The Write Stuff
Be Kind. Use Simple Words.
By Alan Crawford
Who knew that a bag of granola would carry what might be the most admirable example of branding extant? But there it is, on a BE-KIND product: “Ingredients you can see and pronounce.” It is so persuasive, this trademarked slogan, that you don’t even bother to look at the list of ingredients at all.
They’ve won our hearts and minds just by implying that their competitors fill their cereals and snacks with multisyllabic chemical concoctions that cannot possibly be good for us, even if we could figure out what they are. The company is indicating, also by implication, that BE-KIND wouldn’t stoop to such chicanery.
‘Simple and Direct’
The secret here is that BE-KIND’s language is “simple and direct,” in the words Jacques Barzun used as the title of one of the classic works on the craft of writing. Those are rare qualities in prose today, especially in the world of public policy and advocacy. Our communications are chockablock with jawbreakers borrowed from the sciences. Most of the time we really don’t know what these words mean, and neither do our readers. These words might sound impressive, sort of, but they fail to move us emotionally or to persuade us intellectually. Mostly, they’re a kind of flimflam.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when we write about what we now routinely call the “environment” and, as BE-KIND shows us, the food we eat. (I could have said “consume,” but what we actually do is “eat,” right?)
What does biodiversity really mean? Define geothermal. What is an antioxidant, anyway? Assuming we know what prebiotic and probiotic mean, what’s the difference?
I might not be able to define, much less picture, what a biosphere is, but there are “simple and direct” words that bring a flood of associations, most of them pleasant. I know what streams and rivers are, and I want to keep them clean. I have no trouble calling to mind (and heart!) woods, pastures and meadows, and I know deep down that they should be protected. “Fresh air”? I know what that is, and I want more of it.
None of the current abuse of the language should surprise us in a world where people have become “human resources,” but it is worth being aware of and doing our best to resist.
ANNOYING WORD OF THE MONTH — Intentionality. “Leadership emerges when you build a team with intentionality and a culture that allows team members to thrive.” A member of Forbes’ Coaches Council tells us that, and I wish she hadn’t. I know there might be shades of difference between intentionality and intention, but I’m not sure the difference is great enough 99% of the time to matter. Come to think of it, I’m not sure intention represents any significant improvement over intent. The Forbes writer also suggests a “talent optimization framework,” but maybe we’ll save that for another occasion.
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