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.

My Blog: Celebrating One Year

shutterstock_85653580With this post, my 65th, I’m celebrating the one-year anniversary of my blog.

In my first post a year ago, I said this blog would be about business communications. But my goal then—as now—was to take more of a sidelong glance at this topic than a direct, in-your-face, view of it.

Many people focus narrowly on one aspect of today’s business communications, covering everything there is to know about, say, social media or blogging. Some do a really good job. But most just seem to copy what they’ve seen in someone else’s post. And quite frankly, I often feel I’m reading the same article over and over again, as the third person this week provides a list of the six things you must do to succeed online or the ten things you can do wrong when tweeting.

I chose, instead, to write about what I see as the whole communications process: “word usage, grammar, sentence construction, the structure of documents, communications tools, the strategies and tactics for communicating with specific key stakeholder groups, the execution of these strategies and tactics, and the evaluation of the success or failure of these efforts,” as I said in my first post.

So each week over the past year, I’ve written about whatever communications subject felt important or intriguing at the time, even if this approach produced what might seem—at first glance—to be an array of subjects unrelated to business communications.

Some posts make the connection more directly than others. For instance, my fourth post, from April, ties together a philosopher’s view of shaker furniture and Steve Jobs; a piece from November stresses the need for a company to really understand what its product is; and a post from earlier this month presents a Q&A on digital long-form content.

The subjects of other posts tie less overtly to business communications, but the link can easily be made: tattoos (two Olympians’ and my father’s) with business branding; Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon with the need to write clear business communications; and the different ways “Brussels sprouts” was spelled at the Farmers Market in Madison.

A few posts may require even more thought to find the link. Among these are the September post about my dog, Henry, and the joy he gave me; an October piece about the subconsciousness of writing; and this month’s post on U.S. schools deciding not to teach cursive handwriting.

I believe this circling of my blog’s key topic helps me—and I hope my readers—to think more broadly, and yet at the same time more closely, about the business of communicating about companies, their products and services, and their actions.

Photo: Shutterstock/Vesna Cvorovic

03/02/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five notable communications stories from the week ending March 2, 2013.

My Secrets: How I Became a Prolific Writer and Learned to Get Beyond School Essays by Vivek Wadhwa, on the LinkedIn blog, February 25.

Wadhwa, a book author and writer for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications, shows that you don’t have to be a journalist or love English grammar to be a successful writer. He taught himself to write, taking 40 hours to complete his first BusinessWeek article. He now turns out a piece in two to four hours.

He considers these to be keys to writing: “to speak fearlessly from the heart, get to the point immediately, keep the message simple and focused, and use the fewest words you can.”

19 Things Successful People Do on Social Mediaby TJ McCue, on Forbes website, February 26.

McCue offers some helpful tips here. Among them: “They publish more quality, not just quantity” and “They are genuine.”

A Revolutionary Marketing Strategy: Answer Customers’ Questions by Mark Cohen, in The New York Times, February 27.

Cohen writes about the new, highly successful marketing campaign undertaken by River Pools and Spas, a firm that installs fiberglass pools. The campaign, now at about one-tenth the cost of the company’s previous advertising budget of $250,000, consists mostly of blog posts that answer customer questions. One post has led directly to sales of at least $1.7 million.

This article provides lessons that other small companies might want to consider.

The Anti-Blog Post to Writing Better Blog Posts, a post by Mars Dorian on the {Grow} blog, February 27.

Dorian’s post takes a contrarian look at blog posts and questions the value of just echoing what others write. He suggests that before you start writing, you ask yourself these questions: “Are you creating an original piece of work, or are you merely soaking up the sound waves from the echo chamber?”

Too many bloggers, he suggests, are reading each other’s posts, mashing the information together, and slamming “out another samey samey blog post.” To avoid this routine, he offers five “anti-guidelines” for crafting original, compelling content. One guideline: “Allow your personal truth to shine through.”

Five Secrets Behind Effective Long-Form Content by Jennifer Kane, on the SteamFeed website, March 2.

In this post, Kane, a marketing/communications strategist, points to a fact often overlooked: Long-form content on the Web is not dead or dying, although it may seem that way because so much of it is “ weak and boring” and, therefore, not read. She adds that “in-depth content must adhere to a different set of rules to be seen and consumed.”

Kane’s “secrets” make up some of these rules and provide a good starting point for anyone wanting to develop better long-form content for the Web. These tips do not focus on how to write a better document or its component parts (headlines, sentences, paragraphs, etc.) but rather on how to make the content more presentable on the screen and, therefore, more easily and enjoyably read.

If you are interested in writing long-form content, you will want to read this post. I found her “secrets”—including the unannounced sixth one that you can find in the last paragraph—to be accurate and helpful.

02/16/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are four notable communications stories from the week ending February 16, 2013.

“A Failure of Imagination: Why Bookish and Other Recommendation Engines Fall Short” by Hillary Kelly, on The New Republic magazine’s website, February 11.

In this entertaining and informative piece, Kelly takes a look at Bookish (the newly launched book-centric website) and other sites that use algorithms to attempt to correctly recommend books that readers might enjoy.

She believes these sites, including Amazon and Goodreads, have some value, saying, for example, “Online recommendation engines are not inherently useless. They are indeed fast and convenient, and some more than others provide a certain community.” But she often finds their recommendations to be of little value because they are based on information that is too limited (such as the books she bought only from one particular site or an inadequate understanding of her tastes and desires—even when given plenty of chances to get them right), and are based only on what she bought, not why she bought it.

“The Key to Writing Great Blog Posts,” a post by Shelly Kramer on the V3 Integrated Marketing website, February 12.

Great blogs and other Web content depend, of course, on good writing but also on “making your post readable, shareable and discoverable,” says Kramer. She then discusses the importance of having great headlines, delivering on the promise made in your headline, and using subheads, pictures and meta descriptions to make your post effective.

“The Government is Watching Social Media Policies” by Bob Feldman, on PR Week website, February 15.

In this column, Feldman, a cofounder and principal of the digital and management consulting firm PulsePoint Group, says that although companies are adopting social media policies “to limit the potential of damage and help save employees from the consequences of their own poor judgment,” the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) thinks some companies may be going “too far in restricting employee speech.”

The NLRB’s ruling could affect almost all private employers.

“Why the Word ‘Panties’ Is so Awful (and What to Do about It)” by Sarah Fentem, on the Atlantic magazine’s website,

Fentem, who says the word “panties” creeps her out, is, apparently, not the only person who hates this nickname for women’s underwear. She says many blog posts and message boards denounce the word, which is “simultaneously too-sexualized and too-babyish.”

The word is too babyish, she says, because its “ies” ending “puts it in the same category as ‘booties’ and ‘blankies’—words often associated with small children.” Why it’s a sexy word is not easily understood, she says. But she suggests a few reasons, one being because “it refers to something so exclusively feminine.”