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

 

 

 

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