It happened to me again, just this past week, and maybe it happens to you as well. “So you help business, government, and association people to be better business writers,” my dinner guest said. “Does that also mean you show them ways to hide, hedge, mask, and cloud?”
Although, by doing just the opposite of the clear, concise business writing skills we talk about in a workshop, that could be the result. But no.
Another guest volunteered that it’s pretty easy to identify some of the techniques that will lead to “hiding, hedging, masking, and clouding.” So that turned the conversation to how a particular situation we’d all been following is being covered. Seems an incident, with possibly unfortunate ramifications for the company involved – and certainly for their customers – had been reported. “Did you notice how they did it?” another guest said. “It was almost like they used the company’s press release.”
I kept thinking about that comment, as well as our dinner-table discussion all the next day, and decided to take a look at the article being discussed to see whether there might be some sort of formula for how the information was presented that might have created the impressions and observations these folks passed along.
Of course our mealtime conversation had been somewhat disconnected, interrupted with bits and pieces here and there – vital issues like “Please pass the salt.” For the most part they were the quick, disorganized, random impressions of a group of average adult readers who had read (or scanned?) the article or maybe just the headline. They were the “take-aways.” Impressions that would subsequently be passed along in conversation, and perhaps, when all you have to go on is the first information available, form opinions based on that information. Impressions that could be, maybe even would be, passed along, and along, and along.
The formula used? It looked like (1) company name, followed by a very positive phrase describing the company; (2) re-frame, and raise the question: Was the incident an act of sabotage, or was it an accident (two choices only); (3) history and background, weaving in information supporting both aspects of part two, and suggesting who could have been the perpetrator if it had been an act of sabotage; and (4) finally concluding with an inclusive statement as to the effect on the stock market.
Then I looked at some of the concepts, words, and phrases used to position the “incident.” (Note: not “catastrophe,” but “incident,” or maybe “situation.”)
There was a general air of mystification around the article. How could this have happened? Impossible! All safeguards had been taken. However, the company was calling in the appropriate government authorities to look into it thoroughly, to make certain such a thing would never happen again.
The situation was downsized, lessening its importance because such a small (amount, number, dollars) had been involved, that its effect would hardly matter at all in the big scheme of things.
Then there was a quick quote from an authority, supporting the sabotage or accident suggestions, disclaiming responsibility on the part of those involved, and providing numbers to back up that conclusion.
We have talked about, and will again discuss, three other writing issues that can lead to a lack of clarity, and accelerate hiding, hedging, masking, and clouding: passive sentences, poor use of pronouns, and lack of specificity. Probably next week.
So there you have it – some quick thoughts on that very first article, and on the writing techniques that generated the first thoughts on the issue that were voiced at my dinner table.
Your assignment – assuming you choose to accept – is to follow a reported issue from its beginning as far through as you can. Note the structure and the wording. When a story breaks, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to get complete, accurate information immediately, and later, perhaps, not at all as particular points drop from the reader’s radar screen. A story develops over time, as additional information becomes available. Note also how important the very first statements are, how memorable, and how difficult it could be to change the initial impressions they created.
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