested enough to print, broadcast, or otherwise disseminate it.

To be continued…


From Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

No, no, no, no, no, no…

pressconference

You and I might speak to one another for an hour and communicate little. Communication doesn’t take place without meaning.

Meaning is information that enriches or expands a basic message. It is a layer of communication, adding dimensions beyond the basic message. Successive layers of meaning go from the concrete to the abstract and often from the universal to the personal, the objective to the subjective.

Everything you write, from a laundry list to an inaugural address, has at least three dimensions of meaning: (a) what it means to you, (b) what it means to your principal audience, and (c) what it means to disinterested bystanders or secondary audiences—your coworkers, for example.

Disinterested, by the way, is not synonymous with uninterested. Disinterested means “neutral” or “uninvolved,” “impartial,” “unbiased.” If you’re a defendant in a jury trial, you want jurors who are disinterested but certainly not uninterested.

Your meaning can be straightforward or complex, but finding the relationship between (a) and (b), with a nod to (c), provides structure and direction as you write.

Remember to aim

The careless writers we’re discussing probably don’t intend to shoot themselves in the foot.  Some might start out organized and sensible but become impatient and a little scared, so they rush the process. Maybe they have a hidden agenda. For whatever reason, they lose sight of the audience; they forget to serve.

Don’t make the same mistake. In a matter of minutes you can put your writing project in perspective, giving it the proper weight and emphasis and improving the odds that your message will be

  • read
  • understood
  • believed
  • persuasive

Maintain that perspective as your work progresses, checking now and then to ensure that your prose is

  • clear and concise
  • free of jargon, convoluted phrases, verbal showing-off
  • consistent with your brand

Use the Writing Wheel

Writing Wheel

As you prepare to write, put yourself in the proper frame of mind.

  • Know what you want to say and why. Develop a clear idea of your purpose, and make sure it’s consistent with your USP or UIS.
  • Determine who your audiences are and how your writing will serve them—even if you’re writing to criticize or complain.
  • Unfailingly address your audiences with respect.
  • Be honest and transparent. Don’t use language to conceal the truth.
  • When writing a first draft, let your writing flow freely. It’s okay—even desirable—to write a “shitty first draft” (see page 23). When you edit, choose your words carefully.
  • Less is usually more—short words, short sentences, short paragraphs show respect for your readers and their attention spans.

Wait! Stop! Back up!

As you were preparing to write, was your message in focus? Did you understand…

  • what you wanted or needed to say [= your meaning]?
  • how your message was relevant to your principal audience [=audience meaning]?
  • whether there were important secondary audiences (colleagues, critics, or competitors, for example) who might construe additional or conflicting meanings?

Ideally, once you’ve decided (a) that you have something worthwhile to say and (b) how and to whom you want to say it, you’ll take whatever time is necessary to determine (c) what it means to your audiences.

Exercise

Read the following scenario and then prepare a message to convey the necessary information. Indicate the medium (or media), delivery methods, transmission schedule, and other details.

Scenario. You’re an elementary-school principal and your message

  • deals with next Wednesday’s early school closing—ninety minutes before the usual bell—due to maintenance requiring that the water be shut off. (Today is Thursday.)
  • must be conveyed to students, parents, teachers and other staff, district administrators, bus drivers, child-care facilities, and all others with a need to know.

What does it mean?

To you, it’s of minor administrative importance, but it could turn into a major bureaucratic headache if not everyone is informed. The meaning from your perspective is initially a matter of penetration.

You’ve identified numerous audiences and you address the matter of perception. Within each audience there might be dozens of interpretations buzzing around. No audience will interpret your message uniformly, but there might be one or two prevalent understandings.

For example—

Students will be thrilled at the prospect of a shorter school day, you think, before it occurs to you that there are a number of kids for whom school is safer and more hospitable than home.

Some parents will enjoy a little extra time with their kids; other parents will have to scramble for child-care arrangements; still others will shrug it off since their children are latchkey kids no matter when the bell rings.

Teachers will have to adjust lesson plans and, if the hour and a half isn’t made up, cram a little more learning into a little less time.

Transportation planners and drivers will have to change bus schedules with an eye to factors such as hour-to-hour traffic patterns and the possibility that some parents will forget to meet the bus ninety minutes earlier.

Just a brief mental scan of students’, parents’, and staff’s attitudes toward school-closing time reminds you that your announcement is far from trivial. Feelings of sympathy might tug at you as you’re drafting the announcement, and your tone becomes softer, less abrupt.

When you see how an apparently simple message can be understood in dozens of ways (not all of which you can realistically consider), accounting for a reasonable variety of interpretations will automatically become part of your writing process.

Getting their attention

There will be other times when some or all of your message will be of scant interest to your audience. Be prepared to improve your communication or, starting from scratch, to rethink the relevance of your message. To do neither is a declaration of war.

Maybe you’re required by law to inform parents about school-board meetings. Maybe half of them don’t care. You can’t make them care, but you can (a) embed the meeting details in announcements of popular sports events and concerts; (b) place relevant topics on the board’s agenda; or (c) format the school-board notice like an ad, keeping it brief and eye-catching… among other creative approaches.

If you mean to be understood, your writing will address the various levels of interest and understanding among your audiences.

If you have communicated clearly and respectfully, and your audience understands but rejects your message, don’t blame your writing. Knowing about a particular audience’s distaste for your point of view  doesn’t obligate you to satisfy that audience’s appetite.

You don’t have to do all the work. Your readers can be expected to meet you partway. It’s your job to figure out how far they’ll advance and on which path.

Good writing is the truth as you know it that communicates as intended. It’s as much a matter of how it’s received as how it’s delivered. Whether your writing is “correct” in terms of grammar and mechanics, whether it’s clever, whether it’s lyrical… these are secondary considerations, less important than clarity, respect, and honesty.

Postscript

Consider nonverbal factors in written and public forums. There are dozens of potential sources of interference that can weaken your message. A few examples:

  • the paper you print on
  • the delivery method
  • parking availability at your venue
  • your fragrance
  • a preexisting relationship with your audience; in particular,
  • a hostile audience (a situation that might require your defusing of the situation ahead of time)

Early-closing announcement

Do you need to prepare more than one announcement? If so, how many, and to whom  will you address your messages?

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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What media will you use? (Letter, convocation, school PA system, weekly newsletter, and so on)

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How will you transmit your message or messages? (Send home with students, U.S. mail, broadcast, and so forth)

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When will you transmit your message or messages? (For example, send first announcement immediately with reminder the day before the early closing.)

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Text

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How well does your audience know you?

Apart from the content of your message, being liked and respected by a large and expanding audience will contribute to your persuasiveness and further your objectives.

You might make any number of assumptions, correct or otherwise, about me and my spoken message based on, for example,

  • eye contact and other body language
  • the site I choose—meeting you for coffee or treating you to lunch at a swank restaurant
  • my slovenly appearance or expensive manicure and wardrobe
  • my age, gender, cultural background, accent

These factors are differently understood across cultures and send unintended messages, only some of which I can control.

In written communication, examples of nonverbal cues about me and my message include:

  • communication medium—text message, email, snail mail
  • type of paper
  • visual presentation—design, illustrations

A note about nonprofits: I am often perplexed by fundraisers’ lavish appeals, and am less likely to be persuaded by slick, expensive-looking pamphlets than by well-written, -designed, and -presented one-color appeals on, say, matte recycled 24-pound stock.

Fundraising professionals have told me that their wealthy target donors expect, and respond more favorably to, slick, glossy, full-color pamphlets. I believe, however, that creative, resourceful writers and designers get the job done without appearing to waste money better spent on the charitable cause they represent.

A positive relationship with your audience has impact at many levels and over time and is a huge factor in how well you communicate. Remember that when it comes to your audience, there is no hard line between your public self and your private self. If you are well known, a public figure, perhaps, and are observed manhandling your weeping toddler in public, it can undo much of your good communication work.

Be accessible and transparent. Your reputation matters. Your secrets matter even more.

“Wait a minute!” you might be thinking. “Are you trying to tell me that my personal life and emotional stability have an effect on how well I write a business letter or an instruction manual?”

You bet. I’m telling you that your attitude toward other people—those you know and those you don’t—shows up loud and clear in what you write and how you write it. Those classified ads on page 11 and page 39 might have been written by bullies, deeply insecure individuals who get a power jab by throwing jargon around like dice on a Monopoly board.

“But… but… but…” (that’s you, spluttering), “my personal life is nobody’s business.”

That might very well be true, in principle. But many experienced CEOs have set up employee assistance plans and offer other fringe benefits geared toward helping staff with financial and mental-health issues. They know how personal problems affect employee performance.

Happy, healthy employees are better workers in all areas of their jobs, but their attitudes are especially evident in their writing because it reveals so much to so many, and also because it’s on the record. So, yes, the quickest way to improve an employee’s writing might be to arrange for marriage counseling.

How well do you know your audience?

It’s my belief that the best writers and speakers know (at least via research and personal knowledge of representative populations), respect, even love their audiences. With some exceptions, they don’t brandish their bylines or trumpet their credentials. First-class public speaking and writing invite civilized human interaction, not armed conflict.

Let’s work with the assumption that the better you know your audience and consciously use that knowledge in developing your message, the more effective your communication will be… and vice versa.

In January 1999, at city hall in Washington, D.C., this incident took place (as reported in the Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 1999):

David Howard, the mayor’s white ombudsman, said he would have to be “niggardly” with the scarce funds in the department’s budget. One of his two interlocutors, Marshall Brown, who is black, left the room in anger. Mr. Howard offered his resignation, and Mayor Anthony Williams accepted it.

Niggardly means “stingy,” but what it very likely meant to Marshall Brown is that his colleague lacked the character and the class to avoid using a word that sounds like a racial slur. That particular word sears the air like a lightning strike when used unexpectedly and publicly.

An example of the opposite approach—hypersensitivity to cultural identity—was hilariously portrayed on the immortal Jimmy Smits Saturday Night Live  sketch “Enchilada” (season 16, 1990), in which NBC  News employees (played by Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and Julia Sweeney) overenunciate Spanish words such as enchilada in the presence of the new Hispanic economics correspondent (Jimmy Smits), who speaks… well, like the Anglo guy next door.

You don’t have to be your audience to know your audience. Oscar Wilde had it on the nose when he said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

No, no, no, no, no…

When the powerful are addressing the comparatively powerless, they would do well to study their audience exhaustively. A wealthy politician talking to or about the poor is entering a mine field, as Mitt Romney discovered during his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2012.

“I’m in this race because I care about Americans,” he told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien during a February 1 interview.

“I’m not concerned about the very poor—we have a safety net there,” he said. “If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich—they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 to 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

Whatever came after “I’m not concerned about the very poor” was lost in the booming echo of that thoughtless statement. Apart from the obvious—if the “safety net” were working, there would be no “very poor”—Romney required less than ten seconds to disenfranchise nearly 50 million food-bank-dependent Americans by excluding them from “the very heart of America”—whatever that means.

Later that day, Romney told reporters on his campaign plane that the statement about his lack of concern for the very poor was taken out of context.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I — no, no,” he said. “You’ve got to take the whole sentence, all right, as opposed to saying, and then change it just a little bit, because then it sounds very different. I’ve said throughout the campaign my focus, my concern, my energy is gonna be devoted to helping middle-income people, all right?”

Oh, dear. Romney doesn’t come off well here. He entered a mine field without sweeping it first. He’d forgotten a key rule of communication—respect. An honest admission—”I have no idea what it’s like to be poor, but I intend to find out”—would have served him better, though it would backfire if he didn’t follow through.

Contrast Romney’s credibility among the poor with that of President Jimmy Carter. According to the organization Habitat for Humanity,

[President and Mrs. Carter]… have seen firsthand the effects of poor living conditions….Throughout their involvement with the Carter Work Project, President and Mrs. Carter have become tireless advocates, active fundraisers, and some of our best hands-on construction volunteers…. To date, President and Mrs. Carter have served with over 92,260 volunteers in 14 countries to build, renovate and repair 3,944 homes. They have also made quite an impression on thousands of Habitat homeowners and volunteers.

—www.habitat.org

You don’t have to be elected president or build four thousand houses to gain credibility among the disadvantaged. You do need to know enough about any audience to address its members with respect. That might mean becoming familiar with intricacies of culture, environment, needs, and interests.

Addressing a hostile audience

If you are a chief of police speaking to the black community after a racially charged incident, nonverbal factors are as important as what is said, maybe more so. If you have scheduled a news conference, for example…

First, seek to serve. Open your mind and be willing to learn. No matter what your position, don’t insult your audience by riding on your stature.

Defuse the situation in advance, if possible. Lay the groundwork ahead of time through small meetings at schools and churches. Go to them; don’t make them come to you. Ideally, you will already have strong relationships with community leaders.

Blur the line between “us” and “them.”

  • Be transparent; toss out your hidden agenda, if you have one. Be generous with information.
  • Recruit respected individuals from the black community to support your intention to reach consensus.
  • Ask them to write even-handed op-ed pieces for local media. Messages from different sources will resonate differently.
  • At meetings and news conferences, don’t stand, figuratively or literally, at a pulpit, and don’t insulate yourself with your cronies.
  • Distribute an agenda (the printed kind, not the hidden kind) and include contact information.

Your starting place should be how the audience feels right now. Articulate their position as you understand it. Then move with them, step by step, to consensus. Try to reach agreement on each step before moving to the next. You might move through the steps with statements like these:

  1. Of course you’re angry. Decent human beings are right to oppose injustice.
  2. We can’t undo what has happened. We can take action to see that it doesn’t happen again.
  3. We all want to feel safe in our environment.
  4. What needs to happen for you to feel that justice has been done?
  5. What needs to happen for you to feel safe in your community?

Continue in this vein, using “active listening,” validating people’s feelings even if you disagree with their opinions, and showing willingness to compromise. Keep moving through the agenda, offering opportunities for future communication in writing or at additional meetings.

Depending on the setting, you might want to use the brainstorming technique of recording all ideas on a flip pad without comment, no matter how impractical or absurd some of them might be.

Record, transcribe, and distribute proceedings of meetings; include assignments, action steps, and contact information.

More nonverbal ways to respect your audience:

  • If at all possible, avoid conducting meetings on stormy nights or during the Super Bowl.
  • Ensure adequate parking and seating.
  • Keep the venue at a comfortable room temperature.
  • Use a wireless microphone with someone to carry it to those who wish to speak. It keeps things orderly and discourages outbursts.
  • You’ll need more elaborate arrangements for larger meetings; for example, collect names before the meeting starts, have speakers step up to a stationary microphone, limit speaking time.

To be continued…


From Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

 

 

 

All about Attitude

woman at typewriter

Communicators have a reason to be cranky

In 2012 I started revising my 2007 writers’ guide and changing the world… beginning with my target readership: entrepreneurs, managers, executives, educators, and other people who aren’t professional writers but whose work requires writing, public speaking, or both. They do (at a guess) 25 percent of the writing that shows up on the Internet, in letters and reports, in certain periodicals, in government documents, and in other settings—though many are reluctant writers who would rather be doing almost anything else. They don’t like to write, they tell me, adding that writing takes them away from the work they were trained for, which might be medicine, architecture, R & D, client consultation, or sales calls.

For the last forty years I’ve been working with nonwriters who have to write. Though many would rather not and are perfectly happy to give the job to someone else, others believe that they write well… or at least well enough. They do a fair job of arranging words on pages, I’ll grant, though few of these architects and educators and executives consistently communicate well in writing.

This is bad news. It means that there are millions of writers who are certain that their work is being read and understood, and millions of readers who think that they’re getting the information they need, and nearly all are mistaken, and it’s making them cranky.

An act of love…

If you write much at all, you might have found that writing to communicate with anyone—from your mom to your constituents—begins as an act of love and courage: love for the values and goals that move you to write… love for your readers, perhaps… and courage to tell the truth to a reading (or listening) audience of a single relative or ten million strangers.

Some writing is motivated by fear—the flip side of love. But implicit in fear is the loss of what is loved—life, liberty, ease, and the power to choose. Writing that stems from fear can be an attempt to clobber readers with weighty clumps of words arranged in perplexing disorder and leaving the reader disgusted, confused, or resigned… possibly intimidated into compliance by the narrative’s sheer bulk and heavy-handed vocabulary. When I started creating websites, using software that was simpler than your basic word processor, I discovered that my clients—unfamiliar with the technology geek’s deceptively thorny lexicon—were convinced that websites were far too complicated to be attempted with their (my clients’) meager skill sets.

That strategy works for a while, until a savvier entrepreneur comes along with a product that is genuinely serviceable and understandable. The innovator’s clientele remains grateful and keeps shelling out reasonable fees for upgrades and support as long as the seller stays focused on service rather than deception. Just ask the purchasers of 80 million Macintosh computers.

Writing is visual talking

If you write letters, proposals, reports, news releases, and other ordinary documents—even if you write well by business standards—you might be missing an opportunity to convey friendliness, respect, empathy… traits that in conversation you intuitively transmit. (If you’re prone to writers’ block, you might actually want to use dictation equipment instead of drafting at a keyboard.)

Some writers say that they feel naked in print much as some performers do onstage, so they use sarcasm, untruths, hyperbole, and obscure vocabulary (jargon) as barriers or disguises. Clever writers develop signature strategies for commanding and abusing a sort of transient power long enough to impress, perhaps ultimately to control, well-targeted audiences.  Multiply one writer’s power by the billions of documents—electronic and otherwise—produced daily on the planet, and you can see how cynicism creeps so slyly into our unconscious attitudes.

View writing as essentially a long-cherished and protected form of human interaction, however, and sarcasm comes across not as clever but as ugly… a huge verbal sneer, or worse. So let’s turn it around.

No matter how trivial the medium and homely the message, writing presents continual and abundant opportunities to convey beauty and serenity, joy and excitement, or comfort and compassion. Apply the math to those opportunities, let a smile be your palette, and in a single day feel the world hum with a more hopeful, peaceful, whimsical vibration.

This is no joke!

Research for the new edition of my writers’ guide turned up a fascinating bit of data: Bad writing is more harmful than many of us understood. We thought that a particular business plan, editorial, annual report, or media release was merely annoying… overwritten, stuffed with jargon and buzzwords, or merely inexplicable. But did we understand that the writer wasn’t feeling friendly toward us readers… that being in something of a snit caused her to rely more on power than on honesty and charm to win us over… and that it wasn’t working?

When a given piece of writing goes horribly wrong, it might not be purely out of the writer’s ignorance or inexperience. This morning’s five-minute whirlwind tour of websites turned up a dozen examples of writing styles that in my view are offensive and misleading. The meanings are skewed, clarity is absent, and communication opportunities are wasted. I chose to illustrate this point with examples of corporate-speak and memes because they appeared more than once, and because they’re easy to recognize. You’ve already been treated to a few such dollops, including the medical center’s help-wanted ad in the introduction to this book (page 11). Here’s another:

Sample 1: Corporate-speak — buzzwords and jargon

At base level, this just comes down to systemized reciprocal contingencies. The consultants recommend responsive monitored matrix approaches. It’s time to revamp and reboot our outside-the-box administrative paradigm shifts. We need a more contemporary reimagining of our integrated relative innovation. This is no time to bite the bullet with our knowledge-based policy capability.

What picture is painted here? I see a weary bureaucracy with a thesaurus. I see a shallow and murky answer to the essential marketing question why should I do business with you rather than your competitors?

This common and tedious business-writing style actually holds readers at arm’s length and fails, I believe, to forward the writer’s objectives. Beyond that, there’s a sly animus that I find in much of the writing for public audiences and that might fuel the polarities and feelings of isolation many find troubling… by way of the sample’s

  • patronizing tone and attitude (I’m smart and you’re not, so I can feed you this word salad though it lacks both flavor and substance)
  • unfamiliar or esoteric vocabulary
  • overwriting, clumsy verbiage, “stringing”

Sample 2: Memes infiltrate minds

I’m especially interested these days in the effect of “memes”—common perceptions or assumptions similar to “sweeping generalizations.”

Heard on the radio recently —

  • We live in a swamp of greed and materialism.
  • The parents of your generation didn’t understand the importance of children’s self-esteem.
  • Most people don’t notice or care about the homeless.

In my experience, there’s not much you could say about “most people” that would be accurate, unless you’ve actually looked into “most people’s” eyes while personally interviewing “most people.” Bogus statistics and unsubstantiated trends become “public knowledge” when introduced with words and phrases such as everybody and most people or the pronoun we (antecedent unclear). Similar results can be achieved with headlines that readers fail to examine. The 2008 headline “Teen pregnancy numbers are skyrocketing!” appeared when the number of teen pregnancies had actually reached a record low—42 percent of the 1990 figure.

During my high-school and college years in the 1960s, journalism and English instructors decried sweeping generalizations and unsubstantiated statistics wherever they appeared. I was among the students who lost points for all manner of fuzziness in the assignments we turned in, exemplified by unsubstantiated “facts” about “our society” and “our culture” as in the following:

  • What’s wrong with society today? …Smartphones have taken over our lives. —digitalsynopsis.com
  • Unfortunately, Americans today are obsessed with losing weight. Everybody wants to be thin!  —brightkite.com
  • We live in a toxic culture. —Michael Neill, Supercoach, Hay House Radio
  • With the traditional homeless population, we turn a blind eye. We tell ourselves, and our friends, that these people just need to get a job. —GrantCountyBeat.com

Allegations such as these (a) foster cynicism and distrust within “our culture” (whatever that might be), and (b) mislead readers, being wholly or partially inaccurate. If I were editing this woolly writing, I’d recommend that the writers (a) define everybody, we, our, society, culture, and Americans today, and (b) include data and other documentation, both supporting and examining the claims.

What is “our culture” anyway? Who, exactly, are the citizens of “our society”? I’ve yet to see a “typical” human being. As an individual, I experience radically different cultures from zip code to zip code, in universities and factories, and across state and county lines. It’s probably nearer the mark to say that we live in a stew of cultures that are continually splashing over into one another without ever congealing into “a thing” that can be packaged and sold.

It occurs to me that many writers use phrases such as these at least occasionally when what they really mean is “popular media.” Magazines, movies, and television programs and commercials might glamorize skinny girls with generous bosoms. In the world I live in, however, young women who are overweight greatly outnumber the curvy or the pathologically thin.

I wonder how many casual readers or listeners infer that they are living in an impersonal, uncaring, even malevolent oligarchy. Feeling powerless, do they retaliate by padding insurance claims or understating taxable income on their annual returns? Cheating their nameless, faceless enemies is justified, isn’t it, since these very enemies exploit women and ignore the homeless. Don’t they?

Sure, to some extent… but don’t tell the National Coalition for the Homeless, which helps millions of Americans obtain short- and long-term housing as well as furniture, food, education, healthcare, and other goods and services. The implication that the societal evils cited are pervasive is a bayonet thrust, much unprovoked, into the ranks of all who respect women, support human rights, and work on behalf of the homeless.

Who are ‘we’?

My advice: Be very careful with the use of the generic pronouns you (your, yours) and we (us, our, ours) and phrases that begin with most people or most of us or just people.

The popular astrologer Mark Hussan made this statement on the air:

We are run by fear. We are controlled by fear-makers…. Most of us have not a single-digit clue….

—Mark Husson, Power Peek Hour,
Hay House Radio, September 11, 2012

When I hear we and most of us used in this way, I am instantly predisposed to quarrel with whatever follows unless it’s patently self-evident, as in, “Most of us are unlikely to be mistaken for pomegranates.”

The late Hay House founder Louise Hay—who should have known better—made the statement “Most people work at jobs they don’t like” on ThisIsAWar.com. And there’s this from Rush Limbaugh: “Work is how most people identify themselves” (The Rush Limbaugh Show, June 22, 2012).

Hay’s and Limbaugh’s assertions are, in my opinion, particularly dangerous in that they don’t send up warning flags. Uncritical readers might well let pass an assertion that most people don’t like their jobs—which, it turns out, is false, at least according to a 2017 Gallup Poll indicating that 51 percent of U.S. employees are “not engaged” with their jobs… barely more than half, which means that the other half are fairly satisfied or thrilled to pieces in the workplace.

Regarding Limbaugh’s assertion, I couldn’t find confirmation more specific than “Americans often identify themselves through their jobs” (Guttmacher Institute, February 2012).

Well, it sounded true

According to the Writing Center at UNC–Chapel Hill, it’s easy to slip into untruthfulness without realizing it, especially if you have strong feelings about your topic. The Writing Center lists about a dozen common types of fallacies to watch for in your own writing or others’, including…

Hasty generalizations—Example: Christians are hypocrites.

Missing the point—Example: The U.S. constitution mandates separation of church and state, so no one should be allowed to pray in state-owned facilities.

Post hoc (false cause)—Example: Ninety-five percent of people who smoke weed also drink milk; therefore, milk-drinking causes pot-smoking.

Slippery slope, a chain of worst-case outcomes—Example: (As an argument for forced sterilization) Girls who get pregnant in high school tend to drop out of school and get minimum-wage jobs that don’t pay enough to support their babies, so they become prostitutes, sell drugs, use drugs, and give birth to crack babies.

Weak analogyExample: Tough is pronounced like “tuff,” so through must be pronounced “thruff.”

Ad hominemExample: Physicist Stephen Hawking doesn’t believe in God. Dr. Hawking is the smartest guy on the planet, so God is a myth. (The flaws here are numerous, including:  [a] not all truth is scientifically accessible; [b] Stephen Hawking might or might not be the most intelligent among the highly visible scientists in his field; [c] many brilliant people—some of them scientists—do  believe in God. Another kind of ad hominem fallacy dismisses a premise because someone vile—say, Adolph Hitler—believes it. Thus, for example, Hitler was not an atheist; he was evil and insane; thus, people who believe in God are evil, insane, and certainly not credible.)

Ad populum—Example: (a) There is a God, according to the 89 percent of the world’s population who adhere to some sort of religion. (b) And what about atrocities committed in the name of God—the Inquisition, the Crusades, Jihad?  (Rebuttal: [a] Sometimes, the whole world is wrong. At some point in the distant past, virtually 100 percent of the earth’s population believed that the earth was flat, if they thought about it at all. [b] Atrocities committed “in the name of God” are generally about divergent religious beliefs; religion and God are not identical.)

There are dozens of types of fallacies floating around, and you’ll often find one or more mixed with statements that are demonstrably true. The story below has elements of truth and falsehood that are hard to separate. Data that apply to the larger group of six- to nine-year-olds are manipulated such that they seem relevant to the six-year-olds taken separately. The qualifier 68 percent of [group] is paraphrased and positioned as most of [group].

What does “most of…” actually mean? Three-fourths? Eighty-five percent? Ninety-nine and 44/100ths percent, as in the old Ivory soap ad campaign? What do you think?

Why 6-Year-Old Girls Want to Be Sexy (Study)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/17/6-year-old-girls-sexy_n_1679088.html

Most girls as young as 6 are already beginning to think of themselves as sex objects, according to a new study of elementary school-age kids in the Midwest….

Psychologists at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., used paper dolls to assess self-sexualization in 6- to 9-year-old girls. Sixty girls were shown two dolls, one dressed in tight and revealing “sexy” clothes and the other wearing a trendy but covered-up, loose outfit.

Using a different set of dolls for each question, the researchers then asked each girl to choose the doll that: (a) looked like herself, (b) looked how she wanted to look, (c) was the popular girl in school, (d) she wanted to play with.

Across the board, girls chose the “sexy” doll most often. The results were significant in two categories: 68 percent of the girls said the doll looked how she wanted to look, and 72 percent said she was more popular than the nonsexy doll.

The data simply don’t support the sensational claim. Sixty-eight percent of the 6- to 9-year-olds studied hardly equates to most 6-year-old girls. Preferring the “sexy” doll doesn’t equate to “thinking of… [oneself] as a sex object.” But I suspect that many readers take news stories such as this one at face value, as I too often do. We don’t give them more time or scrutiny than the usual cues prompt us to. Why should we? We don’t expect to have to read the Huffington Post with a microscope.

To be continued….


From Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

Why Me?

hdson-sales-crew

Why should I do business with you instead of somebody else?

What is your organization’s unique selling proposition (USP)? Generally, companies try to attract customers based on some combination of price, quality, and convenience. If your product or service isn’t the cheapest and it’s not the most convenient, then it had better be the best. Are you the best at what you do, at least in your niche? Is that niche well defined? Most important, do your employees understand it?

Note: The USP principle applies whether you are selling a product or service, an idea, a thesis, or yourself. The question remains: Why should I believe you rather than someone else who is making a comparable claim? Why should I hire you instead of another applicant? Why should I accept the premise of your essay? In fact, why should I even read what you’ve written? If USP stands for “unique selling proposition,” UIS can be an abbreviation for “unique identity statement.”

Note that USP and UIS are initialisms, not acronym.s. An acronym is pronounceable as a word. UNICEF is an acronym, as is NASA. When acronyms get comfortably embedded in the language, and they represent phrases that don’t require initial caps, they tend to go lower-case—hence radar for “radio detection and ranging,” laser for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” and snafu for “situation normal, all f***ed up.”

The fact is, people tend to do business with you because they like you. There’s nothing wrong with that, but likability alone isn’t usually enough to ensure long-term success.

Define your USP

Develop a USP (or UIS) that’s easy to understand. Your USP will be the basis for most of your communication: advertising, promotion, media releases, annual reports, correspondence, and so forth. Your writing tasks become easier when you are thoroughly and habitually aware of your organization’s identity (or your own).

Your USP might be similar to but not identical with your mission statement. If you are a home-health-care provider, for example, your mission might be “to help people with health challenges feel comfortable, safe, and as independent as possible in their own homes… to offer comprehensive home-health services delivered by loving, experienced, and continuously trained companions… to attract and retain the most skilled and experienced caregivers… to establish mutually beneficial relationships within the healthcare community…” and so forth.

Not so long ago I thought mission statements were a waste of time. Most of the mission statements I had seen were puffballs of verbosity, loaded with jargon and largely ignored in the organization’s day-to-day operation. But I now believe that developing a mission statement, like writing a business plan, can help a company pinpoint its USP—its reason for being and its advantages over the competition.

The sample mission statement above, however, doesn’t qualify as a USP. It could be a mission statement for any home-health-care provider. It doesn’t specify what sets you apart. It doesn’t answer the question “Why should I do business with your company and not XYZ Inc. down the street?” Among the criteria of (a) price, (b) service, and (c) convenience, where do you excel?

As a marketing consultant, I once spent six months helping “ABC Interior Design” improve its proposals… which were lackluster, to say the least. The firm had a stunning portfolio. Especially lovely were the church interiors—naves, chapels, and parlors, all gloriously yet tastefully appointed. But not one of the designers could state the company’s USP. Other firms had pretty pictures, too. In fact, three of the five lead designers had worked for the competition.

Finally, Jane, one of the three interns, mentioned that ABC was known in the profession as the best firm to work for. The corporate culture was fun and easygoing. Every so often the boss would declare “Pizza Day” and drive across town to the metro area’s primo pizzeria, paying out of pocket for luscious pies that honored every individual preference, from gluten-free to grease-soaked. In every respect, ABC treated its employees like solid gold, promoting and paying generously, understanding that relationships were the key to success and that loyal longtime employees were the key to relationships.

To broadcast this attribute, I set up a newsletter for clients, suppliers, and “strategic partners”—architects, engineers, and landscapers—highlighting personalities and relationships.

The “relationships” theme was incorporated into ABC’s branding and permeated the company culture. Hostility on the job—backbiting, unhealthy competitiveness—was nipped in the bud. The company even offered workshops on developing and sustaining positive personal relationships outside the workplace. Recognizing the need for balance, ABC’s culture and benefits were family-friendly. No employee ever had to worry that staying home with a sick kid might cost him his job.

Exercise

Summarize your organization’s USP or your UIS.

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Product strategies? Off with their heads!

Craigslist handed me a beautiful gift the other day—a help-wanted ad that’s more ridiculous than one I could make up. Like many ads written in corporate-speak, it expresses a preference for applicants who “exhibit strong written & verbal communication skills” that are so plainly absent in the ad itself.

Note: By verbal, the writer probably means spoken. It’s common to see the phrase “verbal agreement,” as if any agreement expressed in words—written or spoken—were not verbal. But I pick nits, when there’s so much more to bewail in this misguided verbal-communication endeavor.

Hyphens do matter, as “exhibited” in phrases such as “cross portfolio strategies” and “cross functional stakeholders.” If there’s anything worse than a functional stakeholder, it’s an irritable functional stakeholder, I always say, when I’m talking about stakeholders of any stripe—something I go out of my way to avoid. But maybe that’s because I lack the ability to “evolve strategic & tactical elements based on research, data, & industry trends.” Perhaps one can learn to evolve such elements only in “highly matrixed” organizations. Most of my experience has evolved in organizations with lowly matrixes. I suspect I’ve even “executed collateral among stakeholders” in matrix-deficient organizations. Let’s have that be our little secret, if you don’t mind. I might need to pull the matrix card in a job interview some day.

As buzzwords go, transparency is a useful one, and this ad is anything but transparent. An organization that’s transparent doesn’t have a lot of secrets, knowing that secrets are not good for business. They’re like roaches, hiding in the dark, skittering around only when they think they won’t be noticed. Eventually someone turns a light on and they run for cover, but it’s too late. They’ve been found out.

Transparency is not served by jargon, which gives the impression that the writer is more interested in showing off—exhibiting power—than in telling a story, answering a question, or solving a problem.

Below you’ll find (a) the ad, (b) my reaction, some of which I shared in a friendly, helpful way with the advertiser, and (c) an excerpt from the Harvard Business Review Guide to Better Business Writing, whose author gleefully deplores the sort of verbiage you’re about to read… if you have the stomach for it.

The Ad

Organization seeks Marketing Specialist who supports the execution of product strategies and cross portfolio strategies and works with moderate guidance across businesses to create and execute supporting communications. 

  • Assists in the design, development, editing & execution of marketing messaging & collateral including advertisements, direct mail & technical information for targeted audiences in conjunction with internal marketing team and external agencies, including LMR processes and requirements. 

Skills: 

  • Understands the sales budgeting process and participates in the prioritization of tactics.
  • Exhibit strong written & verbal communication skills along with excellent interpersonal skills.
  • Demonstrated strategic thinking, initiative, and creativity.
  • Show agility with a proven ability to evolve strategic & tactical elements based on research, data & industry trends.
  • Demonstrated problem solving and analytical skills.
  • Demonstrated ability to work with cross functional stakeholders. OR. Demonstrated ability to work in a highly matrixed organization.
  • Proven track record of achieving goals. OR. Proven track record of meeting financial and other quantitative goals.
  • Demonstrated success working in a team environment.Critique

Critique

The ad reads as if it’s meant to test your knowledge of industry jargon. For example, if you don’t know what LMR stands for, evidently you need not apply. I had to look it up, and there are several definitions, not all of them printable. It could be “late-model restoration.” “Labor-management relations” is more likely, but without knowing the industry it’s hard to say. And the industry is only one of the secrets this inscrutable ad fails to communicate. The unwritten message is that this potential employer holds all the cards, some of which might be revealed if you make the cut. It’s a bullying sort of prose that hints at a bullying sort of employer. Self-important, verbally bloated, jargon-laden—these traits don’t speak well of the company. How can management possibly hire sensible people with ads like this? “Cross functional stakeholders”?  “Highly matrixed organization”? Seriously?

The day after I espied this ridiculous ad, I lambasted it on my blog with a link to a first-rate article from the Harvard Business Review, which, among other things, bemoans the use of jargon in business communication. Here’s an excerpt:

A Bizspeak Blacklist

It’s mission-critical to be plain-spoken, whether you’re trying to be best-of-breed at outside-the-box thinking or simply incentivizing colleagues to achieve a paradigm shift in core-performance value-adds. Leading-edge leveraging of your plain-English skill set will ensure that your actionable items synergize future-proof assets with your global-knowledge repository.

Just kidding.

Seriously, though, it’s important to write plainly. You want to sound like a person, not an institution. But it’s hard to do, especially if you work with people who are addicted to buzzwords. It takes a lot of practice….

[Below is]… an “index expurgatorius,” a roster of [undesirable buzzwords and jargon.] [Ed. note: (a) A few of these terms are occasionally useful and even necessary. Strategic alliance, for example, is a good term for a temporary partnership, and synergy is the only word I know of that describes how such a partnership can yield benefits greater than would be achieved by the two organizations separately.  (b) I have added jargon examples from other sources.]

actionable (apart from legal                action)

agreeance

as per

at the end of the day

back of the envelope

bandwidth (apart from elec   tronics)

best of breed

best practices

boil the ocean

bring our A game

bring to the table

business model

buy-in

c-level

centers of excellence

circle back around

circle with

client-centered

close the loop

come-to-Jesus

componentize

deliverables

descope

dial-in

dialogue with

disintermediate

disambiguate

disincent

drill down

drink the Kool-Aid

ducks in a row

eating your own dog food

facetime

forward initiative

functionality

gain traction

going forward

go-live

go rogue

granular, granularity

harvesting efficiencies

heads-up

helicopter view

impact (verb)

impactful

incent

incentivize

instantiate

kick the can down the road

leapfrog

learnings

let’s do lunch

let’s take this offline

level the playing field

leverage (verb)

level set

liaise

long-pole item

loop in, keep in the loop

low-hanging fruit

mindshare

mission-critical

monetize

net-net

operationalize

out of pocket (apart from
reference to expenses)

paradigm shift

parameters

planful

push the envelope

pursuant to

putting lipstick on a pig

recontextualize

rightsize

scalable

seamless integration

seismic shift (apart from
reference to earthquake)

smartsized

strategic alliance

strategic dynamism

synergize

think outside the box

throw it against the wall and see if it sticks

throw under the bus

turnkey

under the radar

utilization, utilize

value-added

verbage (the correct term is   verbiage—in reference only    to verboseness)

where the rubber meets the road

win-win

 

—February 2013. Bryan A. Garner’s blog series on business writing draws on advice in his book The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

 ——————————————-

from Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

 

 

 

 

 

 

Show Up, Not Off

photographic-van

I and Thou

You can write with joy, efficiency, clarity, kindness, and stylewhile you support your organization’s image and reinforce its brand… or you can bumble along, communicating awkwardly, putting off writing tasks or paying people like me $60 an hour or more to do them for you.

Whether you are writing to

  1. tell a story,
  2. answer a question, or
  3. solve a problem,

if you begin with respect for your reader (or listener), the job is half done. It really is that simple.

The flip side of helping is hostile. I’m not going to use this space to explain why we don’t need more hostility in the world or why companies perceived as hostile tend not to thrive. Let’s agree to agree on those points and move on.

You keep your readers at arm’s length—or  worse, put them off altogether—by being

  1. untruthful
  2. secretive
  3. unavailable
  4. incoherent
  5. unfocused

I have been asked, as a marketer, to be all these things—to concoct a stew of jargon, half-truths, smoke, and superlatives and feed it to a skeptical public—usually to sell a product or service that was touted as “exciting” but barely achieved “ordinary.” In my experience, through dozens of marketing campaigns, we were more successful when our promises were realistic and our products were outstanding.

Tell the truth

I have sat in on a least a dozen meetings whose purpose was to design the message that callers hear when they are placed on HOLD. In these meetings, very little attention was given to the text. We spent much more time listening to different speakers and registering our opinions: Should the voice be masculine or feminine? High or low? Soothing or animated? How many different messages should we record? Should there be music between them? What genre? Jazz? What sort of jazz? Be-bop? Cool jazz? Swing?

While we were parked in meetings, minutely critiquing various voices (Too squeaky. Sounds angry. Slight lisp), we failed to notice that the message itself was plainly, obviously, patently a lie. We knew it was a lie, because if it were not a lie there would be no need for it, no justification for its existence, no meetings to evaluate tonal qualities and calculate the optimal length of time between repetitions.

What was that message?

Your call is important to us

I heard this message at least thirty times just this morning, during two calls to the optical department at Shopko. A few months ago I got a new prescription for bifocals. Last week I received the frames I ordered from eBay. I called my regular eye clinic about filling the prescription, but the optician told me that my insurance is no longer accepted there. “Try Shopko,” he suggested.

Called Shopko, spoke with Stacey, and learned that Shopko would indeed fill my prescription, at no charge. Hurray. Open seven days a week. Hallelujah.

Darn! Forgot to ask whether I needed an appointment. Called back. Stacey must have gone to lunch and everyone else was evidently “busy helping other customers,” because I was placed on HOLD. Not to worry, though. My call was important to them.

My call was, in fact, so significant that they felt compelled to tell me so every ten or twelve seconds. Due to a glitch in the recording, sometimes two voices at once told me how much they cared. Call me cranky, but after five or six repetitions, the more times they told me I was important, the less important I felt.

The missing link

After all, I thought my call was important to CenturyLink last week, when I reported that my Internet connection wasn’t working. I spent the better part of four days on HOLD with CenturyLink, and they told me my call was important to them, too—although they wouldn’t mind at all if I were to hang up and conduct my business online. I’d still be important.

The first automated voice you hear when you call CenturyLink is probably familiar to anyone who has had a “land line” in the past twenty years. I call the voice “Kirk,” because he sounds like someone whose name might be “Kirk”—wholesome fellow, crew cut, recent college graduate who was vice president of his fraternity and the one male cheerleader on the squad. When I call CenturyLink, Kirk always answers, just as he did when I called Century Link’s predecessors, Qwest and US West.

Kirk is on duty 24/7, and I think the long hours are taking their toll, because when I finally get through to a human representative and my call gets dropped—which happens fairly often—and then I call back, Kirk remembers nothing from our earlier conversation and I have to start at the beginning.

Even though I pushed “2” for “internet repair” as instructed, Kirk urged me to take advantage of CenturyLink’s “automated options” available at centurylink.com, replete with advantages, such as (a) no waiting, and also (b) no waiting. “Kirk,” I say, a little sternly, “you’re not paying attention.”

In the course of more than two dozen phone calls over four days, I was given these assurances:

Statement      /     Repetitions

Your call is important to us     /      96

We’re sorry you’re having this problem  / 21

We’ll solve the problem immediately    /    10

They threw thousands of words at me, with content meant to reassure, but the context said otherwise. Eventually I got connected to Sean, and  my call was important enough to him that when we got disconnected he called me back, and he had excellent news: A human repair person would come to my home the very next morning.

As kind and helpful as Sean was, I was not inclined to believe him, but I got up early, dusted the modem and the shelf it sits on, and cleaned the bathroom, just in case. At 10:30, just as I was calling CenturyLink to report a no-show, there was a knock at the door. Could it be…? It was!  CenturyLink Human Repair Guy Mike was standing in the hall, brandishing his tools and looking competent. Within ten minutes, the problem was solved and I was back online, nominating Mike for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Twitter: Nobody home

Companies such as CenturyLink pay marketing firms great sums of money in an exercise called branding. They develop graphics, taking great care with fonts and logos, labels and emblems, ads and promotions. They want to be perceived as sleek and modern, high-tech, state-of-the-art, competent, efficient… or warm and friendly, accessible, “service-oriented.” Whatever style they want to project is incorporated in their visuals… but all it takes is one customer’s experience with a disgruntled employee to erase the desired perception and replace it with “snarly.” Brand identity is reinforced or undermined not only by how customers are treated but also by employee satisfaction and the company’s relationships with its vendors and strategic partners.

As damaging to your brand as an owlish employee can be, even worse is no interaction at all. If a company makes no one accessible to outsiders, that company is making a statement: We don’t like you, we don’t care about you, now go away and let us get back to our geekery.

Mark my words

I want to go on record with my prediction that the social-media phenomenon Twitter is not long for this world. The folks at Twitter have better things to do than talking to you about their screw-up with your account. If you’re going to have a problem with Twitter, it had better slide neatly into one of six or seven common categories, such as “can’t log in” or “forgot my username.” Otherwise, Twitter customer service consists of a very short loop. If your question isn’t answered on the page you’re routed to, they send you back to the list of ordinary problems that aren’t yours.

If, out of desperation, you choose “my hashtags aren’t working”—just so they’ll give you space amounting to one hundred and forty characters to explain that hashtags aren’t really your problem, it’s that your account has gotten tangled up with someone else’s and when you post to Twitter your tweets show up on the other person’s Twitter feed—then Twitter emails you instructions for the proper use of hashtags.

In more than an hour spent scouring the Web for advice from people with a similar dilemma—and they are legion—I learned that it is virtually impossible to talk to or even chat online with an actual Twitter representative. There is, however, a small industry developing around Twitter’s arrogant unhelpfulness: Starting at $20, some enterprising individual, presumably with inside information, will try to get Twitter’s attention. It strikes me as being a little like asking one of the lesser-known saints to intercede for you because God’s busy elsewhere. Twitter, are you listening?


from Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

Seek to Serve

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If you want to…

  • write joyfully and efficiently, and
  • write in a way that is readable, informative, and engaging, and that supports your brand

…you do not need mastery of the English language and its mechanics. You don’t even have to know how to spell. (If you are, however, hopeless when it comes to spelling, punctuation, grammar, and such, you probably need a good editor.)

Write for a better world

To write well requires five things:

  1. a clear purpose
  2. an honest message
  3. respect for the reader or audience
  4. respect for the language
  5. enjoyment of the task

Writing becomes an act of war…

  • when writing is an ordeal, a burden, or a bore
  • when the writing distances readers and hearers—through boredom, obfuscation, or intimidation

Obfuscation is not a well-known word, but it is the best term for “lack of clarity” when the murkiness is deliberate. Dictionary.com defines obfuscation as “making something obscure, dark, or difficult to understand.” Wikipedia takes it a bit deeper: “the willful obscuring of the intended meaning of communication by making the message difficult to understand, usually with confusing and ambiguous language.” Think Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and “It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.”

Written language has the potential not only to build goodwill, promote understanding, and facilitate communication… but also to heal breaches planetwide and advance the cause of peace and prosperity. As the shadow side of that power, language can also be divisive, distancing, and inflammatory.

When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees. Hostility in the air has social costs.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet. With more than four billion web pages at our fingertips, language is ubiquitous.* “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.

You will hate writing it you make it about “the rules”—grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling. Instead, first communicate with respect; then enjoy the motion—rhythm, flow, and cadence. The best way to learn these traits is by reading good writing and experimenting with them in your own writing.

The habit of helping

All writers would do well to cultivate the habit of curiosity, particularly when the object is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or energize a relationship than to hold in thought the question “How can I make your life better?”

Let’s set aside for now the distinctions among types of relationships—personal, social, familial, business, professional, and any others that are based on roles. The Golden Rule doesn’t stipulate status, age, or gender. It doesn’t counsel us to “do unto other English-speaking American males above the age of 12 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 12 do unto you.”

And we are, after all, talking about habits, which are so much easier to form if the behavior always applies. I recently overheard a discussion about whether you need to use your turn signal if yours is the only car in the intersection or if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. Is it really necessary to signal a turn if nobody’s watching, or if it’s obvious that you’re turning? On the other hand, it’s not exactly a hardship to press down on the turn-signal lever. Making a habit of something sets you free from the need to make a decision. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might or might not be helpful, based on the lane you’re in or, perhaps, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk?

Seek to serve. Cultivate the habit of helping. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.

Studies consistently show that human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings. —fastcompany.com

When smart people can’t write

In over forty years as a writer, editor, and instructor, I’ve worked with men and women in the public and private sectors; small, midsize, and large companies; federal agencies and public universities; and a score of industries and professions, from architecture and broadcasting to science and technology. I’m still not sure why many intelligent, articulate people—strong leaders who are brilliant in their fields—communicate so clumsily in writing. I have a few theories, however.

Each industry and profession has its peculiar jargon, some of which is necessary—it’s the language that colleagues and clients understand. But that doesn’t explain why media releases, annual reports, newsletters, and even advertisements are unfriendly and distancing, often in direct contrast to branding efforts meant to portray an organization as warm, caring, and trustworthy.

Smart people sometimes defend their poor writing by saying that they were too busy becoming experts in their particular disciplines to learn the discipline of writing. But if that were really the problem, these smart people would also be mute, rendered unable to speak by the same preoccupation.

Nonwriters naturally make mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation—the mechanics of writing. That’s why God made editors. But when writing fails to communicate, the cause goes deeper. It might signify

  • lack of focus or disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message.
  • lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled.

There’s little I can do for the writer who has no message or whose motive in writing is something other than to serve (inform, inspire, comfort, or entertain) readers. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time, the problem with poor writing is one I can solve:

Writers who don’t like to write

Many unskillful writers believe that writing is fundamentally different from speaking. One of the most strikingly intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know—an architect with a warm manner and a ready wit—goes into an altered state when he has to write something. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re disintermediating, and it’s all downhill from there. Whatever the topic, it inevitably involves “harnessing relevant data, addressing critical elements, strategizing broad-based solutions, and optimizing tailored interactions.”

The sort of unwieldy writing we’re talking about—the basic flaw being too many words—is said to have originated back in the day when lawyers were paid by the word. Legal documents do tend to be long-winded, often as an attempt to leave no loopholes unplugged—the CYA excuse. But this sort of overexplaining has splashed over into everyday writing, where it’s really not necessary unless you think that everyone is out to sue you. They’re not. If you believe that they are, you have a bigger problem than poor writing skills.

The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber

Can you speak?

One of the great fallacies about writing is that it is essentially different from talking. Perhaps you sit at the computer, hands poised above the keyboard, and your mind signals, “I am writing,” as if you are wearing the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. Your brain goes into overdrive. Gears and pulleys clank into place, lumber into motion, and produce ponderous phrases and paragraphs you have no memory of composing:

The state-of-the-art virtuosity of Jumbo-Omni Systems’ advance-intelligence meta-solution integrative strategies reconfigure the clients’ multidimensional objective into positions compatible with fixed and liquid assets, human-resources skill sets, machine autonomy….

I’ve wondered if there’s a virus—maybe originating in Washington, D. C.—carried by a mosquito that flies around offices looking for people who are about to write something. Maybe these people release an enzyme that makes the mosquito think “Dessert!” The virus’s telltale symptom is a writing style that you’d expect from someone who was raised by a pack of patent attorneys. No one, as far as I know, has died from this virus—which doesn’t mean that their colleagues or readers haven’t wanted to poison them. In any case, writing to serve is a remarkably effective cure.

What are you waiting for?

If you want to start writing better right now, take these simple steps:

  1. Start reading the work of writers you admire. You don’t need to study it; just read a lot of it. Their style will rub off on you with no effort on your part.
  2. Lighten up. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Unless you’re writing to communicate genuinely terrible news, don’t take your topic too seriously either.
  3. For every writing assignment, define your role; that is, ask yourself how you can serve your audience.
  4. Clarify your purpose. You can make an outline if you want, although it’s easy to get bogged down in an outline and sabotage your own progress.
  5. Have fun writing your first draft. Let loose. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases that occur to you, but don’t force them. Do not edit as you go. Just write what you want to say, then set it aside for a while.
  6. With a fresh eye, edit for content and style. Is your message clear? Crystal?
  7. Proofread for mechanical errors—grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so forth.
  8. If there’s time, ask someone else to read your draft for content as well as correctness.
  9. Write final copy and distribute.

Shitty first drafts

It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. The right-brain/left-brain theory has fallen out of favor, but, for whatever reason, stopping often to analyze your work interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.

Author Anne Lamott, a novelist and Christian writer who is celebrated for her irreverence, is a proponent of “shitty first drafts…. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” (Bird by Bird, 1994)

The point here is not that you try to write badly but rather that you write freely, without evaluating as you go. Stay focused on your purpose. When you’ve finished your shitty first draft, you can pretty it up and make it more palatable.

Exercise

Write a brief biological sketch for yourself.


from Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

Hyphenatic

TypewriterGirl-Vintage-GraphicsFairy1

Eloquence is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Forty years ago, I signed on as a part-time editorial assistant at the University of Arizona. The mother of three, I preferred short workdays and made a little money on the side writing poems, stories, and essays. Literary journals usually paid in copies, but I won contests now and then, earning as much as a hundred dollars for a sonnet or story. Still, even with my husband’s income as a country-club golf pro, money was tight, so when I was offered a full-time-editor job, I jumped on it.

At the U of A, I was responsible for production of the general catalog. I spent about half my time processing new academic programs and trimming the fat from hundreds of bloated course descriptions that landed in my IN box—unofficial carbon copies followed weeks later by the “originals.” The process gobbled up paper and time, requiring arbitrary and redundant levels of approval befitting the secession of four or five states from the union. The truth is, nobody ever read the stuff before it reached my desk, arriving in pristine condition except for assorted stamps and signatures… no bite marks, no sign of having been stapled, mutilated, or spindled.

I tried and failed to eliminate the carbon-copy component of the process. The carbons were supposed to hurry things along, on the assumption that we could do the editing and data entry while waiting for the official approvals. Our doing so, however, only brought battalions of outraged department heads and deans to our office, miffed that we were undercutting their authority… even though most of the documents dealt with minor changes to course descriptions, not counting a protracted debate over the heady issue of ground water versus groundwater, with the “ground water” proponents arguing for consistency with the parallel phrase surface water.

The work could have been tedious, especially in certain abstruse disciplines where a hot topic might involve “Backus normal form and metalanguages of metalinguistic formulas.”  Even basic proofreading can be troublesome when you’re not familiar with a subject’s quirky vocabulary. Sometimes I suspected that it was all a joke and “Backus Normal Form” was an overcoat outlet for Big & Tall Men.

On the other hand, a few of the biggest bigwigs in U of A administration were committed to Catalog Excellence. These men (there being no female V.I.P.s at that time) weren’t satisfied with mere accuracy, clarity, and consistency. They wanted the catalog to sing. Every program description should flow with lyrical prose. Ours should be the King Lear of university catalogs, elegant throughout in style and tone. Until you’ve tried it, you can’t know how difficult it is to apply the same degree of authenticity and cadence to courses on (a) Emily Dickinson, (b) Materials Science of Art and Archaeological Objects, and (c) the Honeybee.

Eventually I mastered the art of creating small literary masterpieces, lucid yet scholarly-sounding enough to satisfy sensitive egos, out of academic raw material, whether it came to me dry and sparse and bullet-pointed or lavishly embellished with strings of modifiers derived from French and Latin. A stem or leaf that you and I might describe as “green” was rendered “verdant” in course-descriptionese. My colleague Mary Lindley or I promptly made it green again. If anyone complained, we could always cite the inflated cost of printers’ ink.

Mary was cheerful, capable, dependable, and ludicrously overqualified. She and I ended up rewriting most of the course descriptions and offending half of the faculty, who tended to express themselves like this:

History of the English Language (3) I II The student will be required to present evidence of a mastery of knowledge and understanding of the introduction, expansion, progression, transformation, and, where relevant, decline of English-identified sounds, English inflections, and English vocabulary. The time period studied by the student will encompass the era of the earliest identification of a meta-dialect which was spontaneously organizing itself into a distinctive language group, through the intervening iterations of the language, until the present day. The student will be responsible for full and complete comprehension of the influence of cultural, sociological, and historical events and conditions upon the evolution of the language in its original regions and specific locales as well as in its export to English-controlled colonies and other areas of influence.

Dash it all!

I’m not proud of the person I became during my four years as catalog Nazi. My predecessor had marked up the documents with a discreet blue pencil. I, on the other hand, acquired Big Red, the William Howard Taft of markers. I wielded it with glee, drunk with power (or high on marker fumes), eager to find innocuous typos, sentence fragments, pronouns with dubious antecedents, and call attention to them with obscene circles and accusatory arrows, praying that someone would invent sticky tape with flashing red lights. Sirens would have been helpful, too. I’d forgotten the purpose of language—to communicate, solecisms be damned.

Over time I learned to pick my battles on the principle that sometimes it’s better to be happy than right. Meanwhile, my work was useful not only in humiliating the most pompous assistant professors but also in taming runaway clauses. To my credit, I was almost always right—tediously so.

I was particularly obsessed with the correct placement of hyphens, en dashes, em dashes, and commas. I could and did cite chapter and verse from no fewer than four authoritative style manuals.

Early on, I had identified two types of hyphen abusers: PAG (point-and-guess) and EOW (every other word). When writing anything at all, PAG-type abusers have an inner monologue like a broken record: “Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time for another hyphen. Must be ’bout time…,” although people who are clueless about hyphens usually call them “dashes.”

(For you youngsters: Once upon a time, “broken record” was a metaphor for saying the same thing over and over. Vinyl records, when chipped or scratched, often snagged the phonograph needle, causing a little section of the record to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until someone lifted the needle arm and advanced it past the scratch, often creating another scratch in the process.)

Very special education

Once I accidentally renamed a special-education course via the substitution of a D for an F, so that the course title became “Reading and Study Skills for the Dead.” Mary, who was proofreading my document, laughed so violently that she concussed. A week later, fully recovered, she resumed proofing with the same course, and I thought she was going to require medical attention again, but she calmed down, and the two of us contemplated “overlooking” the mistake, reasoning that as typos go it was pretty cute and might improve employee morale.

Instead we decided to be grownups. It was a matter of catalog integrity. Besides, the special-education folks wouldn’t have been amused. Some of the newer faculty were already insecure in their academic stature and became noisily defensive if they suspected they were being made fun of.

For the most part, though, I wielded Big Red with a heavy hand. It didn’t make me any friends, but I had the consolation of feeling superior to people who made gobs more money than I did.

The new rules

I no longer believe that “bad writing” breaks the rules of grammar and syntax. Bad writing disturbs the peace. Its opposite is eloquence, which—according to Ralph Waldo Emerson—”is the power to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom you speak.”

Written materials produced by organizations are too often not intelligible. The “truth” they purport to convey gets lost in a jumble of jargon and a labyrinth of verbosity. I have come to see these shortcomings as going beyond communication failures. They reflect self-importance, intimidation, even outright hostility. I can fix spelling; I can’t fix a snarky attitude… but I hope I can prove that it damages your writing.

Expressions that confuse and distance readers have infiltrated business, professional, and academic writing so thoroughly that plain writing can seem gaunt and awkward. Even the humblest message has a chip on its shoulder, as illustrated by this classified ad placed by a large medical center in search of a building mechanic:

Position description: Under general supervision, the Building Mechanic II position exists to maintain and address the air quality needs of our customer base as it pertains to air filtration and preventative maintenance of major and minor air handling and building mechanical systems. Our customer base includes but is not limited to patients, visitors, staff, researchers, administrators, and coworkers. Areas of responsibility include all building mechanical systems (AHU’s, pumps, exhaust fans, med gas, etc.). Building Mechanic I responsibilities are inclusive to this position. Position is dedicated to achieving excellence through the accomplishment of the medical center’s mission/goals & objectives especially as they relate to customer service. Refer to Required Education and Experience. Refer to Preferred Education and Experience.

The medical-center maintenance managers are  looking for someone who can maintain air-handling equipment. Why don’t they just say so? Because “Wanted: Someone to maintain air-handling equipment” sounds flat and unimpressive. But bare-bones writing is easily mended when writers learn to replace obfuscation with grace and courtesy.

Social intelligence

Over time, this ad and its brothers, sisters, cousins, and sundry other relatives online, in print, and in broadcast media got under my skin and wouldn’t crawl back out and skitter away. I sensed that I was dealing with something more malevolent than sloppy writing.

After years of research and reading weighty, lifeless prose, I began preparing a revised edition of my 2007 business-writer’s manual emphasizing clarity versus jargon in writing and public speaking. My research indicated that the biggest problem in what I refer to as “communication with a public audience” (any form of public speaking, business writing, journalism, and so forth) goes beyond lack of clarity to subtle hostility, an almost feral show of power, with ramifications at every level and in every sector of society.

My new book addresses writing as a form of personal interaction to which the principles of “social intelligence” (as set forth in Daniel Goleman’s excellent book by that title) should apply, as well as the ideals in Martin Buber’s 1923 book I and Thou. A key principle in social intelligence is to increase the number of people you categorize as “us” and decrease the number you regard as “them.”

Of particular concern to me are memes that slide into public consciousness due to the prevalence of “sweeping generalizations” and the abandonment of other journalism standards. But rather than wagging a finger at communicators and invoking their “responsibility,” I suggest that the public interest and their own would be better served by an inoculation of truth and clarity, which might also allay the antagonism and polarity between groups who disagree so violently that they’ve given up even trying to reach consensus.

Grammarwise, you’re safe with me

This book will not scold you about grammar, syntax, pronunciation, spelling, and so forth. This book might gently suggest—if, say, the word adventuresome is part of your vocabulary—that “careful speakers or writers prefer adventurous or venturesome.” This book will whisper such admonitions so as to convey sensitivity to your inalienable right to use adventuresome just for a lark or, alternatively, having given the matter a great deal of consideration and possibly prayer and contemplation, to be a whimsical, spontaneous, devil-may-care sort of speaker or writer… indeed, to be flat-out wrong if that’s what you want and it’s been one of those days and you might just drink a glass of strong ale and begin spewing double negatives in clauses containing the word ain’t and even do something shocking with fricatives if you can recall what they are and isn’t it something to do with Flanders, or are you thinking of frangibles or Frigidaire? …because I now view other people’s writing and public speaking as methods of communicating—not as canvases where I can show off my own writing-and-editing virtuosity—and I evaluate writing according to how well it communicates rather than by its adherence to the old rules of writing that I once took such pains to learn.

Welcome to the new rules of writing:

  1. honesty
  2. purpose
  3. respect
  4. clarity
  5. enjoyment

How may I serve you?

To be continued….


decsystem-10-Joe-Mabel

Mary and I entered catalog data on CRT terminals connected with a computer like this DECsystem 10. Since the entire University of Arizona shared time on the computer, during busy weeks such as registration we arrived at work before 7 a.m. to avoid horrific login queues.

The DEC 10’s original processor, the KA10, had a maximum main memory capacity of 256 kilowords, equivalent to 1152 kilobytes. Today’s Galaxy C8 phone has memory capacity expandable to 256 gigabytes—more than 220,000 times greater than the KA10’s.

Photo: Joe Mabel


From Annagrammatica’s Little Book of Practical Writing

 

 

Thinking Without Words

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Can you think without words? Of course you can. You don’t use words to guide yourself from work to home on the same familiar path, or, for that matter, to operate your vehicle, any more than laboratory rats successfully navigate a maze by thinking, “Left, six inches, then a quick right.”

Infants have rudimentary reasoning skills before they have language. One of the first things they discover is who has the good stuff. Early in life, they cry automatically when they’re hungry, but pretty soon they figure out that Mom or Dad is the bringer of food, warmth, and comfort, so, at some point, babies learn to cry strategically. Mom or Dad walks in the door and they beam like a summer sunrise. “There she is!” they think wordlessly. “Here comes lunch!”

‘Fetch, Monica!’

According to Russell T Hurlburt, Ph.D., in the article “Thinking Without Words” (Psychology Today, Nov. 11, 2011), this phenomenon is called “unsymbolized thinking,” defined as “the experience of an explicit, differentiated thought that does not include… words, images, or any other symbols.” Many psychologists believe that unsymbolized thinking is impossible, but Hurlburt and his colleagues claim that their research validates its operation. My own research—consisting of throwing a stick in the yard and calling, “Fetch, Monica!” and then, when Monica brings me the stick, scratching her ears and giving her a treat—led to the same conclusion.

Language, however, is necessary for abstract thinking and flights of fancy that are among the writer’s greatest joys. This morning I heard a radio personality ask, “What does it mean to be human?” I applied about five minutes of very conscious thought to the matter and came up with a provisional hypothesis: being human is choosing to love. It’s not that other creatures are unable to love, Monica being a living, breathing, slobbering demonstration of doggie love. But only humans, I suggest, can make a decision to cultivate that emotion and exercise acts of love that don’t arise spontaneously. We can choose to love the planet, the frantic waitress, the elderly and infirm next-door neighbor, and even the spouse who cheated on us. I’m not talking about pretending to be kind when we are seething inside, although sometimes that’s the only way to start. I’m talking about reaching deep into the spirit and opening the valves that keep love from flowing… about giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable and genuine.

Writes Arika Okrent in the article “Is It Possible to Think Without Language?” (mentalfloss.com, May 23, 2013),

While it appears that we can indeed think without language, it is also the case that there are certain kinds of thinking that are made possible by language. Language gives us symbols we can use to fix ideas, reflect on them and hold them up for observation. It allows for a level of abstract reasoning we wouldn’t have otherwise. The philosopher Peter Carruthers has argued that there is a type of inner, explicitly linguistic thinking that allows us to bring our own thoughts into conscious awareness. We may be able to think without language, but language lets us know that we are thinking.

Inner conversations

Some scientists speculate about why humans think in words at all. Durham University psychologist Charles Fernyhough, author of The Voices Within, writes that we talk to ourselves for motivation and focusing, to change our behavior (“Stop fidgeting!”), and—perhaps most important—to engage in inner dialogue, by which we bring multiple perspectives to our thinking. “Language is particularly powerful at representing different perspectives and bringing them into contact with each other,” writes Fernyhough.

Writing marvelous worlds

The thinking that devised the hypothesis “being human is choosing to love” altered my mood. It was hopeful and uplifting. If I had addressed the question differently and had decided that “being human is choosing to win,” it probably would have depressed me. I can always love, and authentic love usually has good outcomes. Winning, on the other hand, entails luck, cunning, skill, strategizing, and often a certain amount of capital.

People who study happiness—Michael Neill and Robert Holden, to name a few—claim that your emotions proceed from your thoughts. If this is true, then can’t it also be said that the way one arranges words in one’s mind or on a blank page can determine how one feels? Speaking from a writer’s perspective, can we “write ourselves happy”?

I believe we can. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a “to-do” list and checking off the items as we accomplish them. There’s a great deal of power in that. But I have, from time to time, written worlds I’d like to inhabit—children’s stories of green, blooming, magical places where fairies grant wishes and all good things are possible. These worlds are in the realm of fiction, but who can deny that there are elements of truth in the fictional universes of Narnia, the Land of Oz, and Middle Earth?