Confusion abounds from the candidates themselves, giving new meaning to the term “Etch-a-Sketch,” a colorful description of the erasing-and-ever-shifting positions of a particular presidential candidate, who shall remain nameless. It’s no wonder that fact checking has become such a valued enterprise, but even this pursuit doesn’t necessarily solve anything, given our understandable desire for simple hooks on which to hang our beliefs.
In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, a linguistics scholar and a marketing professor write: “We typically feel we understand how complex systems work even when our true understanding is superficial. And it is not until we’re asked to explain how such a system works…that we realize how little we actually know.” Yeah, that’s happened to me. You too, I bet.
It’s not productive to have an opinion about an issue we don’t understand, the professors say, calling it “an illusion of knowledge that leads to extremism. We can start to fix it by acknowledging that we know a lot less than we think.”
But anything resembling objective information is difficult to find in the day-to-day media clutter, as people increasingly choose partisan spinners with familiar viewpoints to read or view on their tablets, TVs and phones. Separating fact from fiction is tough, if it’s ever been possible, without stringent editorial standards.
Surely, traditional journalism and non-partisan analysis will continue to be available in some form, whether we go through a search engine or the public library. After all, the word “media” is simply Latin for the way in which information is transmitted.
Poor writing in the public sphere doesn’t help. Years of diluted language from politicians, Super PACs, lawyers, marketers, and corporations have turned the powerful, descriptive sentence into an empty vessel of buzzwords and vapid jargon.
As a corporate writer I see plenty of examples in the business world: “full-service solutions provider,” “cost-effective, end-to-end solutions” and provider of “value-added services.” Google searches find at least 47,000, 95,000 and 600,000 companies, respectively, using these terms to describe themselves.
What does it say when tens of thousands of companies discuss what they do with the same meaningless terms? What company wouldn’t claim to be adding value?
“Would you go to a dinner party and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night long? Would that be interesting to anybody? So why are so many businesses saying the same things at the biggest party on the planet – the marketplace?” says Jason Fried in a funny-but true-article called Why Is Business Writing So Boring?
What can regular folks do about all this? For one thing, we can demand clarity and depth from our representatives and the companies we do business with. We can also help reduce the muddle in our own communications by using specific, declarative and descriptive language in our daily discourse. Let’s resist the temptation to be vague or merely clever!
Instead of saying, for example, “I was proceeding down the street with my dog,” try “I was walking briskly on Maple Avenue with my brown-and-black collie, Sunshine.” Clarity and precision have impact and will more likely be remembered.
In a world of spin, flip-flops and obfuscation, your words are your frontline in everything you do. Are they strong and clear enough? Can you pass the Etch-a-Sketch test?