Category Archives: jargon

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

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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.

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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

Writing for Humans

There are three principles in… being and life: the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and [all others]… is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber

INTRODUCTION: 3 WRITING ESSENTIALS

 

From the forthcoming handbook Writing for Humans, by Mary Campbell, Annagrammatica.com

 The person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet.

IF YOU WANT TO

  • write joyfully and efficiently, and
  • create documents that are readable, informative, maybe even fun to read… and that support your organization’s brand

…THERE ARE THREE ESSENTIALS:

  1. Love of writing
  2. Clarity
  3. Respect for the reader

WRITING CREATES HOSTILITY

…when the writers don’t enjoy writing
…when the writing distances readers—through boredom, fear, intimidation, or obfuscation (lack of clarity)

Martin-Buber-lovepowerfully

WRITE FOR A BETTER WORLD

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. [1]

When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees.[2] 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.[3] “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.

When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light. —Martin Buber 

THE HABIT OF HELPING

For writers, the first habit to cultivate might well be curiosity, particularly when the question is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or invigorate 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 10 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 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 should use your turn signal if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. I mean, really. It’s not exactly a hardship to press down on that little lever. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might 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 all the time. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.

WHY SMART PEOPLE DON’T WRITE WELL

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 offputting, 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; disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message. See Essential Number 2, Clarity.
  • lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled. See Essential Number 3, Respect.

I can’t help 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:

LACK OF ENJOYMENT—WRITERS WHO DON’T LIKE TO WRITE

Many uninspired 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.

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. In any case, I’ve developed a remarkably effective cure, which I’ll administer throughout this handbook. Meanwhile…

WHY WAIT?

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

  1. Decide how you want to serve your audience.
  2. Decide what you want to say. You can make an outline if you want, although it might actually be a delay tactic that will sabotage your progress.
  3. Have fun writing your first draft. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases. Do NOT edit as you go.[4] Just write what you want to say.
  4. 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.

Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…. If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born. —Martin Buber as quoted in Narrative Means for Sober Ends, by Jon Diamond, p.78

MartinBuber

Martin Buber 1878-1965

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a prominent twentieth-century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator. Born in Austria, he spent most of his life in Germany and Israel, writing in German and Hebrew. He is best known for his 1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou), which distinguishes between Thou and I modes of existence…. Buber characterizes Thou relations as dialogical and I relations as monological. In his 1929 essay “Dialogue,” Buber explains that monologue is not just a turning away from the other but also a turning back on oneself…. To perceive the other as an it is to take them as a classified and hence predictable and manipulable object that exists only as a part of one’s own experiences. In contrast, in an I  relation both participants exist as polarities of relation, whose center lies in the between. —Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[1]      “In an atmosphere of suspicion… we may … become unduly cautious in our communication.” J. William Pfeiffer, Conditions That Hinder Effective Communication, 1998; http://home.snu.edu/~jsmith/library/body/v06.pdf, accessed July 28, 2012

[2]      Studies consistently show that “human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”
http://www.fastcompany.com/3048751/the-future-of-work/happy-employees-are-12-more-productive-at-work

[3]      http://www.worldwidewebsize.com/

[4]      It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. Whether or not that’s true, stopping to analyze your output interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.

WSJ-BUZZWORD

Click HERE for the Wall Street Journal’s Business Buzzword Generator

P.S. What’s So Bad About Buzzwords?

Call it jargon, corporate-speak, academese, buzzword blitz—by any name, it’s lazy at the very least… it’s usually discourteous… and, at worst, it’s verbal bullying.

Why Using Jargon Is Bad for Your Brand
Why Jargon Can Be Bad for Business
Bad Business Jargon: It Is What It Is
Keep It Jargon-Free

One Little Word–part 1

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drug user of note

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drug user of note

Listen to the Music

I’ve sort of been collecting — that is, I note mentally and forget to write down — instances of One Little Word having a colossal impact. Perhaps, by way of illustration, you’ll recall the ruckus that ensued when Washington, D.C., official David Howard used the word niggardly in a meeting:  

WASHINGTON CNN (February 4, 1999) A white aide to Washington Mayor Anthony Williams who resigned [under duress] after using the word niggardly in a conversation will be returning to city government, ending a flap over what critics derided as political correctness run amok.

On Thursday, saying he acted too hastily in accepting David Howard’s resignation, Williams offered Howard his job back as director of the Office of the Public Advocate. Howard agreed to come back to city government, but he has asked the mayor to find him a different job.

In fairness to those who objected to the word, its use was probably ill-advised. Niggardly is hardly ubiquitous (another word not universally understood) in text or conversation. Anyone with common sense might have predicted the brouhaha.

English—It’s a trip

The Beatles 1964

The Beatles 1964 (clockwise, from top left: John, Paul, Ringo, George)

My tale is very different (its impact hingeing on a single letter, in fact), having to do with the fluidity of English-language vocabulary, which readily accepts ethnic and street slang (‘ho’, yo’ mama, homie [homeboy], the ‘hood, blunts [for marijuana], reefer) and technojargon (encryption, teleconference, CPU, whiteboarding, to name just a few).

Drug-subculture terms were conspicuous in the lyrics of rock music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “acid rock” and “heavy metal” in particular. Sometimes the references were subtle, as in the Beatles’ (1967) “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” There was nothing subtle about “Cocaine,” written and recorded by JJ Cale in 1976 and memorably covered a few years later by Eric Clapton, who claims “Cocaine” is “an anti-drug-song. The fans only listen to the refrain: ‘She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine.’ But it says, ‘If you wanna get down, down on the ground, cocaine.’” (Stern magazine, 1998.)

Child Julian Lennon's drawing, upon which John Lennon claimed "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was based

Young child Julian Lennon’s drawing, upon which John Lennon claimed “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was based

John Lennon insisted, by the way, that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was based on a picture his son, Julian, had drawn and that no allusion to LSD was intended.

I had long been in the habit of tuning out lyrics. For one thing, they were often indifferently articulated. I’m one of the many who thought that CCR was singing, “There’s a bathroom on the right” in the group’s 1969 hit “Bad Moon Rising” (actual lyrics: “There’s a bad moon on the rise”). Do check out kissthisguy.com, the utterly hilarious “archive of misheard lyrics.”

A more compelling reason for not listening to lyrics was that they were so often just stupid, especially compared to the music and the musician.

My favorite male musicians tended to be lyric-impaired. You have to go back to Ira Gershwin to find any substance in masculine lyrics, or perhaps I am simply out of touch. I read In Watermelon Sugar all the way through, and the only thing I remember is that everything was an odd color, so it might be that I lack the refined sensibilities to perceive subtlety and nuance in songs such as…  

“Layla” (Eric Clapton): “Layla. Layla. Layla. Layla. [indecipherable] Layla. Layla….”

“Peggy Sue” (Buddy Holly): “Peggy Sue. Peggy Sue. Pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty Peggy Sue. Oh, Pe-eg-gy; my Peggy Sue-ooh-ooh, ooh, ooh-ooh-ooh ooh, ooh. Oh, I need you, girl, and I want you, Peggy Sue….”

“La Bamba” (Ritchie Valens).

Buddy Holly, from txhome.org

Buddy Holly, from txhome.org

I’ll be honest: “La Bamba” is my all-time favorite song — the Ritchie Valens version, not the Los Lobos version or the Yum!Yum!ORANGE version. The lyrics have never been a factor, because they are in Spanish and thus, by definition, exotic.

Judging by the lyrics to “Donna,” Ritchie Valens’s other monster hit — released before his short career was cut shorter as a result of dying in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly — Valens was no Ira Gershwin: “Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. I had a girl. Donna was her name….”

Cover of the Ritchie Valens 45-rpm single "La Bamba" (1958)

Cover of the Ritchie Valens 45-rpm single “La Bamba” (1958)

But Ritchie Valens can take neither the credit nor the blame for the “La Bamba” lyrics, it turns out, because “La Bamba” is a three-hundred-year-old Mexican folk song. I wanted to know what a Bamba was, but apparently there’s no equivalent in English. The closest Spanish word to Bamba is bambú (“bamboo”), which, if you substituted it for Bamba, would make the song, if anything, less silly. Basically, Valens is singing about a dance, the Bamba, which either is a funny dance or is not to be attempted unless you, yourself, are a humorous, practical-joker type, plus you have to have speed and height, which [antecedent unclear] “I’ll be [be what? Speedy? High?] for you. I’m not a sailor. I’m not a sailor. I’m captain. I’m captain. Damn your eyes, I’m captain.”

If you are expecting a rebuttal here — “No, I’m captain” — you will be disappointed. The other shoe, in “La Bamba,” never drops. Wikipedia claims that the song’s message has to do with a groom’s promise to be faithful to his bride, fidelity being (according to Wikipedia) a virtue practiced by captains but not sailors, which shows how much Wikipedia knows about the privileges of rank.

Drawing the line

In the fall of 1971, I started working as a bookkeeper at an MOR radio station. MOR (middle of the road) describes the station’s “format,” which was soft rock: the mainstream music of Bread (“Baby, I’m-A Want You”), Cat Stevens (“PeaceTrain”), Elton John (“Rocket Man”), Harry Nilsson (“Without You”), the Spinners (“One of a Kind [Love Affair]”), Dobie Gray (the truly lovely “Drift Away”), and so forth. Drug-free and hamless to children and puppies.

In those days I could and did listen to the radio while I worked, so I knew every song on the station’s playlist by heart. Sometimes I sang along, making up lyrics when the real ones were just a mumble. I didn’t mind being clueless about who “Daniel” was in the Elton John hit… “You’re a star in the face of the sky…,” and “It looks like Daniel; must be the stars in my eyes.” I guessed that Daniel was probably in Heaven, but it turns out he was going only as far as Spain. Fine with me.

And then my very favorite song, the one that made me feel Up when I was Down or relaxed when I was tense, disappeared from the playlist. The artists, Brewer and Shipley, were fairly obscure, though the song I adored was on their third album, Tarkio. I couldn’t imagine why such a sweet, innocuous, folk-y song would be found objectionable. After all, Lawrence Welk considered it “a modern spiritual,” and it was performed on his weekly white-bread TV program by Gail Farrell and Dick Dale, who were apparently laboring under the same misapprehension I was.

I asked one of the deejays about the song’s disappearance. “What happened,” I said with complete ingenuousness, “to ‘One Toe Over the Line’?”

Then I waited patiently while he picked himself up off the floor and controlled a tedious series of fits of the giggles. Whatever it was, it was gonna be good.

“Honey,” he croaked, the giggles having not completely subsided, “it’s not ‘One Toe Over the Line.’ It’s ‘One Toke Over the Line.’”

“Okay,” I said, still at sea. “What’s a toke?”

“Oh, honey, you are an innocent, aren’t you?”

I wasn’t, but I let it pass.

“It’s a hit,” giggle, choke, “off a joint—a marijuana cigarette.”

“I know what a ‘joint’ is,” I said irritably. But my annoyance was directed at Brewer and Shipley, for taking me in. No wonder they were “showing off [their]… smile” there at “the railway station.” They were stoned.

The divorced mom of a sweet 4-year-old girl, I was terrified of drugs. I would mellow some in the months to come. It soon became apparent that if I were to cross every occasional toker off my friend list, I’d be down to Mom and Dad and one or two insufferable Republicans I knew from high school, when they were regular people. Not every Republican is insufferable, but these guys were stiffs in suits, believe me.

So I reconciled with Brewer and Shipley, who had surely missed me,  and “One Toke Over the Line” remains a favorite, even though Spiro Agnew called it “subversive.” Below are links to the videos, performed by the original artists and also by Gail and Dick, who I’m sure have long since recognized the enormity of their mistake. You’ll also find the B & S version on the Feelgood Music page of my website. Don’t look for “Cocaine.” I’m saving it for my Bad-Trip, Downer, FeelShitty Music page, for those who find this happiness thing to be so been-there-done-that….

Brewer & Shipley video

Lawrence Welk video

Truth in Advertising?

Find sample blogs on a gazillion topics at Alpha Inventions

Vintage Knitting Ad

I'll have what she's having

The Risk-Free Trial? Guilty

Vintage Garden

Vintage Garden, by Xx_rebeldiamonds_xX

Last summer I bit on a “risk-free trial” for an açaí-berry formula and a colon-cleanse detox product, both in capsule form. I was aware of the risks of a “risk-free trial.” The strategy is similar to that used by publishers such as Bottom Line Books and Rodale Books, which let you “examine a book free for thirty days,” during which you could doubtless read the book and send it back, keeping the bonus gift, usually a small but useful guide to Growing Healing Herbs in a Sunny Window, or perhaps Homemade Garden-Pest Repellents.

(At least I suppose that reading a book doesn’t violate the rules for examining it. Or are you just supposed to check the binding, count the pages to make sure they’re all there, and verify that the book is printed on recycled paper and that no animals were harmed in the research, writing, printing, or distribution?)

I lost 12 pounds

In any event, I was quick to read the fine print on my “risk-free trial” of açaí-berry formula and colon-cleanse detox product. I needed to return the bottles containing the “unused product” to an address in Florida within ten days of my receiving them, which the company estimated at three days after shipping. Otherwise, my credit card would be charged $89.95 per month until cancellation.

Usually, it’s a miracle if my mail gets opened within ten days of receipt, but the phrase risk-free trial sets off warning bells. So… an unprecedented TWO days after receiving the product, I extracted my ten-day supply from each bottle and sent the remainder via USPS Priority Mail to the Florida address. Even so, my credit card was charged $89.95.

Astonishingly, the charge was removed without my having to make so much as a phone call. I’ve heard from other victims, however, that such charges can be very sticky.

You are actually at risk the minute you divulge your credit-card information, which is required for the “minimal shipping charge” of $1.95 or whatever.  If you must take the risk-free-trial risk, consider using a temporary (prepaid) credit card and keep the balance very low or cancel it altogether. Or not. Consult your legal professional.

By the way (and DO consult your healthcare professional before trying this regimen), I lost 12 pounds in two months on the colon-cleanse detox capsules.

Next: Truth in Advertising, Your Just Deserts — “Get the Smooth, Flawless, Young-Looking Skin You Deserve”

Below: I thought there was missing text, but it’s just Silly Syntax

From an Arizona Department of Health Services Report…

Neurological Effects [of exposure to hydrogen sulfide in sewer gas]:
Ataxia, choreoathetosis, dystonia, inability to stand in one 20-month-old child


Holiday Store ** Random Cards of Kindness

Sidebar: Face of America?

Vitriol in Print

Senator John McCain

Senator John McCain

I searched the Internet for metaphorical characterizations of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama and got my eyes scorched (metaphorically, of course). What ever happened to, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? That was Every Mother’s chastisement, at least back in the 1950s. My own dear mom, were she alive, would primly disapprove of the (metaphorical) vitriol being (metaphorically) hurled at these two remarkable public servants.

I Googled “John McCain is a” and “Barack Obama is a” to see how the candidates are being represented metaphorically. Of course, I had to wade through a lot of nonsense and nonmetaphorical predicate nominatives: John McCain is a socialist, Barack Obama is a socialist, Barack Obama is an elitist, Barack Obama is a Muslim, John McCain is an old fart, John McCain is a coward, and so forth.

Hardly anyone had anything nice to say.

But when we go to our polling places next Tuesday, we will not be voting for a metaphor. We will be voting for a flesh-and-blood human being who might (metaphorically) be the face of America for the next four years. (Three different precincts vote in the church in which I live. Do you think any of these precincts is my precinct? No-o-o-o-o! I have to walk six blocks to Dewey Park!)

Senator Barack Obama

Senator Barack Obama

The literal meaning of maverick, by the way, is “an unbranded range animal (especially a stray calf).” The term originated in 1867, referring to a “‘calf or yearling found without an owner’s brand,’ in allusion to Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), Texas cattle owner who was negligent in branding his calves. Sense of ‘individualist, unconventional person’ is first recorded 1886, via notion of ‘masterless.'” —Online Etymology Dictionary

Here’s a sample of my search results (If many of these metaphors were on the mark, I would write in the name of my son-in-law, Paul, as I usually do when there’s no one on the ballot who deserves my vote, as was the case in 2004):

  • John McCain is a maverick
  • John McCain is a corporation’s worst nightmare
  • John McCain is a pirate
  • John McCain is a monster
  • John McCain is a superman
  • John McCain is a Walking Senior Moment
  • John McCain is America
  • Barack Obama is a Mac (and Hillary Clinton is a PC)
  • Barack Obama is a flake
  • Barack Obama is a terrorist’s best friend
  • Barack Obama is a blessing to the USA
  • Barack Obama is a popular Mii
  • Barack Obama is a work of art
  • Barack Obama is a disaster

____________

Buy your Christmas / Solstice cards and gifts at Zero Gravity’s Holiday Store. Order early and save$$; books shipped via media mail — the most economical choice — can take weeks to arrive.

____________

Sidebar: Crisis? What Crisis?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. -Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

crisis: c.1425, from Gk. krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), lit. “judgment,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE base *krei- “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cf. Gk. krinesthai “to explain;” O.E. hriddel “sieve;” L. cribrum “sieve,” crimen “judgment, crime,” cernere (pp. cretus) “to sift, separate;” O.Ir. criathar, O.Welsh cruitr “sieve;” M.Ir. crich “border, boundary”). Transferred non-medical sense is 1627. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=crisis

A Time to Decide

When my older son, Jack, was 3, he barrelled through an enormous plate-glass window – more of a wall, actually – and emerged unscratched, though we were in Arizona and it was 104 degrees and he was barefoot and wearing shorts and a T-shirt. About two years later, on a balmy Sunday afternoon in April, he had a bit of a tantrum and launched a fist through a window in our dining room and cut his wrist. There was quite a lot of blood, so I called Dr. Cherven at home – you could do that, in Hutchinson, Kansas, in those days – and Dr. Cherven instructed us to meet him at the hospital.

The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

Both Jack (the window-shattering culprit) and I were terrified, though the hospital was only a five-minute drive from our house. A nurse in the emergency room confirmed that the cut was crisis-worthy, and moments later Dr. Cherven strode in, wearing jeans and a tattered plaid shirt – he had been replacing storm windows with screens in his Victorian house. He scrubbed his hands, picked up Jack’s wrist, wiped away the blood, and uncovered a superficial cut hardly worthy of a Band-Aid. Crisis diffused. More accurately, crisis unmasked. The child had skin like new rubber.

Parents of active and fearless children learn to be cautious in their use of words such as crisis and emergency. These are volatile terms. When you apply them to situations, particularly those involving loved ones, they are stress-inducing, to say the least. Blood rushes to the heart, which starts pumping like a jogger in subzero temperatures.

What you need to do then is, you need to breathe evenly and focus on your toes. Seriously. This reminds your body that it has components other than the heart. Merely paying attention to your toes causes blood to flow there, your heart stops pounding in your ears, and you can make a rational decision.

The origin of the word crisis suggests “time to make a decision,” not “time to panic.” With apologies to anyone who is without genuine necessities due to the current financial climate – food, shelter, medical care, and so forth – an unstable economy is not cause for panic.

Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

I am reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers‘s mystery novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, in which one of the club’s members observes, “I say, you fellows, … here’s another unpleasantness. Penberthy’s shot himself in the library. People ought to have more consideration for the members.” Lord Peter Wimsey, of course, uncovers the murderer (Penberthy did not shoot himself) in his trademark quirky style, unruffled and scrupulously attired throughout.

Might I suggest that we emulate the British and adopt the practice of understatement? I wish that American journalists would do so… but then, it requires less ink (in newspapers and magazines) and less air time to say “financial crisis” than it would to say “financial unpleasantness.”

 

Sidebar: Profanity Revisited

Fact-oid

"Just the Facts, Ma'am"

Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb): "Just the Facts, Ma'am"

On June 10, I wrote in this blog about justifiable uses of the F-word, occasioned by a late-night intrusion of my apartment and a half-hearted attempt to intrude on my personal self. All’s well that ends well (Shakespeare), and I was only superficially scarred physically and not at all damaged emotionally. I’m pretty sure. Although it shook me up a bit when somebody rang my doorbell, repeatedly, at about 5:30 this morning and refused to identify him- or herself.

In any case, police detectives have questioned and requestioned me, and at this moment I am looking at a “Victim Profile Sheet” that I’m supposed to fill out. Whoever put together this “Victim Profile Sheet” has, you might say, precarious command of the English language:

♦ JUST BEFORE THE INCIDENT — What were you doing? ie. walking, running, came home from work, etc.

There are several questions about my residence— “Is residence and entryway visible from the street?” “Is residence on alley?” “Multi-level?”

Here’s the one that has me scratching my head:

♦ Is residence indoors?

Is that a gentle way of asking whether I am homeless? Or do they want to know if I live on the roof?

I’m tempted to editorialize on my “Victim Profile Sheet,” but the likely response would be: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Sidebar

Metaphors Can Cause Headaches

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

I read this morning that Barack Obama had named Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate, and that Senator Obama had done so either before or after (I don’t remember which) “unleashing a fusillade of vitriol” about his opponent, John McCain.

Writers and speakers of the English language—especially journalists—slip into metaphor-ese automatically, disregarding the literal meanings of the metaphors and throwing various symbols together any which way. That’s forgivable, usually. A language is built mostly on metaphors whose original definitions stopped mattering long ago.

Unleashing a fusillade of vitriol, however, is just plain nonsense. Fusillade and vitriol are startling words that call attention to themselves, and since the writer was bold and foolish enough to combine them in this way, I feel justified in picking that combination apart.

What we have here is three words, actually, used metaphorically with feckless indifference to the metaphor’s integrity:

  • unleashing, which means “letting go of”; but to be “unleashed,” a thing must first have been “leashed,” or restrained. It’s common, and appropriate, to speak of “unleashing one’s anger,” which has presumably been pent up. Unleashing a fusillade doesn’t make much sense, really, because it’s hard to picture a fusillade as having its own impetuous energy.
  • fusillade, which is a rapid discharge of gunfire. It isn’t the bullets themselves, or the guns, or the people firing them.
  • vitriol—sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive chemical, often used as a metaphor for “abusive language” or “invective.”

We native speakers of English know what the writer means, which is that Barack Obama harshly criticized John McCain. But someone who is just beginning to understand the English language might easily be flummoxed. She sees unleashing, and pictures a dog straining at and perhaps breaking his tether. She sees fusillade and thinks, perhaps, of the action of a firing squad. Then she reads vitriol, which she knows to be a particularly nastily corrosive liquid that she has read about in detective or crime stories, where it is thrown in the face of an enemy, usually for vengeance or retribution.

Add it up and you have, what, impatiently frisky rapid-fire emissions from squirt guns? I don’t know. I can’t think about it any more. It gives me a headache.