Leverage this: try effective communication

The use of jargon, or corporate speak, has had a genocidal effect on good-natured simple words. These words didn’t ask to be violated when someone seeking impromptu authority uses them incorrectly to speak over another’s head. The tragic popularization of converting nouns into verbs, for instance – leverage, impact, blue-sky – does not make you a better speaker or writer. Nor do figurative phrases whose meanings are lost on the average person, like boil the ocean, pissing on fire hydrants, and circle back.

If you speak in jargon, you are not communicating effectively.

Though you may think jargon makes you sound more professional or smarter, it does the opposite. Consider phrases like the team exhibited robust performance this month and my idea has been blue-sky’d by marketing, which are both esoteric and void of humanity. Here are a few reasons jargon is ineffective:

  • The recipient may not understand the meaning of the slang words;
  • The audience may feel you are talking down to them, especially when they work outside of your circle;
  • There is an emotional disconnect from jargon, authentic passion cannot be expressed through it;
  • Jargon by design eliminates personal accountability.

It’s bad enough when jargon and buzzwords appear in emails or presentations, but when I hear them in personal conversations I cringe. Not the good kind of cringe induced by a comic riffing on a taboo subject, for which I have a high appreciation. I wish I was using hyperbole right now, but I have had the sad fortune of witnessing all of the examples mentioned in this blog spoken in some type of face-to-face conversation at work this year. I keep a mental note each time I encounter these terms and my disgust for them.

I dare you to talk that way to Grandma.

You might use the following sentence when speaking to a colleague at work:

I’m not trying to boil the ocean here, but we do need to leverage the latest ad campaign assets to incentivize the consumer during BF/CM to create another lift. 

Consider speaking this way to anyone else in your life – your parents, your kids, your grandmother, your friends while watching a football game at the bar – and count the seconds it takes to hear what did you just say?, repeat that in English, or some kind of mockery and laughter at your expense. With this in mind, ask yourself what value comes from using jargon at work. I bet this is not easy to answer. Meanwhile, common speak is clear and specific:

I know it’s difficult, but we need to rework the latest ad campaign to continue driving sales on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

The student intern gets it. The admin gets it. The old-school senior vice president who chose not to retire fifteen years ago gets it. The creative professional from a non-corporate background gets it. And it wasn’t complicated to say. Is this making sense now?

Unnecessary, if not misleading.

The English language contains an abundance of great words to fit most any occasion and meaning. I know it’s not perfect, there are voids by not having words for certain objects (is there a common word for the interior section of the arm opposite the elbow?), complexities (such as the homonyms there, their, they’re), and words with multiple meanings (such as lie, post, and stake).

The language exists for us to use and enjoy. Explore dictionaries and thesauruses for strong alternatives to jargon. You have full creative license. If you’re unsure your audience will comprehend the word you found while in context, find something more suitable. It’s not difficult. Even the most successful novelists keep reference books at their desks for precisely this reason. The key in finding good words is simplicity. Million dollar words, those rarely seen outside specialized texts used in the medical community or academia, rarely suit the need as they come across in the same vein as jargon. So avoid them unless it’s appropriate for your audience.

Help make the world a better place. Communicate effectively, don’t use jargon.

A Writers Exploration: Where I Am

I am here in early May as my MFA Writing program spring semesters wraps. I have definitely come out ahead from where I started, making a few self-discoveries along the way. For instance, I learned that I am a natural at writing horror and suspense in my fiction life, something I never touched on until recently. I had always aimed at the slice of life, somewhat absurd, realism in my earlier days of writing, mixed with elements of surrealism for the unexpected. Rejuvenating my writing style in the psycho thriller and horror area story feels like a natural progression for me, one that I just took the risk and succeeded at. Who knew? My first story in this genre will be published soon, details to come.

I find myself filled with far more knowledge about the discipline of corporate communication and PR than I had ever anticipated. The things that come out of my mouth on this subject at work or during casual conversations catch me by surprise sometimes, only proving that my MFA endeavor is anything but futile. I now have a solidified foundation in communication that I have already begun to build upon, which will only continue upwards as I finish my schooling and grow in my professional life.

Most important, I find myself a more confident writer, no longer afraid to take risks and voice my opinions. Risk-taking led to my upcoming first horror publication and brought out my contrarian nature in the world of critiques and classrooms.

Recently, my classmates learned that I couldn’t assimilate with the accepted norm; rather, I innately challenged the authenticity and validity of a big Hollywood screen adaptation to a great Stephen King novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Surprisingly, most of my classmates respected my opinion and did not appear as upset as I had expected considering the Shawshank Redemption film is so highly revered. I did write my review with the utmost respect, after scrapping the scathing first draft. What can I say? I’m an obsessive purist in my artistic roots, it’s who I am. The movie on its own was good, but did not capture the complexity and the many shades of gray that is human nature as depicted in the book. But that’s a whole other discussion.

So, here I am writing my last blog entry for the spring 2012 semester. It’s sad to see a great semester come to an end, but exciting to know I have accomplished so much and gained some new friends along the way. I am already eagerly anticipating the next semester and reconvening with my classmates at our next residency in August.

As for this blog, I will carry on regularly.

A Writer’s Exploration: Going There

Now that I have been back to writing fiction consistently for the past year (a nice break from the corporate writing), I realized there is an occasional conflict I face: “going there,” as in, “Oh no! He did not just go there!” It appears during the writing process when I come to the figurative fork in the road, but I typically resolve it without much difficulty. However, some instances throw me into a relentless vicious cycle of decision-making.

In fiction it’s easy for a writer to fall in love with a character, and I don’t mean romance. There are those protagonists and secondary characters that embody special traits to make the story work, whether they are likeable or repulsive. Writers love their creations; they have to. The creations take on lives of their own, living and breathing on our pages. There are those moments of reckoning, however, when a character must meet its demise. It can be a difficult thing to wrap my head around. You would think it would be easy, having no trouble portraying violence, dementia, and gore when a story calls for it. I get attached.

It’s not just ending a character’s life that can hard at times, the same conflict arises in morphing an apparently good character into something evil and despicable. I am battling with myself right now over a particular secondary character my workshop readers have expressed a liking for. Do I maintain her damaged but otherwise good-natured persona, giving her a positive role? Or does an unspeakable malevolence brew in her gut under that sweet exterior? Ultimately, I know the latter choice is the right direction for an already twisted story about a disturbed protagonist.

If I learned anything from reading Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” recently, it is that the apparent good guys can be bad, and the bad can be good. Many shades of gray define humans, not polar extremes in outlook and behavior. People do what they must in order to survive – good or bad – that’s our nature.

King’s novella also taught me to portray a scene – to show prison violence, in particular – for what it is, in all of it’s gruesome detail and the very real impact it has on human beings. He went there without self-censorship or Hollywood-style heroics, and applied a raw sense of humanity in response to it; the type of humanity that exists in beaten down characters that must be willing to endure the worst atrocities in order to survive. He painted a cruel yet honest portrayal of prison life. That alone made for a compelling story. He took the risk and succeeded.

Today, I am putting an end to that “going there” conflict, driving an icepick through its callous heart. The relentless vicious cycles of decision-making have met their demise.

Ever face this risk-taking conflict? Please share your thoughts, spill your guts – just remember to clean up after yourself.

A Writer’s Exploration: Saving the English Language from Digital Laziness

I doubt any English speaking people today would argue the idea that digital media – namely social media and texting – has given rise to laziness in using the English language. When I’m not out fighting the world on acronyms and jargon – well, not exactly fighting the world – I am a proponent of using our language properly. And no, I don’t mean stuffy prim and proper aristocratic dialogue, which you will not find in my writing, I mean knowing the basic rules of grammar and punctuation.

It’s not hard, really, we learn those rules in elementary school and perfect them throughout our educations and beyond. Yet, in the advent of immediate access to sending and receiving information, there seems to be a culture based around rushing to the point by any means necessary, even if it means sacrificing a period here or a comma there. Before long, whole words are missing while others are severely bastardized. The beautiful language of Dickens, Woolf, and Hemingway is suddenly a pale and decaying reflection of its former self degrading incrementally through every generation of retweets and copy and pasted status updates. Single letters and numerals come to represent words and twenty question marks follow an incomplete sentence because the author really wants you to know that the question is a question, a strong and inquisitive one at that.

I know this single blog post or anything else I say or do will not fix this overnight – or ever. Realistically, it will grow worse before a generational backlash led by future kids thinks good grammar is cool again. Was it ever cool? However, I will walk the talk (another tired cliché) by spreading the [emotion of your choice] of communicating well with others because the words and marks mean what they say and say what they mean. Imagine reading 140 characters and understanding exactly what the author intended with no ambiguity. I see no harm in that.

We have all heard some statement such as how much energy would be saved if everyone would shut off a light bulb an extra hour a day. How many tweets and status updates would be salvaged from the oblivion of apathy if everyone took an extra five seconds to correct their language? We just might begin to truly communicate again.

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.