Getting Real in an Etch-a-Sketch World

It’s hard to know what’s real in politics today with shorthand words like “Romnesia,” “Obamacare” and “binders full of women” being used to rally voters on complex and critical issues.

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?

7 comments on “Getting Real in an Etch-a-Sketch World

  1. Superb, Don. I found your blog to be precise, informative, thought-provoking, relevant, timely and even important. I love how you segued from the political/media scene to corporate communications so seamlessly. Comparing the short-hand language we typically see/hear in politics today with the way corporate communications has devolved, brings to life the serious problem of miscommunication, dis-information and misunderstanding in all aspects of our lives. The short-hand, the sound-bites, the cliche-speech…keep us from truly understanding and learning.

  2. I agree with your chastisement of the overuse of foggy terminology. In such a saturated marketplace in so many industries it’s hard to sound (be?) different than the next guy. Regarding the political machine I have always felt ignorant of whatever is really going on. I don’t know how anyone can understand and simplify systems as big and complex as our American government, or its economy. However, I always vote and try to go with my best feeling and I pray for some guidance….and then support from above no matter who wins. I am blessed to live in the USA.

  3. mickey surasky saverine on

    Resisting the temptation to be vague or merely clever. Yes, Indeed. But I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. I am guilty of pinning people down when i don’t understand what they’re saying. My desire to grasp a situation is sometimes exhausting – to me and others – ha! For example, I’ve spent the last year watching CNBC in an attempt to learn about the business world and the world at large. I have frightened more than one person off with my questions. After the first year I thought I was gaining on it – only to realize a week later, not only how little I really knew – but how little everyone knows. I think that’s one of the reasons for vagueness and corporate-speak. People attempt brevity so as not to lose their listener. It’s the fast paced world we live in. Does the color and breed of your dog matter to me or is this just too much information for my already cluttered mind. I’m not saying – I’m just asking. I realize this message is all over the place but I don’t have time to edit! As usual, your piece is very thought provoking.

  4. Perceptive, insightful and relevant as always. We live in an age where people feel pressured to have opinions on everything. How can we have opinions when we are uninformed? Yet we’re shamed into saying where we stand on every kind of issue from the environment to Middle East politics to the preponderance of slums and lack of clean drinking water in Africa. The politicians seem to pull their speech writers from TV sitcoms aiming for memorable sound bytes rather than substance.
    >>>>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.<<<< Twitter gotten beaten up for its brevity but as you note here the demise of strong writing did not begin with Twitter or social media… Alas… Keep up the good fight, Don.

  5. All what you say is true Mr.Heymann but there is a certain amount of self-deception involved even when we say we want the truth or to ‘get real’.
    I like your post on this matter. As a political speech writer, I’ve written about the nature of my job, here

  6. I agree with the writer, “Peter”. Regardless Don, you make one
    serious error in thinking that obfuscation and non-clarity is something
    the political world would like to change. It is exactly what some in that
    world wish not to do. Even most of the press,the pundits the forecasters
    have a dog in this fight, making sure all sides are “fairly” represented.
    How far off the wall do some ideas have to be, before they are called
    exactly what they are? Be they racist, anti-woman, homophobic, or just
    plain lies. Remember, the electorate gets exactly what they deserve for
    not demanding better.

  7. Love it, Don. Three cheers for making corporate writing less bland, more descriptive and reflective of a point of view!

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