Communication’s Balancing Act

tightrope-walker-copyThere’s a delicate balance between too much and not enough when it comes to effective communication.

Not getting the balance right can harm efficiency. Either people spend time and energy running around trying to find information, or they spend time trying to pick out what they need from a morass of information.

The most frequent problem I encounter is The ESP Presumption. This is when the communicator, or writer, is convinced everyone knows what she is talking about.

The leading indicators of this are puzzled facial expressions, people scratching their heads, and “huh?” repetition.

Another pervasive problem is TMI (too much information). In this case, the writer drones on and on including all types of information no one cares about. This is sometimes known as the Motormouth Condition.

The leading indicators of this are emails, letters, and other communications finding their way quickly to the trash. If this happens in a meeting, glazed eyes and people surreptitiously checking their Snapchat accounts are the main symptoms.

But how can we stop the madness?

With the ESP Presumption, the best trick is to pretend you’re a 4-year-old and keep asking, “Why?” You can assume your audience knows some things, but if you’re not sure, put it in. Use details and examples to illustrate your ideas.

With TMI, you need to ask, “How is this connected? Does my reader need to know this?”

Don’t think achieving that balance is easy. Revision is key. However, the effort means more efficient communication and a better chance of achieving your goals.

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Why Our Brains Need a Style Guide

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“Man, that’s my style!”

That’s what Neil Young replied when the producer of “Tears Are Not Enough”* asked Young to sing his line again because the producer thought it was a little flat.

The New York Times is considering changing its practice of using courtesy titles on second reference. It may no longer be “Mr. Trump,” “Ms. Clinton,” or “Dr. Carson.” This may not matter much to the general public, but it is a really big deal for journalists, writers, and even Times subscribers. Why? Because it is a huge style change.

Why is it important to have style guidelines, and should we come up with our own?

Much of the information we process when we read is subliminal. Because of this, writers need to be aware of their grammar, organization, punctuation, and style to make reading effortless. The brain will stop and raise an alarm when it hits inconsistencies.

Style guides are there to ensure consistency. The Associated Press tells writers how to spell email or how to use certain punctuation. An article on email that has it appearing as email half the time and e-mail the other half will make your brain grumpy. Your brain will notice and will tell your subconscious “Hey, this is different!”  every time.

Your brain gets accustomed to all sorts of things when you read specific periodicals, like the Times, regularly. You may not notice courtesy titles or fonts, but your brain does. It expects these things. When they suddenly appear different, your brain may suffer a crisis of authenticity. That’s a huge bump in your reading road.

Writers follow style guides to make life easier for the reader. However, established styles – AP, Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Institute, and American Psychological Association among the biggies – may not address the particular impression or “brand” an organization is shooting for. A consistent brand is vital to set expectations for the reader.

The New York Times uses courtesy titles on second reference to exude more formality in its content. It gives an old-fashioned impression that the newspaper is a staunch chronicle of history in the making, something that sets it apart from USA Today.

A business may not want to be that formal in its publications. It might ditch last names altogether in a blog post and use first names in order to provide a friendlier, more informal setting on which to base relationships with customers or clients.

A style guide can be created or adapted for the individual’s or organization’s “brand.” But the magic for the reader’s brain will always be consistency.

 

*a 1985 effort by Canadian musicians to raise money for a famine in Ethiopia

Don’t Forget What Supports Good Writing

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Photo/Creativity103.com

There is several things I eluded to recently that cause me to reign in my ideals about writing good?

Who read that and thought, “Has she lost her mind?!”

People who think grammar, word choice, and punctuation aren’t all that important don’t seem to understand that those elements are necessary for clear communication. Clarity of writing is the target we all (except maybe politicians, legislators, and lawyers) must strive for.

Any business knows that clearly and precisely outlining the benefits of the products or services it offers means success.

What happens when we ignore the guidelines for good writing? One thing is that we make our readers work too hard. If the reader has to go back several times in a sentence to try to “translate” what the writer means, the reader is forced to concentrate on the mechanics rather than the meaning.

Worse than that, we all know what happens when people have to fill in the blanks of intention. In the old game of telephone, a message is whispered along to each player in a line until, by the end, what comes out barely resembles the original message. Let’s not provide an environment of obscurity.

We need to remember that grammar is the infrastructure that supports the easy flow of communication while precision with words is the traffic light that guides the reader to the idea.

We write to share – to provide information, evoke emotion, or persuade. If we ignore the elements that create good writing, we fail to communicate.

In Pulse Aftermath, Don’t Rush to Blame

Humpulse-shootingans, by their nature, are compelled to answer, “Why?” In the wake of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, this weekend, there is a huge temptation in our grief and our rush toward answers to point fingers.

We need to make sure we have as much credible information as possible before we start assigning blame. More importantly, we must recognize that how we respond will display our character as a nation and have ramifications far into the future.

Most of all, we  need to understand that, most likely we will never get a satisfactory answer to why this happened. The world doesn’t work the way we want or expect.

It is easy, as sort of ghoulish armchair quarterbacks, to wonder why nothing was done to prevent accused shooter Omar Mateen from taking this horrendous action.

Why hadn’t the FBI arrested or detained him after questioning him, twice, regarding possible links to terrorists? Mateen was an American citizen, born in New York, and the FBI can’t throw citizens in jail without sufficient evidence of a crime.

Wasn’t he a member of ISIS? Mateen claimed in a 911 call during the incident to be a follower of ISIS, but investigators could not find any solid link to that organization. Of course, ISIS has no problem taking advantage of a public relations opportunity and claiming responsibility. If it helps to fracture American unity, they’re all for it. There’s no evidence that ISIS directed Mateen’s actions.

Why don’t we ban all citizens from being able to own firearms of any sort? I am not a fan of guns, but I recognize the rights of responsible gun owners. Mateen had all the legal permits and had purchased those guns legally. He had worked in security for a decade. There is just no way to look into a crystal ball and see how a person will use a gun.

Should we throw all Muslims out of the country or into camps?  This smacks of the same shameful behavior during World War II when fear overcame reason and U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were herded into camps. They had to abandon their homes and sell at deep discount, or just leave behind, their possessions.

Is that the kind of country the Constitution wants us to be? Would you want that to happen to you? Neither Dylan Roof or Timothy McViegh were Muslim. Domestic terrorism is not the domain of a single belief system.

What should we do? We should concentrate on intolerance, why some feel the need to violently react against differences. Why are people so driven to make everyone else live the way they think is the only way, under their version of what is “right”? Isn’t that the real problem? Why would anyone value being “right” more than others’ lives?

We need, in the spirit of the common good and the willingness to compromise, to have civil discussions about the issues this tragedy raises.

Ours is a country founded on the ideals of tolerance and justice. We don’t always get them right, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon their pursuit as a quick fix to ease the pain of our grief.

 

Remembrance, Rights, Responsibility

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Today is Memorial Day in the United States – the day we remember those who have died protecting our rights and our way of life.

We all appreciate our ability to say or write what we think and to live without the fear of the government evicting us from our homes or throwing us into jail at a whim. Most of us gratefully honor those who protect those rights, those freedoms.

Why is it then that so many ignore their responsibility in using and maintaining these rights? Why are so many of us willing to be herded by the “thought leaders” without doing what it takes to keep them honest?

I recently tripped across the piece “Thumb War” by Katie Roiphe in the latest issue of Esquire magazine. In it, Roiphe uses the Twitter storm around Gay Talese’s alleged comments regarding women writers to illustrate how thoughtlessly people comment on manufactured slants to subjects. We are so willing to blast someone in 140 characters without knowing the whole story.

Social media are like fire – beneficial if used responsibly, but dangerous if not. What worries me is the public’s willingness to be led by the short spurts of incomplete information they are fed. So many people get their “news” from Twitter and Facebook which, by their very nature, are unable to provide the deep research necessary for a complete story.

People don’t investigate to the heart of the matter, the kernel of truth, on other media outlets. They just don’t question whether what they’re reading or seeing is valid. That responsibility takes effort.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are rights established by the Constitution’s First Amendment. The purpose was to give people access to all information, especially information and opinion contrary to the mainstream, so they can make good decisions. Self-government is founded upon making decisions.

The most important area of decision making in government is selecting and influencing our representatives. We have the right – and the responsibility – to vote for our lawmakers. We should always make the best decision based not on what we’re fed by our preferred media source but by our stringent efforts to determine the truth of the candidates’ history, character, and personality.  Elections should not devolve into popularity contests.

This takes effort. We need to think critically about the complicated issues and the candidates’ positions on them. We have do more than follow the tweets and Facebook posts. And we need to vote on our investigation and synthesis of information. We need to fulfill our responsibilities to maintain our rights.

To do less would be to dishonor those we remember today.

Don’t Fall into the TMI Trap

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Have you ever tried to cram ten pounds of stuff into a five-pound bag?

As writers, we tend to succumb to this temptation more than we want to admit. I’m very guilty of this. I have to weed out all those parenthetical phrases and asides I just love to put into my writing.

Why? Why do we do it in the first place? What drives us?

It’s not a psychological deficiency. I like to think of it as excessive generosity. You see, writers, in the course of research and transmitting information, want to share everything they find out. As someone I know might say, “It’s all such lovely stuff.”

Unfortunately, this compulsion to share ends up being as big a disaster as sitting a starving man down before an banquet of rich, exotic food. It’s just too much, and it’s not what he needs.

The end result? He’ll probably end up vomiting his guts out and be worse off than he started.

No writer wants to make her reader barf.

The good news is that we can avoid this by feeding our readers only what is informationally “nutritious.” Give the information to them in sufficient quantity and quality for what they need.

Sometimes you can use appendices, footnotes, and (my favorite) post scripts – the snack cupboards of writing — if you just can’t contain yourself. Just make sure they are pertinent.

Here’s an example of what to avoid and how to fix it:

The machine, which was made by a company founded in the late 1800s by a tinsmith peddling his wares through the streets of New York City on a cart drawn by a former thoroughbred horse down on its luck, processes screws (created with such precision that the clearance is less than 1/100th of a strand of a human hair) for surgical use.

Translated: The machine processes screws for surgical use.

Writers, don’t throw out all that other information. You can always use it for something else and for readers who have the “palate” for it. (Hmm, maybe I can write a novel about a tinsmith and his horse.)

The Meat Is in the Content

It sits before ybeefless burger bunou with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and ketchup spilling out of the sides. Mouth watering, you bring the loaded bun to your mouth and take a giant bite.  Shocked, you realize — there’s no meat!

This hamburger lover’s nightmare is like visiting a web site or reading a blog that doesn’t have the information you’re looking for. When it comes to our online presence, we don’t want to leave visitors asking that famous advertising slogan, “Where’s the beef?!”

We’ve already talked about knowing who we want to reach and how to use (and not use) headlines to entice people into our content. However, it is imperative that the content be good, solid, and (dare I say it?) meaty to satisfy what our visitors require and what we want to say about ourselves. (Notice who is first in that sentence?)

Basic information – name, contact information, background – are vital to any site but should not be the main focus. An “about page” and header and footer areas are more than enough to handle this. It is important to make sure the visitor has easy access – one click of the mouse at most. We all know how frustrating it is to have to hunt for information. Make sure an email address has a clickable link. Even phone numbers can be set up for automatic dialing.

The tenderloin of the content should be offering what our audience needs. For instance, if you are a cleaning service, maybe you could provide hints on how to clean with environmentally friendly products (maybe that is something that sets you apart from other services). You may even give tips on why and how to hire a cleaning service.

If you just published a fantasy fiction e-book, your author’s Facebook page could discuss the political background of the world you’ve created or even character motivations – details you may not have included in your book but could make the readers’ experience richer if they knew them.

We’re all consumers of something. The trick is to ask ourselves, “If I was looking for more information about me, what would I need and want to know?”

Here are topics we need to address in our content to make it more successful:

  • Why would someone visit my site?
  • What do they need or want to know?
  • What information can I provide to satisfy these needs or wants?
  • How can I make it easy for a visitor to seek more information?
  • What fresh information can I offer?
  • What can I include to establish a relationship with that visitor?
  • How can I make sure they are satisfied with their experience on my site and will come back?

One very important step in building our content “burger” is cleaning up grammar and usage. Making mechanical errors in our writing is like biting into a juicy burger and finding gristle or bone. Yuck! Who wants to try another bite of that no matter how attractive the burger looks? Not me!

The bottom line is that we have to provide substance that satisfies our visitors and makes them want more.

Next week: Garnishing Content with Design