Getting ahead in the age of distraction
Every Sunday I look forward to starting my perusal of the The New York Times with my favorite column, “On Language.” This week was no different, except for the fact that when I got around eventually to the business section, Guy Kawasaki reminded me why “On Language” is not just the fun place to start, it’s the necessary place. At least, it is when you make your living helping others communicate.
Linguistics and logophilia run deep in my family. I used to tease my Mom when she’d relax by picking up a dictionary and reading a few random pages to expand her vocabulary. Now I do the same–and proudly — with my very own Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. (And yes, I’d kill for the full, 20-volume unabridged set. Someday.) So you can see why the aforementioned NYT column — penned for more than 30 years by the late, peerless William Safire and recently taken over by Ben Zimmer — ranks right up there with Scrabble and dictionary reading for good times.
And so it was interesting to hop over to the Corner Office Q&A with tech icon Kawasaki. Here’s the excerpt that caught my eye:
Q. What should business schools teach more of, or less of?
A. They should teach students how to communicate in five-sentence e-mails and with 10-slide PowerPoint presentations. If they just taught every student that, American business would be much better off.
It reminded me of a former colleague a while back grumbling about a certain client executive’s inability to communicate, um, clearly. I responded with a quick rat-a-tat-tat of knuckles against his forehead: Helloooo, McFly? This is why we are here, compadre. We help people communicate.
So suffice it to say I agree with Guy putting a premium on clear, concise communication; and his observation that it’s unfortunately about as rare as fresh carpaccio. What I don’t agree with is the notion that business schools just need to add Comms 101 to the B-school coursework, and ta-da, problem solved.
Granted, not everyone in the PR or comms arena has the curriculum vitae of William Safire or Ben Zimmer. Nor do I think we are bequeathed with magical powers that mere mortals (or muggles?) can’t learn and develop. But there’s a reason we exist — and it’s not because journalists just love to talk with us. Communicating clearly and well ain’t easy. It takes time, study, enthusiasm, and yes, some innate talent.
So the next time you’re trying to wedge the word “innovative” just a few dozen more times into a client document; or, say, accepting at face value your clients’ baseless claim that its widget is “industry-leading,” remind yourself why you’re really there. Just as Guy noted that “in a perfect world someone who is truly a great engineer and founder…would hire a marketing person who is far better than he or she is,” likewise they would hire a comms person far better as well. Someone who might start by helping them answer a seemingly simple question: What are you trying to say?