Sentence of the Week

“In polls leading up to Sunday’s vote, the referendum was split nearly 50-50, with signs lining the streets here and vans with microphones driving around and politicking for each side.”

Turkish FlagThis sentence appeared in the New York Times Monday. It refers to a referendum in Turkey on 26 proposed changes to the constitution. Interestingly, the sentence appeared in a sports story about the world championships in basketball.

Consider these issues:

  • A microphone won’t do anything unless it’s connected to a loudspeaker.  So, the writer should have chosen “loudspeaker.”
  • Signs and vans can’t politic. People can, but they’re curiously absent from this sentence.
  • Microphones can’t drive either, and at first glance, that’s how I read the sentence. In truth, the author grouped the words correctly, but the whole thing is so awkward that it just reads wrong.
  • The referendum was not split 50-50. The polls were split. The polls actually represent voters, or likely voters, or partisans or something. That detail is missing. Again, so are the people.
  • It’s passive voice. Stop it NY Times. You should know better.

So, how would you write this? Here’s my stab.

“Polls leading up to Sunday’s vote showed voters split nearly evenly. Supporters for both sides lined the streets with signs and drove vans with loudspeakers throughout the city, politicking for their cause.”

The Perfect Gift

Word people can be pretty nerdy. My wife, Suzannne, and I are both word people. We met at a party after a fiction reading when I was in graduate school, and we bonded over our ability to know the names of the states in alphabetic order. You don’t get much nerdier than that.

As nerdy word people, we tend to hang out with others in our tribe. When our geographic bonding crested into an emotional bonding, we decided to get married. Two valued members of the tribe pooled their resources to purchase the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged. You can see it there in the photo. It’s a beauty, isn’t it? (That stunner still retails for about $200 new. Of course, you can pick up a well-thumbed copy for about $15.)

American Heritage Dictionary
Putting the dictionary on its pedestal

Aside from the very generous nature of the gift and the very appropriate relationship it had with our lives, there was the perfectly worded inscription on the card. “Because everybody needs a kick-ass dictionary for a wedding gift.” From that day to this, our family has called this tome the “Kick-Ass Dictionary.”

It sits on a swiveling pedestal under its own dedicated lamp. Right now it is open to the definitions ranging from “dept.” to “descendant.” Someone was looking up the spelling of “derailleur,” which is natural since recently we have been doing a lot of bike riding, a lot of working on bikes, and a lot of derailleur adjusting.

This dictionary – this kick-ass dictionary – occupies the same physical and spiritual space in our family that the Family Bible does in many other families. Our son’s friends once asked him how he had developed such a large vocabulary, and Sam responded by saying, “What’s the first thing you see when you come into our house? A dictionary.” (I wish he had said, “A kick-ass dictionary,” but not all anecdotes resonate precisely. Besides, he was 13 years old at the time and not yet comfortable using swear words in front of his parents.)

Twenty-two years after we married, the whimsical cereal bowls and the utilitarian carving set we also received as presents have long since expired. But the dictionary continues to give back. Everybody needs a kick-ass dictionary. Whether you’re getting married or not, it’s the perfect gift.

Define the Message

We live in a world of muddled messages. Politicians step on themselves to clarify missteps. Sports stars crank up the non-apology apology machine. Employers alienate their staff by reciting lawyerly pabulum to avoid litigation. And parents demonstrate the opposite of what they tell their children.

We send messages we don’t intend, and we hear things that weren’t meant. This disease of miscommunication and misunderstanding is not new, and we all succumb at some point.

I once delivered a conference presentation on some of the greatest research the home improvement industry has ever seen. I’m not a bad public speaker, but on this day, the slides didn’t work, my mouth malfunctioned, and my knowledge of the research was less than golden. At the end, the entire audience was in the fog of confusion, but none of them were as confused as I.

It gets worse.

I was the host for the conference, and I had to follow myself to the podium to introduce the next speaker, who was a top-notch pro. Before I brought him up, I reminded the audience to fill out their evaluation sheets so that we could ensure the previous speaker (me) never cast shadow on that stage again.

We all have our horror stories, but we can all define our messages with greater care and avoid the unintended meaning. We can implement strategies to make our communication – whether marketing, advertising, or employee manuals – clear and concise and without ambiguity.

6 Building Blocks of Effective Communication

And if we can define our messages, we can establish ourselves as leaders. I once worked for a very smart, very direct person who became quite powerful in the corporation. His simple gift was that he could cut through all the crap and put his finger on the one or two most salient points in any strategy. That clarity, that ability to jettison the distractions, gave him a focus that made other people want to follow.  When he talked, heads in the room nodded up and down.

That skill is such a common experience among successful people that it underlies 3 of the 7 habits Stephen Covey identified in his groundbreaking “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”  #2: Begin with the end in mind. #3: Put first things first. #5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Define your message and you can become the leader. Your message may be a personal message that establishes goals and articulates strategies to position you as a team leader. Your message may be a corporate brand that states your values and vision as a business, making you an industry or market leader. The underlying keys to success for both internal and external communication are the same.

  1. Listen to your audience
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Say it clearly
  4. Use it consistently
  5. Make it logical
  6. Appeal to common sense