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 analogy—Example: Tough is pronounced like “tuff,” so through must be pronounced “thruff.”
Ad hominem—Example: 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)
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….