A Communicator’s Op-Ed: Overwrought with Simplicity

It seems more often than not, over-thinking with the aim to achieve dumbed-down simplicity and obscuring the obvious solutions complicate the simplest things. Is this human nature, or a product of our current social and political climate?

I want to know what the mainstream media’s current target demographic is – seven and under? I often wonder how uneducated or ignorant they think the general population is. Granted, American education is not at the top of the world as it once was – a critical issue that needs attention – but humans, by nature, aren’t stupid. Furthermore, whether they are book smart or street smart, the majority of Americans can think for themselves and form their own opinions.

I am a big advocate of eliminating jargon and million dollar words from everyday communication. Why? Because they don’t communicate to anyone but a select few, portraying an elitist scenario that only further angers the rest of the masses. You wouldn’t always know it from my style of writing, but I am a fan of the short declarative sentence. Think Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Combine that with talking to adults as adults, not as little kids, and you have a strong formula to communicate with the public. It’s not difficult. Yet it seems so hard to do in the mainstream media and political campaigns.

I realize not all publications and media outlets fall into this dumbing-down category, but at the same time, they are not the same outlets the majority of people are turning to for their news. Complicating this scenario is that the popular outlets are fueled by biased politics on the left or right of the political spectrum. When Newt Gingrich during his presidential campaign complains about the “elite mainstream media” and how it will take his words out of context to portray him negatively, is he lumping in his friends at the Republican-supporting Fox News and their affiliates? Of course not, it would be a conflict of interest, and the die-hard supporters/Fox News audience knows it. The answer is “yes,” however, as the self-identified left-wing outlets are doing just that. But guess what? Fox News does the same thing about President Obama and the Democrats, taking their words out of context to paint a bad picture and plant the seeds of doubt.

How often have the pundits on MSNBC painted Newt Gingrich as brilliant but crazy, Rick Santorum as a scary anti-woman theocrat, or Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch one percent elitist? How often has Fox News perpetuated the absurd implications that the president was a Muslim, not born in the US, or painted his efforts to save the American auto industry as a sign of totalitarianism and government corruption? This current day mainstream media phenomenon of slanderous remarks, discrediting sound bites, and accusatory video clips is ubiquitous. And it’s sad.

What does this have to do with over-simplification? Well, the news outlets are not necessarily debating complex issues the country faces and discussing in a mature and educated fashion how a candidate’s policy could best fix those issues. I hear the same talking points from ten different supporters of a campaign on ten different communication channels, repeating specific phrases and keywords, rarely ever answering a direct question. And I observe the exact same concept from the opposition. It’s called propaganda, like it or not, and that’s how it works. The very same formulas Ivy Ledbetter Lee and Edward L. Bernays recognized and developed nearly a century ago, only applied to our modern social media connected world. And it still works when the die-hard audiences – aka the herd – are willing to soak it all in and repeat the messaging on their social networks and by word-of-mouth. An ingenious communication method can move mountains.

As for the journalism implied by the mainstream media outlets covering this stuff, what will it take to get them to take a neutral stance? I want to hear both sides of a story, not their favorite side. I want to know the nuances, the pros and cons, so I can make an educated decision when I go to the voting booth. And, I feel confident in saying this for all Americans, I want the media to talk to us as educated adults.

In my search for non-partisan clarity and neutrality, I have stumbled across new organizations with a similar mindset, like Rise of the Center and No Labels. I have begun exploring these groups and joining the conversations at Rise. So, in this world of reducing everything to dumbed down labels and demographics, does that classify me as one of the centrist herd? Do I now belong to a freethinking demographic willing to criticize and question authority and the herd mentality of biased media and politics? I would love to see how the mainstream media portrays and simplifies this new groundswell and what affect it may have on the 2012 election and beyond.

Please share your thoughts on this subject, whether you think I am right or wrong, or somewhere in between.

A Writer’s Exploration: Plight of the Obsessive Revisionist

I enter my own world when I write. I know all artists can identify – some call it entering the zone or finding their own space. The sights and sounds around me become non-existent; I hear nothing but my mental voice. As a painter sees only color, form, and texture on the canvas, I see nothing outside of the words on the page or screen and the mental images I intend them to portray. Smell, taste, and touch are similar experiences, except for the sips of beer or water as I work, which I tend to forget about pretty quickly until I have exhausted my brain for the night.

I enter an entirely new world when I revise. With all senses alert, I traverse this alternative environment capturing every pertinent detail for the reader who dares to enter it. Life spent in this world far exceeds the time spent in the first round of creating it. It is an art unto itself, one that has occupied my brain at all hours of the day and night regardless of activity – cleaning the dinner dishes, driving my daughter to an ice rink, working on a project at my job, enjoying a show – revision never sleeps.

Once upon a time, when I was eighteen or so, I would fall in love with my first draft. Yes, I was one of those people. God forbid I corrupt those authentic words no matter how unnecessary, weak, or confusing the language might be. I quickly came around, though. By the time I graduated college, my creative writing mentor, Dick Allen, had instilled in me the necessity and value of revision. My power over the craft and technique were less than stellar at my nascent age, but the effort was there.

Last summer I pulled out my writing archive (read: large airtight Rubbermaid container filled with notebooks and printed manuscripts) to review what I wrote nearly twenty years earlier, in search of stories I might revitalize. Some stories were immediately cast aside; they are not the person I am today. Minimal effort on revision, I determined, unintentionally breaking rules with minimal consequences. Others showed promise. I went to work on them for the full summer, cringing and laughing at the elements I allowed to stay in the final drafts when I was just starting out.

So here I am today, revision is a permanent addition to my pantheon of obsessions. I have a touch of OCD, well, maybe more than a touch, but I have learned to manage it over the years, funneling it into my creative endeavors. Thankfully, I would never qualify for the latest wave of reality TV shows exploiting people’s strange addictions and compulsions, not that I would ever take part in those. This writing thing, whether on my blog or other channels, is my reality show with me in control. Those TV shows do serve as great source material for creating some interesting characters, however.

I spent the other night compiling line edits, comments, and other feedback from at least ten different people (I lost count) for a story I have been developing for the past several months. Hours passed without my knowledge, the occasional blurt from my daughter or whine from a cat piercing my focus, but I persisted. When I decided to finish for the night, I had learned seven hours had passed and it was nearly 1:00 AM. I finished my warm Ruthless Rye IPA and went to bed satisfied that my new story had grown up a little bit more. Of course, my story wrapped itself around my waist and followed me to bed where it continued to play out as I slowly fell asleep.

Thing is, if it wasn’t a story my brain was mulling over as I tried to sleep it would have been some other not so happy – even stressful – thoughts in a continuous loop plaguing my sleep. I will always opt for the former; call it my form of escapism in support of mental wellness.

A Writer’s Exploration: Own Your Words

A topic that has come to bother me lately is the usage of passive language. Okay, I will admit it – it annoys me. Equally annoying is the avoidance of owning a documented statement, denying it in order to cater to a specific audience. But this isn’t just about my perception on owning language, it’s the perception by the audience of the communicator and the organization they represent.

When I read a line in a bulk corporate email such as “We encourage you to review your account to confirm there may not be any conflicting or otherwise questionable activity, if so, please contact us so we may be able to help you,” I cringe. What is so difficult about telling the audience, in a respectful manner, “Please check your account and contact us if there is an error, we will work with you to fix it.” Give reason, be forthcoming; avoid becoming an insipid spineless messenger.

It’s sad, I see this passive language everywhere – politics, business-to-customer communications, within organizations, legal and financial documents, and so on. What does it say about the direction our culture has taken? My gut instinct swears it is contributing to a downward spiral of lower educational standing along with other decreases of rank and glamour on a global scale. Now I may appear to be overreaching, in fact, I know I am – I tend to look at issues from both extremes of an argument in my own process of narrowing them into mid-ranged rational points of view. This applies just as much to a political stance as it does to grammar. And my gut tells me, because it has nothing better to do than play truth-seeker, perpetuators of passive language make the group they represent appear soft and unable to commit to an action or thought process. That alone makes the group vulnerable to submissive defeat in a competitive environment. Communicators need to be conscious of this at all times.

We live in a capitalistic democracy, here in America, and therefore an element of Darwinism sits at the foundation of how our country operates. Competition drives our economy and our politics, and communication plays a critical role in their facilitation. When I hear the current panel of presidential candidates unable to answer a question directly, I automatically lose respect for them. I am sure I can speak for the population in that we do not want to hear a candidate beating around the bush, backpedaling, or denying they said something has been well documented. Mitt Romney’s latest backpedaling about the Blunt Amendment was astounding, when first asked in an interview he said government had no business in the privacy of a couple’s home, then asked about that stance less than a day later, he claimed he misunderstood the question as he pandered to the party lines. Really?

Owning your words is a powerful stance. No one can take away their meaning or interpret them as anything but what they were intended. Great leaders do this well, whether they are individuals or whole organizations. So my advice to everyone reading this, and please share it with your friends – kill ambiguity, do not take a passive approach to deflect blame or shift responsibility, just say what you mean. And prepare yourself to stand by your words.

A Writer’s Exploration: Wordiness and the Lack of Self

Wordiness is ubiquitous. It appears in emails, Facebook status updates, blogs, memos, newsletters, bulletins, tabloids, signage, packaging … I am sure you get the picture. It is often a result of not mastering the language, not taking the time or knowing how to wordsmith, not knowing the true definitions of words. It comes from our K-12 education in which our English teachers encouraged us to dress up our otherwise simplified and direct prose with flowery language and ornamentation. Make it colorful. Make it dramatic. Make it superficial!

I don’t blame the perpetuators of wordiness for their origins, but I do wonder if they ever consider how it reflects on their being. I’m not exactly going existential here, though a parallel could be drawn by anyone insisting on that level of depth. Your self, my self, the collective self of the population at large, is reflected in everything we do and say, essential to our personalities and the personae we are perceived by.

The careless overuse of words, particularly descriptive and melodramatic language, creates a persona comprising a lack of concision, blurred clarity, a deficit of directness, and unnecessary complexity. I am intentionally going way over the top with wordiness as I espouse this idealized concept I just created on the fly earlier this morning. Or, simply put, I was intentionally wordy in my adoption of this new concept to illustrate the point. One’s true character is mired by these complexities much like viewing their aura through a kaleidoscope and not the naked third eye. Exhausted yet?

An exercise in extreme anti-wordiness

I recently wrote a short story using no descriptive language – no adjectives, no adverbs, no dialogue, though a rare exception was permitted for describing time transitions – as an exercise for my MFA writing workshop. It forced me to consider how I would convey mood, environment, and appearance through carefully selected nouns and verbs. Each meticulously selected word took on a new power and stronger meaning. After I shared it with my workshop group, I learned from their feedback that I had crafted an effective suspenseful and vivid story with zero descriptions. It was a worthwhile challenge that I will employ regularly moving forward.

I urge anyone battling their wordiness demons to try this exercise too. You will find your true self in the process.

Please share your thoughts on this below. I am always interested in what others think.

A Writer’s Exploration: Finding My Nonfiction Voice

I tried something new recently. It was risky – well, not really risky, let’s say daring – I applied my fiction voice to my nonfiction work.

Over the years, as I have developed my business writing prowess, I always felt there were certain molds I needed to fit in to and expectations to meet. Often times I found myself writing in a stilted, unnatural voice, like I was listening to myself on the other side of a two-story brick and mortar wall. It never sat right with me. It felt like a chore. I would spend countless collective hours revising and refining, restructuring and reworking – as I am sure any writer has had the good fortune of dealing with – to sound reasonably good. And the good was good, sometimes a little better than good, sometimes it was dry, business-like, professional, regimented, bland and craving a makeover of charisma and soul. Sometimes I hated the venomous amorphous beast that slowly gnawed at my psyche little bits at a time. It made me crazy; my mental wellness was not quite at stake, but crazy nonetheless. But I did what needed to be done, I stuck to my due diligence.

Now don’t get me wrong, I wrote well, when I was into it. And if not well, well enough for the sake of well enough. I wrote news articles and business information for the corporate intranet, website content, ad copy, various employee communications, a few press releases, a speech or two … whatever a Corporate Communicator would write on a regular basis. It did the job, it communicated clearly and efficiently, and I fulfilled my obligation. Nevertheless, it felt distant to me – like another shallow faceless automaton wrote it. I was starved to fight my way out of this monotony.

Since last August, I have been writing a short fiction piece for my MFA writing workshop course. You could say it is a psychological thriller among other things. During the process, I found myself seeing the story and interpreting it into the written language in a novel way. My writing voice, to my surprise, had evolved to a new level. Though it is hard to pinpoint the catalyst, I fell in love with the writing process all over again (I had to throw in one more cliché, really).

Then it hit me in a subconscious sense – because I did not actually speak or think these words – why not use this evolving fiction style, this new voice, in my nonfiction? I tried it out on a few small pieces. I found myself perceiving what I was writing in a new light with a different thought process. I introduced elements of this evolving voice to a recent book review … and it blew my mind. Reading the work back to myself aloud, I could not believe the barrier I had leapt over. The style was so fluid, so easy to follow, so full of humanity and personality. It was, and still is, an incredible feeling. My true nonfiction voice has emerged from the dark depths of white offices with beige carpets!