Right now, I am reading Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery. I like Mr. Eco’s writing, but he is a tough read because he throws in so many literary allusions and foreign language (and Latin) phrases. I have to read him with a dictionary and search engine at hand.
I’m willing to put in the work because I like his stuff. The problem is, I don’t want to work this hard all the time, which brings me to the subject of literary and social allusions.
I’m pretty well read, especially in classic literature, but I’m often faced with obscure allusions when I’m reading something I don’t want to spend too much time on. Then there are modern societal references that I just don’t get because I’m not in the mainstream of pop culture. (I am totally mystified by the whole Kardashian thing.)
When it comes to pleasure reading, missed allusions aren’t so important. However, we must make sure it doesn’t become a problem when we write to communicate ideas for work or school. We must understand our audience and make sure our ideas are clear.
This isn’t always easy. Sometimes I forget how young some of my students are, and I’ll refer to something that I think is recent history – like “Read my lips: no new taxes.” When I look out over the class, I see blank stares. Then I have to reboot my mind and find something more recent that my students are familiar with and can connect to – “Change we can believe in.”
In business, writers too often assume everyone will understand everything they write. They forget people don’t start out with the same background or knowledge base. We need to avoid the pitfalls of allusion and jargon to clearly communicate our ideas. In business, we don’t have the luxury of authors like Mr. Eco.
The thing most business readers have in common is the need for quick clarity. Allusions sometimes are barriers to this.
“Clarity is the thing…”
Note: Crime novelist P.D. James, creator of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, died yesterday at age 94. I am thankful for her wonderful books and characters.