Memo: Re those emails

MemoI began my working life during the era of the memorandum.  Back then, memos came in many flavours.  Some were written to inform the reader; but, as Dean Acheson famously quipped, many many more were written simply to protect the writer.

And don’t think that just because they were laborious to produce – drafting, typing, amending, adjusting, retyping (often more than once), and then delivering them by hand or by snail-mail – that they were few and far between.  Despite many of them having little relevance to the recipient, they tumbled into our physical inboxes almost as frequently as emails now tumble into our virtual inboxes.  How often they got read … well, that’s another matter.

But there were exceptions.

For a while, I worked for an organisation headed by a man whose memos had an almost poetic quality to them.  They were generally quite short – a paragraph or two at most – beautifully crafted, and, like any good poem, they were almost always rewarding to read.

After three or four years, our paths diverged: I moved off to another organisation, and, soon after, the chairman-poet moved into semi-retirement.  But then, a few years later, I ran into him – quite by accident – and we ended up having a meal together.

During the course of the meal, I told him how much I had admired his memos.  Was there a secret?  I asked.

He confessed that it often took him as long as 20 minutes or half an hour to compose one of his compact communiques.  But he consoled himself with the knowledge that if he dashed something off in three or four minutes, and then nobody read it, that was three or four minutes totally wasted.

He also said that he tried to never use a word or phrase in a memo that he wouldn’t be comfortable using in a casual face-to-face conversation.  ‘I’m just not a “moreover” kind of bloke.  And I think if I was to use “moreover” in a memo, the reader would think that either a) I hadn’t written it, or b) I was being pompous.  Neither of which would help my cause.’  He was answering my question rather than offering advice; but I took it as advice anyway.

Emails have, of course, taken over from memos.  But I think the same rules apply.

A friend of mine is famous for her emails.  I’m sure that many people think that she just pumps them out.  But I have seen her at work.  She really toils over them.  As she says, the test is not of what she puts in, but of what the reader takes out

Are you someone who would say ‘moreover’ in the course of a pub conversation?  If the answer is no, then maybe you shouldn’t use such words in your writing either.  And next time you are tempted to rattle out an email in three or four minutes, remember, if your reader doesn’t take out what you wanted them to take out, you have wasted those three or four minutes – and possibly a whole lot more.

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Writing is hard work

WritingI was doing a bit of ‘housekeeping’ recently and I came across a draft of a document that a client had sent us to tidy up.

It was Grade A gobbledygook.  But its author, a senior manager in a technology firm, thought that it was ‘pretty near perfect’.  Unfortunately (for him), his boss didn’t agree.

The author was a man with both vision and energy.  He had an impressive CV.  And his persistence was legendary.  But, on paper, he was barely literate.  As we worked through his draft document – cutting and polishing and rewriting whole chunks – the reason for his poor writing skills became clear: he thought that writing was easy.  Really easy.

‘Anyone can write well,’ he said.  (Although, clearly, he couldn’t.)

This man had spent many, many hours – years even – thinking about ‘hard stuff’ like technical solutions and business processes.  But writing?  What was there to think about?  You just did it.

Over the years, we have encountered many poor writers who, nevertheless, have thought that they were pretty good.  Many of them have been business people, but more than a few have been academics or public servants.  Most have worked long and hard at their ‘day job’.  But writing is something to which they have seldom given a second thought.  Writing is something you just do.

Becoming a good writer requires the same degree of effort and dedication as it takes to become a good accountant or a good administrator or a good engineer.  In the words of William Zinsser: ‘Writing is hard work.  A clear sentence is no accident.  Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.’

If you find it easy to write well, there’s a very good possibility that you’re not trying hard enough.  And if you find it hard work, that’s simply because it is.  It really is.

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To finish well, first start well

Sydney-Hobart‘Many races are won on the start line.  To finish well, it’s usually vital to start well.’

That was the opinion of one of the most successful sailing coaches I ever had the opportunity to work with.  But it’s also good advice for writers.  Capture your reader’s attention early; and keep them engaged right to the end.

From where I sit, too many writers of business documents begin by ‘warming their engines’.  Rather that coming right out and saying: ‘Here’s what we can do for you,’ they waffle on for two or three pages – sometimes more – about ‘the changing dynamics of the market space’ or some such high-sounding twaddle.

Recently, a client sent me a draft of her company’s response to an RFP.  ‘What do you think?’ she asked.

I phoned her with my own question: ‘Why did you wait until page nine to offer a solution?’

For a moment or two, she said nothing.  I could picture her frowning at the other end of the phone.  And then she said: ‘Well, you know, I thought that we should establish our credentials.  I thought that we should demonstrate that we understand the sector, where it is at, how it got there, where it might be headed.’

‘And do you think your prospective client would have sent you the RFP if they thought that you did not understand the sector?’

‘Umm … no.  I guess not,’ she said.

Between the two of us, we cut and pasted and polished the draft, offering up the solution in the very first paragraph.  We also crafted a final paragraph designed to leave the prospect in no doubt about what they needed to do next.  Of course, that perfectly-crafted final paragraph would have been a total waste of time and effort if we failed to hook the readers in the first paragraph and then keep them reading right to the end.

In the words of the distinguished author, editor, and publisher Sol Stein: ‘A terrific ending will never be experienced by a reader put off by a poor beginning.’

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What do you want to say?

keysWhen I was just starting out in the writing business, I had an editor who insisted that good writing was largely a matter of thinking carefully about what you wanted to say; saying it as simply as possible; and then making sure that you had, indeed, said what you intended to say.

It was good advice.  But I soon discovered that the hardest part is usually the first part: deciding what you want to say.

Among my more-experienced colleagues, there seemed to be two main approaches to this potential difficulty.

The first was what I came to think of as ‘the Ernie approach.’  Ernie was one of the most-respected senior writers on the team.  His approach was to spend great chunks of time pacing the corridors with his eyes on some far distant horizon before suddenly ducking back into his cubbyhole and banging out a thousand or so words of near-perfect prose.

The second approach was what I came to think of as ‘the David approach’.  David didn’t bother with any of the corridor pacing.  He just sat down at his typewriter and started pounding away.  Once he had covered ten or 15 pages, he put them in a stack, face down, on his desk, and wandered off to the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee.

Fortified with a shot of caffeine, he would then take up a blue pencil and quickly read through what he had written, circling a sentence here and a sentence there, highlighting a word here and a word there.  And then, when he had worked his way through all ten or 15 pages, he would put a fresh sheet of paper into his typewriter and start saying what he really wanted to say.  As he said, the first part of the process was just to clarify his thoughts and canvass some possibilities.

Over the years, I’ve used both the Ernie approach and the David approach.  They both work.  But, increasingly, I find myself leaning towards the David approach.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.  As another editor said: Most writers become writers in order to discover what they think.  Or was that Joan Didion who said that?

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‘All we want are the facts, ma’am’

JoeFridayAnyone old enough to remember radio in the 1950s and 60s (and, yes, there are some of us), will probably remember the iconic police drama Dragnet.  And they will probably also remember Sergeant Joe Friday’s catchphrase: ‘All we want are the facts, ma’am.’  Tell us what happened – and then we will worry about why it might have happened.

Sixty years on, advances in news gathering and dissemination should have made getting the facts really simple.  Certainly simpler than it was back in the days of reporters with steno pads and bulky tape recorders and film cameras the size of suitcases.  But it hasn’t.

Spinmeisters now intervene at every opportunity in an attempt to ensure that we only get the facts that cast their paymasters in a favourable light.  The less favourable facts they endeavour to block or twist or bury.  Call it PR, call it reputation management, call it message enhancement; but make no mistake, these activities are not aimed at a full disclosure of the facts.

And yet, in some ways, the spinmeisters are not the biggest part of the problem.  Even more concerning is the role of the mainstream media in the 21st century.

There was a time – maybe back in Dragnet days – when mainstream media reported the facts and offered opinions.  But there was always a clear line between the two.  This is what we understand to be the facts; and this is our opinion.  But today that line has all but disappeared.

Today, all too often, opinions are presented as facts.  And even before the facts are in, there are tens or hundreds of ‘commentators’ offering their interpretations, adding ‘speculative facts’, and suggesting conclusions that any right-thinking person would be unwise to ignore.

This year is an election year.  We are told that the outcome will be a near run thing.  And, indeed, it might be.  But how are voters supposed to decide without facts?  It’s not an old-fashioned beauty contest.  This is not a question of which group of would-be parliamentary representatives looks best in bathing costumes.

We need to know what is being offered.  We need to know the facts, ma’am.  You can offer your opinions.  But, please, make sure that we have the unbiased facts by which we can evaluate your opinions.

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Clarity takes time

bertrand-russellIf you have ever started out to write a clear and concise instruction, proposal, or explanation, only to find that making it clear and concise was far from easy, you are not alone.

Bertrand Russell (a man who managed to express quite a few difficult thoughts and ideas clearly and concisely) once observed: ‘Everything is vague to a degree you do not realise until you have tried to make it precise.’

Or as a former colleague of mine was wont to say: ‘You don’t realise how little you know until you try to convey the little that you think you know to someone else.’

When I first started to earn a living as a writer, computers were machines the size of small houses, housed in special air-conditioned rooms, and tended by men in white coats.  They were almost exclusively the domain of engineers and money men.  We lowly writers composed our sentences on manual typewriters.  Or, in the case of one of my colleagues, with a Black Beauty pencil on lined yellow ‘legal’ pads.

Typically, a first draft (often based on handwritten notes) would lead to a second draft, and a third, and sometimes a fourth.  In the end, you had something that said what you needed to say and a waste basket full of not-quite-so-successful attempts.

Today, however, there’s a tendency to bang out something as quickly as possible and press the send button.  Time is money.  We expect everything to happen at the speed of light.

But if what you bang out is neither clear nor concise, the fact that you conveyed it at the speed of light counts for nothing.  Sometimes it counts for less than nothing.  If it doesn’t inform your reader, there’s a very good chance that it will misinform or confuse her.

Electronic wizardry has simplified and sped up much of the mechanical part of the writing process.  But clear thinking and concise composition still requires time.  In the interests of clarity and concision, make sure that you allow yourself enough time to think carefully about what you want to say, to say it, and then to make sure that you really have said it.

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Politician eats two dogs for lunch

HotDogThe news media has always valued attention-grabbing headlines.  Why would they not?  They grab the reader’s/viewer’s/ listener’s attention.

‘Superstar in daring rescue.’  (Even if the ‘superstar’ is someone you’ve never ever heard of.)

‘Princess to marry Dustman.’  (‘Princess’ turns out to be James ‘Dustman’ Miller’s pet name for 18-year-old Chardonnay Longbottom.)

‘World set to end in four weeks.’  (Or is it in 4 million years?  Those Mayan prophesies are so hard to figure out.)

But in this Internet age, things seem to be going from a bit of a stretch to totally ridiculous.  And so, under the headline ‘Politician eats two dogs for lunch’, we might well read:

‘When list MP Joe Rumble made a whistle-stop appearance at Wheeler’s Whopper Dog House, he may have ordered the Double-Dog Special.  A single mother-of-three, who asked to be known only as Lynndee, says that she thought that’s what she heard him ask for.

‘Wheeler’s general manager, Hank Harkness, said that the Double-Dog Special – two hotdogs with sweet mustard pickle and a side of twice-cooked fries – was one of his restaurant’s most popular lunchtime dishes.  However, he was unable to confirm that this was what the politician had ordered.’

As a growing number of media players scrap over a diminishing pool of advertising and subscription revenue – and more and more writers are being paid on a ‘per click’ basis – the competition for shrill headlines is becoming ever more … well … competitive.  The fact that the story that follows often fizzles out within a paragraph or three seems not to matter.  That initial click’s the thing.  And the more clicks, the more chances the writer has of eating that day.

And it doesn’t stop there.  If the original non-story gets a bit of traction, it’s usually not too long before other publications/blogs/TV channels begin reporting on the report.  Often, they don’t even bother to go back to the original source.  Often they can’t afford to.  Instead, they slap up a bold headline saying ‘Politician eats dogs’, followed by a paragraph that begins: ‘Dogs are on the menu for far-right politician Joe Rumble, according to reports.’  (‘According to reports’ sort of gets them off the hook.  Hey, don’t shoot us.  We’re only the messengers.)

Oh dear.  I really do hope that someone works out a way to pay for proper journalism before we are all driven off the cliff of despair.

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Bigots are not always bad guys

AlfG2Debate is important.  It doesn’t always lead us to the definitive answer, but it often takes us closer.

Recently, Australia’s Attorney General, Senator George Brandis, suggested – in the Australian Senate – that people should have the right to be bigots.  And many, many people were shocked, horrified, and deeply offended by this.  How could he say such a thing?

According to my dictionary, a bigot is someone who is ‘an obstinate and intolerant believer in a religion, political theory, etc’.  To be bigoted is to be ‘unreasonably prejudiced and intolerant’.  Perhaps not surprisingly, few people consider themselves to be bigots.

Since taking office in 2013, Mr Brandis has devoted himself to reforming the section of the Racial Discrimination Act that forbids people from offending, insulting or humiliating a person or group on the basis of their racial or ethnic origins.  By all accounts, Mr Brandis believes that the Act inhibits free speech.  And Mr Brandis does not think that this is something which the Australian government – or any government, for that matter – should do.

Mr Brandis is not the first person to hold this view.  In varying degrees, John Milton, Baruch Spinoza, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and many others, have been of a similar mind.

Spinoza was of the opinion that people should be allowed to think what they think and say what they think.  And, if you disagree with what others say, you should have the right to put forward you own view – but not the right to silence those whose opinions you don’t share.

It’s interesting, isn’t it?  When adherents of anthropomorphic global warming tell their less-sure opponents – emphatically – that ‘the science is settled’, they are, by definition, being bigots.  They are being obstinate and they are being intolerant of other opinions.  And yet it is the deniers who are generally labelled as bigots.

I have a notebook (it started out on paper, but now it is digital) in which I jot down the (to me) interesting thoughts of others.  One such thought comes from the economist Paul Krugman.

‘If you hear that “everyone” supports a policy,’ he says, ‘whether it’s a war of choice or fiscal austerity, you should ask whether “everyone” has been defined to exclude anyone expressing a different opinion.’

It seems to me that the bigots are not always the bad guys.

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Maybe you dunno. But I do.

DunnoA few years ago, we had a chap on our team who was rightly acknowledged to be ‘Educated’.  That’s Educated with a capital E.

Malcolm held degrees from three of the world’s top ten universities.  He was fluent in Latin and Greek.  And he was able to converse effortlessly in French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

And yet he never quite managed to come to terms with colloquial English.  His ‘pub speak’ was always more akin to ‘high table speak’.  Not that his friends minded.  Not one bit.  But he did find it difficult when it came to verbatim reporting.

‘I know what he said,’ Malcolm would say, ‘but I’m sure that’s not the way in which he meant to say it.  At least I hope that’s not the way in which he meant to say it.’

I remember an occasion on which we were asked to prepare an executive summary of a qualitative study into the likes and dislikes of people using a particular credit management service.  One of the objectives of the study was to help the service’s managers to understand what their customers really thought about their service.  Or at least what they really said to others about the service.  And, partly for this reason, the report was to include a selection of telling verbatim comments.

For a couple of days, Malcolm toiled away and, at the end of it, turned in 3,000 or so words of immaculate prose.  Unfortunately, not only had he edited the stutters and stumbles from the verbatim comments, he had recast each and every one in language that would have made the most pernickety Oxford don proud.  He was crestfallen when we suggested restoring the original comments.

Malcom died almost four years ago.  But I was reminded of him, just the other day, when I was reading a critical assessment.  The author, a chap who clearly understood the need to speak to his audience in language they understood, was doing an excellent job of avoiding passive academic constructions.  And then he blew it.

He had just reported another critic’s (slightly controversial) opinion.  And, in the very next sentence, he said: ‘I dunno about you […].’  And I stopped reading.

Dunno?

It is not necessary to say ‘do not know’.  ‘Don’t know’ is fine.  But ‘dunno’?  In serious writing?  That’s just asking for trouble.  I’m pleased that Malcolm didn’t have to read it.

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Time to bring back the sub-editors?

Mega2Has the tone of the dissenting voice in public discussion become less civilised, potentially more damaging?  Or has it just become easier to ‘hear’ the more extreme voices?

Has online comment and the Twitterverse simply brought the conversation that previously took place in a pub (perhaps a pub which most of us never visited) directly to our ever-accessible screens?

Recently, Deborah Hill Cone, a columnist for The New Zealand Herald, wrote what I thought was a pretty fair ‘starter for ten’ on the part that ageing, shallow celebritydom, and cyber bullying may have played in the death of Charlotte Dawson (of whom, I must confess, I had never heard).  Within minutes, Ms Hill Cone had people not so much disagreeing with her as damning her and wishing her horrible harm.

A few days later, Ms Hill Cone wrote a sort of explanation – although I’m not sure that one was required.  And, again, she was the target of much ill-tempered vitriol and damnation.

When things like this happen, it is tempting to think that there ought to be ‘rules’, laws even.  Surely, people shouldn’t be allowed to express their opinions in nasty, hurtful language.  As the apocryphal grandmother said: If you can’t say it nicely, don’t say it at all.

But where do you draw the line?  What is hurtful to one person may simply be ‘honest opinion’ or ‘robust comment’ to another.  Also, in my experience at least, there are many, many people who are simply incapable of putting their thoughts into anything resembling coherent language.  For many of these people, the only way to say ‘I disagree with your point of view’ is to say: ‘Fuck you, shitface.  May you and all of your children die a horrible death.’

So, what’s the answer?  Well, there was a time when published comments and opinions – letters to the editor, for example – were subject to intervention.  Sub-editors applied their considerable skills to turning sows’ ears into something more akin to silk purses.  But the principle that the internet is free does not allow for the costs associated with professional sub-editing.  What gets submitted tends to get posted.

However, here’s a thought: maybe it’s time to bring back the sub-editors.  Maybe we would all be better off if, when posting a comment, the poster paid a small fee.  Maybe a dollar.  Or two dollars.  This would not be an arbitrary revenue-gathering toll, but a contribution to the cost of sub-editing in the interests of a better ‘finished product’.  It’s just a thought.  But if you have a better one, I’m listening.

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