Volume 2022, Number May (2022), Pages 1-9
Communication Corner: Just who do I think I am?
Each "Communication Corner" essay is self-contained; however, they build on each other. For best results, before reading this essay and doing the exercise, go to the first essay "How an Ugly Duckling Became a Swan," then read each succeeding essay.
Good advice is good advice no matter the source. However knowing something about its source can significantly reinforce one's desire to put that good advice into practice.
Ever since I joined Toastmasters International several years ago, people have been telling me that I am a "natural-born speaker."
For quite some time (in fact since December 2016), I have been advising readers how to be better writers and public speakers. Perhaps it is time to provide some in-depth information on what qualifies me to do this so you can better judge the value of the principles, practices, and attitudes I have been exhorting you to adopt.
As I pointed out in the first Communication Corner essay "How an Ugly Duckling Became a Swan," as a youngster and adolescent growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s, I was neither a good writer (although I thought I was) nor a good speaker (although I knew I wasn't). Moreover, I had no ambition to be either.
My passion in and out of school was mathematics and science. Because I was a pretty good student, I was put into an accelerated college prep section in high school, which meant I had to do a lot of writing. I developed a rather complex, almost gothic writing style with convoluted sentence structures and a vocabulary far beyond the norm for my age.
One day I got back a paper with an "A" grade (I usually got "A" or "A-") with a note saying: "Philip, you have such interesting things to say and you organize your thoughts so well, why do you hide it all under your almost impenetrable writing style? Next year when you go to university, I suggest that you take an introductory journalism course to learn how to simplify your writing."
I had no particular interest in writing in general, and certainly not journalism in particular. But I did have great respect for this teacher, so I followed his advice. This is where I discovered that clear, concise, comprehensible writing was much more of a challenge than the pseudo-sophisticated stuff I had been doing. Following this revelation, I naturally gravitated to the student newspaper. When I graduated from UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) in 1965, I left with both a degree in mathematics and the title of Editor-in-Chief of the UCLA Daily Bruin.
I then volunteered for the Peace Corps (a U.S. government program of aid to the developing world) when fate stepped in again. I was sent to Tanzania (then Tanganyika) to teach high school mathematics and physics. By chance, I was posted a stone's throw away from the only school of journalism in the entire country. I couldn't resist. I immediately raced up the hill to offer my services. It was a fantastic experience.
When I returned to L.A. in 1968, I decided against taking an advanced degree in mathematics. Fortunately, I was hired by the Los Angeles bureau of The Wall Street Journal. And the rest, as they say, is history.
A Productive Lack of Style
I have often been asked: "Do you have a specific writing style?" To which I answer, "I hope not!" I believe the style of an expository (non-fiction) text should reflect the subject matter and the intended audience, not the writer. I am always less concerned by how I say something, but by how people will understand what I say.
For example, one time I was commissioned to write articles for an industrial newsletter, along with several other freelancers. One day the communication director said to me, "Phil, I can recognize your articles even without seeing your name on them." My heart sank. "Good grief, I hope she isn't going to tell me I have a distinctive style," I thought. "I have very little technical background," she continued. "When I read one of your articles, I immediately understand the subject. When I read articles from anyone else, I usually have to read them at least twice to be certain I know what they are talking about."
I considered this to be perhaps the highest compliment as a professional writer I had ever received.
On Being Unappreciated
As an expository (non-fiction) writer, you quickly learn not to expect plaudits for your work because what you do is too often under-appreciated if it is appreciated at all. I don't mean this in a personal sense, but in general. Whereas most people will freely concede that they really don't know how to write fiction (novels, plays, poetry, film scripts, etc.), they firmly do believe that they do know how to write non-fiction.
I remember once a potential client said to me, "Phil, I am going to let you do this job because I don't have time to do it myself." I was stunned. I told him that if he believed that he could do the job as well as I could, then we had no business working together. I declined the commission.
By contrast, I was once commissioned to write a technical description of an early digital telephone network aimed at the lay public. When I presented it, the communication director said, "I couldn't have written this text if my life depended on it. I don't know how you do it. I think this is the first time I have fully understood the system myself." Needless to say, we got on famously.
An Appalling Lack of Education
Throughout my career, I have worked with a number of middle and upper-level executives. I was frequently appalled by how poorly they wrote and spoke, although they thought they were doing both quite well. They were obviously very intelligent people; however from the way they verbally presented themselves, you would never have guessed it.
I recall one day I was editing a speech by a top European executive of a globe-girding automobile company while he was looking over my shoulder. I moved a couple of words around in a paragraph and he gasped: "But that's so much better! Why didn't I see that myself?" Later I asked myself the same question: Why hadn't he seen it. The answer was, he didn't know what to look for.
This incident was the impetus for me to take a close look at how I was writing and why I knew what to look for while he didn't. It certainly wasn't because I had been taught it in school.
I don't like to generalize, but I feel that most schools (K-12) don't really teach good writing (and by extension good public speaking), so it is unrealistic to expect that students will actually achieve it. Teachers exhort students to be "clear" and "concise", but they are never really taught how to go about it. Teachers may do a good job, even an excellent job, of inculcating grammar, vocabulary, diction, syntax, etc., but these are the frosting on the cake. The cake itself is missing.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. How do you know that a text is clear? What makes a text concise? If these sound like silly questions, try to answer them. You will probably do something like this:
Question: What makes this text clear?
Answer: It is easy to understand.
Question: What makes it easy to understand?
Answer: It is simple.
Question: What do you mean by simple?
Answer: It is clear.
You in fact end up going around in a circle. The text is clear because it is easy to understand…because it is simple…because it is clear.
"Clear," "easy to understand," and "simple" are synonyms. While synonyms may have nuances, they don't have content, so you are still left to your own subjective appreciation. However; what you think is clear may not be clear to someone else.
This is why it is necessary to give "clear" an objective definition, almost like a mathematical formula. To achieve clarity, i.e. virtually everyone will agree that a text is clear, you must do three things.
- Emphasize what is of key importance
- De-emphasize what is of secondary importance
- Eliminate what is of no importance
In short: Cl = E + D + E. Or, while technically incorrect Cl = EDE, which is probably easier to remember.
Thinking of clarity in this quasi-mathematical fashion not only results in a sharper definition of clarity, but it also provides what amounts to a recipe for achieving it. In short, it tells you how to target clarity in your first draft, then how to check if you have actually achieved it in order to prepare your final draft.
Concise, like clear, is also an ill-defined term (a so-called "weasel word") because what is concise for one person may be incomplete for another. However, like clear, concise can also be reduced to a quasi-mathematical formula. To be concise, your text must be as:
- Long as necessary
- Short as possible
In short, C = L + S (or C = LS).
If you are about to say that "long" and "short" are weasel words, congratulations. They are. So the next thing we need to do is define them in such a way as to make them concrete.
To see how this can be done, and for more information about using quasi-mathematical concepts to improve writing and speaking, go to the Communication Corner essay "The Three Acid Tests of Persuasive Writing."
Telling an Interesting Story
As a journalist, I have often been asked: "What makes a good story?"
Having never written fiction writing, I have no competence to comment. However, if we are talking about expository (non-fiction) writing, the answer is simple: Anything.
It is my contention that there are no dull stories, only dull writers. If you ask a ditch digger about his job, he will tell you much more about digging ditches than you ever imagined. It is the writer's job to dig for this information (if you will pardon the pun), then convey it to their readers.
When doing so, expository writers should strive to give their readers a maximum of information in a minimum of time. This means that the text must be clear, concise, and "flexible."
Novice expository writers often assume that the purpose of producing a text is for the reader to read it from start to finish. This is incorrect. The purpose is for each individual reader to read as much as they need. Since readers are different, what is necessary for one can easily be too much for another. It is the reader who must make this decision, not the writer.
How often do people who start to read a newspaper article actually finish it? Estimates are only about 5 percent; 95 percent of them stop somewhere in between. Does this mean that the article was poorly written? No, it means that it was written very well. Why? Because it allows each individual reader at some point to say, "This has already covered all of my concerns, so I can now stop reading it and move on to something else." This is one of the most important precepts—if not the most important precept—taught in journalism schools.
Fiction writers of course want people to read everything they write. So do the readers because they are generally reading to be entertained rather than informed.
Although the two genres have distinctly different objectives, it turns out that the techniques that make for good expository writing can also enhance fiction (so-called "creative writing").
No one ever told me this; I discovered it through experience.
Except for expense reports, I have never written fiction. Nevertheless, a budding novelist here in Brussels who had read some of my articles on expository writing asked if I could help her revise the draft of her latest effort. I was reluctant to venture into an area that I felt I knew nothing about (except as a reader), but then decided to give it a try. I was surprised and delighted to discover that the same fundamental principles of non-fiction writing that I teach could also dramatically improve fiction. I critiqued her fiction text as I would have an expository text. When she revised it according to my comments, the improvement was astounding. We both agreed that the revised version was substantially better than the original.
Expository writing and creative writing are still essentially different genres. The mindset needed to succeed in the one is quite different from the mindset needed to succeed in the other. Nevertheless, it seems that at their core, they are more alike than they are different. A happy revelation!
There are numerous techniques that can be called upon to achieve flexible writing. In addition to journalism, they can be applied to virtually every kind of expository text: company newsletters, research reports, financial reports, marketing proposals, etc. All of these techniques have been touched on at one time or another in these Communication Corner essays. However, if you want to see them in a more rigorous form for easy reference (stand by for a commercial message), you might wish to consult my book The Gettysburg Approach to Writing and Speaking Like a Professional, available as an ebook from Amazon.
My motivation in writing this book was not simply to put something between two covers (many expository writers and speakers at some time feel they should author a book). Rather, it was to collate and expound upon a number of insights into good expository writing (and by extension good public speaking) that have come my way over my more than 40-year career. And to add one or two perhaps original things I have discovered along the way.
Throughout much of my career, I had been applying these principles and techniques subconsciously. However, after the incident with the European automobile company executive, I decided to explore the principles and techniques I was using, and to apply them consciously. The Gettysburg Approach to Writing and Speaking Like a Professional was the result.
But why the "Gettysburg Approach"?
Abraham Lincoln, America's iconic 16th President (1861–65), was never known as either a great writer or a great orator. Yet he penned and delivered one of the most highly praised and oft-quoted speeches in history. It was probably so good because it clearly expressed his controlled passion toward the monumental event he was talking about.
The Gettysburg Address was delivered by President Lincoln in 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to mark a pivotal victory in the American Civil War. Some reports suggest that he scribbled it on the back of an envelope just before arriving in Gettysburg. This is a myth, but the emotion it engenders makes the story seem more than plausible.
It is possible to dispassionately analyze the address and draw some important lessons. Which is what I did. And why I decided, in fact impelled, to title my book after this miniature masterpiece. The Gettysburg Address contains only 272 words. But, oh what a treasure trove of meaning!
In Other Words
I am fond of collecting quotations. Here are a few of my favorites about the craft of writing (and by extension public speaking).
"There are two kinds of writers in the world: bad writers and improving writers."—William Blundell
"The secret of good writing is to say an old thing in a new way or to say a new thing in an old way."—Richard Harding Davis
"A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."—Thomas Mann
"Good writing is clear thinking made visible."—Bill Wheeler
"The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think."—Edwin Schlossberg
"Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific writing. It's the difference between a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors."—Rhys Alexander
"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure."—Samuel Johnson
"Don't write merely to be understood. Write so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood."—Robert Louis Stevenson
But the final word must of course go to the undisputed champion.
"Good writing is hard work."—Snoopy (Charles Schulz)
Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA's daily student newspaper. He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974. He is the author of more than 30 books, which can be found easily in Amazon Kindle.
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