– by Albert Berkshire
In the September issue of Vogue Magazine, buried near the back of the 916 pages, of which I am certain is 80 to 90 percent advertising or puff-piece journalism, is an article by Jonathan Van Meter in which Chelsea Clinton is quoted as saying, “I like the right words. I think economy and precision of language are important.”
While Ms. Clinton has much more formal education than me, I will state that she should have said, “…economy and precision of language is important.” Language being a single noun and economy and precision being qualifiers, or adjectives. But that’s a point for another paragraph. And it’s just down below if your attention span insists that you move along quickly.
Despite her grammatical faux pas, I find myself quite enthralled with the former US First Daughter. I find it considerably refreshing that other people, far more notable than me and many notable people I know or have known, are concerned with proper, efficient and effective uses of the English language. In particular, since I am in the communication business (yes, I’m one of those people who gets paid to make up shit that convinces you to buy shit you don’t need. Advertising. It’s the scourge of society that is paying for a house with a killer view and a lot of vacations to places with more great views), it is only logical that I be transfixed – perhaps transfixed isn’t the right word. Perhaps in the figurative sense, I am affected deeply when communicators – people in public relations, sales, client management, and advertising – fail to use language properly.
Economy and precision of language presents me with a challenge. There is a common knowledge among friends and colleagues, with whom I speak regularly, that there is no such thing as “a quick story from Albert”. It’s true. I am a little long winded, but that comes from a) being raised in Newfoundland. Newfoundlanders love to spin a yarn; b) I tell stories for a living and rarely find myself lost for words, although a few friends have left me speechless as of late; and c) sometimes you have to rage on to make your point.
And that brings me to a point in which economy and precision are more important. Brevity is nice. Some people say so much without ever saying more than “hello”. (No this isn’t a Jerry McGuire moment) Some people have the the ability to recite the equivalent of War and Peace (in length, certainly not in relevance, and by no means anywhere close to the former in significance) without conveying a single coherent thought.
Pssst. Over here. The other day I was on the phone with an account representative for one of my clients. I prefaced the call with “I just have one quick question…” FIFTY TWO minutes later I said, “I really have to go and get this done for you.” I wonder how Ms Clinton would have handled that situation? That’s rhetorical. I don’t need to know.
When it comes to communicating effectively, part one of what I will now turn a phrase as “The Clinton Principal”, economy of words is vital.
And that brings me to precision. Part The Second. This is where it gets serious…‘cause rambling on and on is no crime against the Queen’s English.
I take exception to using a lot of words to convey a simple point (unless I’m writing an article or novel and then I’ll spew hyperbole and harvest adjectives until the cows come home). One of my more favourite examples is, “We’ll need to convene in order to establish a dialogue.” My version is, “We should talk.” Now I know it sounds more impressive and carefully planned to present your thoughts in a, well, fancy way. But when you really want to make a point to the natives, speak in the tongue they know. Brevity, or precision, is golden. It really is.
And can you imagine what radio and TV commercials would sound like if we used extremely long or confusing phrases to sell you a product?
Actually, I can give you an example. this evening, while watching some TV show, a commercial for some sort of vaginal cream (yes, you are actually reading this) came up on the screen. They clearly stated that you could take one pill for your yeast infection (I may never eat bread again) and it would stop “the symptom of external irritation”. External irritation. Admittedly, despite my profession and exceptional Google-Fu (thank you Stephanie Pearl-McPhee for bringing that wonderful term into my life), I had never heard of external irritation – aside from my neighbours (no no, on the other other side). I had to turn to my wife and post the exceptionally economical question, “What the?” to which she replied, “Itching”, and then promptly left the room.
Itching. Now let’s put that in context. A context in which you or I might use that term in a real world situation.
You: “I’m experiencing external irritation.”
Albert: “Really? I’m just itchy”.
You: “Do you think we might be encountering the occurrence of an adverse immune response to –
Albert (cutting you off): – this conversation? Most certainly. Or, I’m just allergic to you.”
And people pay me to make this shit up. Amazing.
I’m not sure what makes me feel more odd. The fact that you know I read Vogue Magazine, the realization that there was actually words in the magazine outside of the advertising agent’s contact information (seriously, pick one up if you can lift it and look through it), or that fact that I referenced Chelsea Clinton and a vaginal cream in the same article.
If not effective communication, certainly this would serve as some sort of example of comic relief. If not for you, for me.
Albert Berkshire is a writer, producer and voice actor. How’s that for economy? I’ll tell you. It’s horribly unsatisfying. Grabbing your attention, create a desire, making you an offer, and compelling you to act in under 30 seconds has helped make his company, GreatCreative.Com, successful. For a much shorter, and less frequent rambling, follow Albert on Twitter @albertberkshire.