Brevity, clarity, specificity.
These three words marked most papers that came back from my seventh-grade teacher whose year was split into semesters in which she instructed us in geography and Indiana history.
It’s a good credo for someone who became a journalist. It’s a good way of thinking for anyone attempting to communicate, whether making a sales call, managing a software installation or writing a story.
Having those concepts pounded into my head is probably why I am extremely intolerant of the marketing techno-buzz words that pervade the business and too much journalism.
Let’s start with specificity.
Take the word, “solution,” which rarely emerges in the text of Accounting Technology magazine. My usual explanation is that it is the proper choice when explaining that the solution to the problem to two plus two is four or that in chemistry class; we measured the salinity of a solution of salt and water.
As a synonym for software application, it’s a terrible word cherished by ad copy writers. It’s been abused to the point that I realized at a local supermarket that the section for packaged frozen breakfasts had a sign labeling the goods “breakfast solutions.”
Clarity is easy to define, but maybe the hardest to accomplish, because what is extremely clear to one person is often astoundingly confusing to another. This stems from the fact that listener and speaker have different definitions.
In Orlando, a few years ago, I ended up at the entrance to DisneyWorld while trying to get to a hotel I could see, but not reach. The moneytaker cheerfully instructed me to take second left, and I quickly found myself back at the park entrance. The problem? He didn’t count the second paved lane as the second turn. To him, it was a service road, not a way out of the Disney compound.
Brevity should not be confused with shortness. Brevity, by my definition, economy in the number of word needed to accomplish a goal. That goal could be to provide detailed description, such as in a novel, or to set a tone, which can take a lot of words.
There’s a frequently told anecdote that Lincoln’s magnificently brief Gettysburg address was overlooked while writers swooned over the two-hour oration of the famed speaker Edward Everett. Actually, Everett sent an admiring letter to the president in which Everett wished he could have captured the moment in as few words as Lincoln did.
Lincoln’s purpose was to make sense of the incredible loss of life at the recent battle, to give the crowd hope and meaning, and to remind them of the values in which the country was rooted. It was not to get back to his seat quickly so he could on to the next photo op.
The president could have said, “We come to remember these men, praise them, and bury them. Thank you.”
It is brief. But it’s not quite the same thing.
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