05/11/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are eight recent communications stories of note.

The 10 Best Words the Internet Has Given English by Tom Chatfield, in the Guardian, April 17.

In this article, Chatfield, a self-described etymology addict, looks at the history of ten words that are gaining new life and, in some instances, new meanings on the Internet.

The New Look of Public Relations by Stuart Elliott, in The New York Times, April 28, discusses PR firm FleishmanHillard’s rebranding as an integrated marketing communications agency. The New Look of Public Relations—A Dissenting View by Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, in his 6 A.M. blog, May 8, looks at his firm’s approach to preparing for the future.

The PR business is in flux. And agencies everywhere are trying to determine their future role in the overall marketing space and in controlling their clients’ paid, earned, owned, and shared media mix. The best way for them to brand, or rebrand, themselves for this challenge is up for grabs, as these two articles show.

Solving Equation of a Hit Script, With Data by Brooks Barnes, in The New York Times, May 5.

Barnes writes that a former statistics professor thinks he can improve screenplays by comparing “the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success.” Vinny Bruzzese is not a writer. Instead, he’s interested in using data, which he gathers from focus groups and interviews with moviegoers, to suggest script changes. One screenwriter calls Bruzzese’s approach “my worse nightmare.”

Linguists Identify 15,000-Year-Old ‘Ultraconserved Words’ by David Brown in The Washington Post, May 6.

Some words are coined and then disappear in a matter of years. Even the strongest usually last only about 9,000 years before becoming extinct. But linguists have discovered a few words that have been around for 150 centuries, and they’re wondering why.

Grammar Rules Everyone Should Follow by Thomas Jones in the Guardian, May 9.

Jones says that although these “rules” are really conventions not rules, they’re worth following “in the right kinds of discourse” because they make writing clearer and more elegant. He is correct in eight of his suggestions, but I think he’s wrong about the use of who and whom.

Trying to Be Hip and Edgy, Ads Become Offensive by Stuart Elliott and Tanzina Vega, in The New York Times, May 10.

The authors say that advertising agencies and their clients may be trying too hard to reach millennials and “to create ads that will be noticed and break through the clutter.” The result: They are creating more and more offensive ads, leading to public outrage as well as embarrassment (and worse) for Madison Avenue and the brands being promoted.

The 30 Most Influential Bloggers in Public Relations on The CyberAlert Blog.

Today, there are more than 180 million blogs published worldwide on the Internet. Most have only a handful of followers, and their comments leave little or no trail. But a few bloggers are extremely influential, with thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of followers who can’t wait for their next post.

CyberAlert, a media monitoring service, has identified the 30 most influential bloggers who write about public relations and social media. PR and corporate communications professionals might want to take a look at what these bloggers have to say.

Learning to Communicate Clearly—from Alan Alda

shutterstock_121137493Who would have thought that actor Alan Alda would have anything to say about unclear language, especially anything that we in PR and business communications might want to consider.

We all know that jargon is specialized language associated with a particular industry or group and that when used with our peers, it sounds meaningful. But how many of us notice the jargon we use routinely in our external communications? More important, how many know or care that more often than not, jargon creates a wall between us and our outside listeners and readers who can’t understand the words we use.

Alda knows. And he is concerned about the miscommunication that results when scientists use unclear language. He’s so concerned, in fact, that now as a visiting professor, he teaches a course at Stony Brook University’s newly named Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. His goal is to help science students become better communicators, to teach them to speak clearly.

In his course, “He trains scientists to be more sensitive to their audience,” according to a recent Sunday Morning TV show, “so instead of speaking with what we might call gibberish (‘I study spatial planning and the valuation of ecosystem services to different stakeholders’), we get this: ‘I study ways oceans are used.’”

On Sunday Morning, Alda gives an example of clear communication that he claims saved his life when he was on a Chilean mountain top and would have died from a strangled intestine without proper treatment. The doctor, according to Alda, said “in the clearest possible way, ‘Something’s gone wrong with your intestine and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together.’  I said, ‘That’s Great. Do it.’”

That’s the kind of direct, clear language Alda hopes to teach his students and the kind of language he would like to see other scientists adopt.

All of us in PR and corporate communications could learn from this approach, whether we’re giving a speech to shareholders, writing a white paper as a marketing piece, or tweeting about a new business product or service.

Photo: Shutterstock/Sam72

A Quote from William Zinsser

Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.

This quote comes from William Zinsser’s 1976 book “On Writing Well” and is mentioned in this week’s New York Times article on Zinsser who, besides having written this now-classic guide to writing, has been a teacher of writing for decades. At 90, he still teaches even though he is blind and has to listen to, rather than read, what his students have written. The quote underscores Zinsser’s call for cutting excessive words and eliminating jargon in an attempt to write simply and clearly.

Unpacking a Statement to See What It Means

shutterstock_95551144I’ve always thought the word unpack was used only to mean “to remove something from a suitcase, a bag or a package, for instance.” But I’ve discovered that another meaning—until recently unfamiliar to me—is “to analyze something into its component elements.”

I started noticing this second meaning of unpack a few months ago while watching the TV talk show Tavis Smiley and hearing the host say over and over again—with what always seemed like the anticipation of discovery in his voice—that he wanted to unpack a statement just made by one of his guests.

Soon, I began listening for all the times Smiley would use this word on a given night or within a week. I didn’t really count the usages, but I became so aware of them that it seemed clear unpack had become his default word when he wanted a guest to explain in more detail what he/she really meant in answering his most recent question.

Once I became aware of Smiley’s repeated use of the word, I started looking for unpack in other places, noticing it in newspapers and magazines, and occasionally online.

Online, for example, I saw it used in Rollingstone.com’s article on Muscle Shoals, a new documentary film about the famous music studios in the Alabama town of the same name. In the article, writer Katie Van Syckle says, “The film unpacks the town’s musical significance by focusing on the two primary local studios—Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound….”

Syckle seems to stretch the meaning of the word a little further than Smiley does, going beyond using it to explain a statement to using it to provide a full description of a place.

Recently, I ran across the word in the 2013 book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, by Phillip Lopate. In a chapter on James Baldwin, he quotes a long (almost two-page) paragraph from Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son.”

Then he writes, “It’s all there, in this paragraph, but it requires some unpacking: Baldwin’s sheer love of language; his intoxication with adjectives and adverbs….” And he continued to breakdown or open up Baldwin’s paragraph with his own 176-word sentence.

Smiley’s use of unpack seems to have declined somewhat of late, but he’s still at it. One recent week, for example, he used it twice: in interviews with comedian David Steinberg and actress Elizabeth Moss.

Steinberg had just mentioned why he thought having the opportunity to open for jazz musicians when he was starting out as a stand-up comedian was a good experience. Smiley’s response: “Since you went there, let me follow you in. There are a couple of things you said I want to go back to and get you to unpack.”

Moss, one of the stars of “Mad Men,” had just given a number of reasons why she had taken the lead role in the new “Top of the Lake” miniseries, when Smiley remarked, “You said a couple of things I want to go back to and kind of have you unpack for me in no particular order.”

This new-to-me use of unpack is almost visual, like the opening of a flower, carrying with it the expectation of something meaningful and truthful, something not to missed.

Photo: Shutterstock/Marcin-linfernum

What if We Ran Out of Words?

IMG_0420I’ve been worrying about running out of words.

My worrying began recently when I read an interesting essay, “The Ghost Writes Back,” by Amy Boesky, on The Kenyon Review website. It’s about her experience ghostwriting several of the Sweet Valley High books in this series for teenaged girls—while also working on her PhD.

This long essay (just over 5,000 words) is worth reading. It’s well written. And Boesky provides insight into how someone could write these novels—sometimes as many as eight per year—while also attending classes, working as a teacher’s assistant, and writing her dissertation. She also talks about the unsettling feelings she had about being a ghostwriter and about keeping this side job a secret from her classmates, students, and teachers. And she discusses the difference between writing a dissertation that took five years and writing these breezy novels for which she could produce an entire chapter on a weekend morning.

Then, deep in the essay, she writes about a conversation she had with an acquaintance. The acquaintance said she thought that writing the books was creatively risky because, as Broesky asks in the piece, “How did I know that every word I ghost wrote wasn’t depleting my creative arsenal? What if you’re only born with so many words, and you use up the ones you’ve been allotted on writing somebody else’s stories? Then what?”

That statement floored me. What a frightening concept: to have only a specific allotment of words—the very source of writing and communication.

What if, I thought, we have only so many adjectives and adverbs, a limited supply of nouns, and a finite number of verbs, not to mention a restricted stockpile of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections? And worse yet, what if we have only a certain number of each specific word?

I thought of only one bright side to this tragedy: My supply of the word interesting might soon run out. Interesting is my default adjective when I want to describe something as being appealing, thought provoking, or worthy of our attention. (See the second sentence of this piece.) It’s notScreen Shot 2013-04-06 at 4.27.41 PM a word I necessarily want to use often; there are many better choices. But it just pops into my head. And what’s worse, sometimes it seems to type itself, my fingers tapping the keys without my thinking.

I use this word—and interestingly, its adverbial cousin—too often in the first drafts of my writing. So much so that if I were to have only a limited number of specific words, my arsenal would surely be nearly empty of this one. When it ran dry, perhaps my writing, at least the first drafts of each piece, would be better, I thought.

But in thinking about Broesky’s statement, I knew I wouldn’t be better off if I could no longer use interesting or any other specific word. Not having a word at my disposal, even one I overuse, would be devastating.

What, I wondered, would it be like if every time I used a noun, say strategy, my overall supply of that word declined, as did my opportunities to use any other noun, since all of them share the same grammatical purpose?

How many times could I use the word strategy before running out? Perhaps half a million. Possibly just 30,000. Maybe only 4,877.

None of these amounts sounds very large, certainly not enough for a lifetime of writing. Strategy is a good word to use and there are lots of places where it fits most perfectly in a sentence. It’s not a word I’d like to lose anytime soon.

I wondered if I would have the same number of every word, or at least the same number of each word used as a verb, and maybe a different number for each noun. Verbs and nouns are key to good writing, and none of us could write long without them. So I would hope my supply would be as large as possible. But adverbs and adjectives are important, too.

If I had a limited supply of beautiful, for example, I wondered if it would be possible to exchange other words, which I value less, for this one. IScreen Shot 2013-04-06 at 4.36.47 PM know I have a larger supply of  ugly than I’ll ever need. I don’t like the word and never use it. So, would it be possible to trade in a keyboard full of this word for an equivalent amount of one I treasure more highly. If so, I wondered if the exchange rate would be the same for every word: One ugly would equal one beautiful. Or would the rate vary, with maybe a really good and useful word like communications requiring as many as five harsh and jarring words like sequestration.

Would we know—from the time we start to write, begin high school or college, or when?—that we had a limited number of specific words or parts of speech? Would we know when we were running out?

I wondered how my writing would change if I knew I had to make every word count or I might not have a particular word when I most needed it. Certainly, I’d write more carefully, more slowly, cautiously choosing my words, writing fewer drafts to avoid wasting words that no one would see, rewriting sentences to minimize using those words that I most want in my arsenal.

And I wondered how I would know when I ran out of a specific word. Would beautiful just not be there anymore?

When I put my fingers on the keyboard to start typing it, would they just not move, would they be stuck in place? Or would they automatically form another word, say alluring, an almost-good-enough synonym that would have to serve my purpose every time I try to write beautiful in the future?

When beautiful is gone, would I even be able to see it in my mind? Would I have a concept of the word anymore? Maybe it would be as if it never existed. If that were to happen, would I then not recognize it or not understand its meaning when I saw it in someone else’s writing?

I wondered, finally, how many words I would have to lose before I could no longer write, and if, after all these years, I’m getting close.