“THE ARGUMENT DOES NOT UNFOLD COGENTLY. Cut the cackle and get to the point.” These words were scribbled on one of my long drafts of a note by a former boss of mine who was a stickler for saying things right. His dictum not only applied to officialese but also to everything that was written or said within an office and this left an indelible impression. The CEO of a company I worked for used to insist that the executive summary of a memo that elicited a decision should not be more than a page as, in his view, anything lengthier was not worth reading ! It was a challenge that I perennially wrestled with and using a smaller font was a trick that I sometimes tried to resort to when the verbiage spilled over to the next page. It didn’t work. “Are you sending me to the ophthalmologist ?” the boss snapped at me when he saw through the game!
WHEN WE THINK CLEARLY, THE FOCUS WILL SHOW in whatever we say or write. Alan Warner writes about the story* of a sign change that occurred in a London bus that made all the difference: “EXPECTORATION IS FORBIDDEN” was simply replaced by “PLEASE DO NOT SPIT” and the story goes on to say that the buses were cleaner than before! Indeed, what is the point of communication if the message does not get through ? “All the fun is in how you say a thing,” said the poet Robert Frost but the mastery over style and communication is quite simply the skill of getting to place “proper words in proper places”. You only have to speak to any copywriter in an ad agency who will let you know the hours of toil that goes behind the drafting of a tag line which we so often derisively dismiss when it does not communicate what it intends.
FORGET ADS FOR THE TIME BEING. ALL OF US need to write letters, emails, memos, complaints, notes, presentations et al. All of these require varying degrees of effort but we need clarity on two key issues: WHAT DO WE WISH TO ACHIEVE AND HOW DO WE SAY IT. We need to have clear answers for these two questions before we put pen to paper or tap words on to the screen in front of us and indeed before we click the “send” button! Else, everything would be a wasted effort.
ANYTHING CRISPLY WRITTEN MAKES OUR DAY. We also owe it to ourselves and to others that we say what we mean and mean what we say. By doing so, we remove the mists that surround us and actually help others to help us ! How else can we get the decisions that we need, particularly when they are taken by some one else ?
*For more insights read his work A Short Guide to English Style which remains a classic to this day.