Sentence of the Week: Week 3

“On October 30, I’m holding the march to Keep Fear Alive, unless the sun explodes incinerating half the earth and casting the other half into eternal night, which many scientists could say might happen.”

Stephen Colbert famously created a new word for our times: “truthiness.” Even though it’s a nonsensical term, I feel its meaning in my gut. Colbert uttered our sentence of the week on his September 28 broadcast. The sentence and especially that last phrase capture the idea of truthiness completely.

Colbert Poster
Experts say the march could be a huge success

The sentence hangs on the audience’s understanding of an epidemic of bad journalism that is sweeping the country. Name newspapers and high-caliber TV news organizations have joined the sorry masses of schlock journalists in a scourge of poor research, misrepresentation, and talking-point reporting.

News watchers can identify the blight by the use of certain phrases. “It has been reported…” “Some say…” “Experts have noted…” Colbert’s audience knows that when those phrases appear an unsubstantiated “fact” will follow, and news will sidle over into opinion with barely a whisper.

“Which many scientists say might happen,” with the “could” removed, would be welcomed on the nightly news broadcasts and cable politics shows. In fact, it may be a direct quote. The information would have the backing of the authority of the news organization, which people trust. (Although that trust is declining rapidly.) In truth, the many scientists might number 15 while the scientists in disagreement could number thousands. That fact would not be reported because the information would not fit the perspective of either the reporter or the news organization. As Mark Twain said long ago, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” And as people are fond of saying these days, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.”

By inserting “could” Colbert tweaks both the sentence and the news organizations that have fallen into such poor form. Those of us in the know feel just a little smarter and better about ourselves. Truthiness, indeed.

I almost forgot. It’s funny, too.

Sentence of the Week: Week 2

“It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone.”

In this sentence, Cormac McCarthy describes a train passing across the plains as a young cowboy watches. The passage appears near the beginning of All the Pretty Horses, which is one of my favorite books.  This sentence is, by any measure, a breathtaking description that defies rules yet delivers with power and emotion. It builds with the rush of the approaching train, and you can almost feel the flashing energy as it passes, then fades quickly to the distance. I like to think that the train runs on the rails and ties of the sentence itself.

I offer this sentence as atonement because I’m ashamed of that sorry excuse for a sentence from the New York Times last week. You deserve better. But even worse, I think I left you with the perception that I’m a hide-bound stickler for grammar and syntax. I’m not.

Words matter, and this great big huffing and puffing run-on sentence communicates on so many levels that no reader can be left untouched. Read it out loud, and you will love the way it makes you feel, how deeply you feel the train’s passing. If you could connect with your audience with such emotion, wouldn’t you be willing to break the rules?

Detail from Picasso's "Guernica"

But in order to break the rules, you have to be competent in the vernacular. Picasso, who painted and drew some of the most outlandish, inartistic visions we’ve seen in the 20th Century, was an accomplished artist, capable of refined sketches and classically composed paintings. He chose to explode those conventions by taking pieces of our visual perceptions, breaking them apart, then putting them back together to create something new. Simple, effective, and completely new. His paintings made us approach art and our understanding of the world in new ways.

McCarthy does the same with his writing. I call it “fly-on-the-wall” fiction, because as the reader you feel you’re just a fly observing the scene. No internal dialogue is going to tell you what the characters are thinking or what motivates them. You have to discern it entirely from what McCarthy shows you.

If the dialogue is in Spanish, don’t count on a translation. However, McCarthy controls the language so adeptly that you begin to learn Spanish as you read, because the context of the story illuminates it. That’s what the best communicators do. They teach you how to read their writing as you’re reading it. Consequently, you get to explore new experiences and new understandings of the world around you.

Achieving that is rare though and requires complete control and mastery of the craft.

Save the Libraries!

Libraries are the natural habitats for words. On cool, autumn days, you can peer between the shelving and sight herds of untamed language – big bullish words, gentle doe-like terms, and gamboling syllables – charging past the carrels, tumbling into corners, then spilling back down along the wall of windows.

But these habitats are in danger because as our economy falters, libraries face unprecedented budget cuts. This is happening at the exact moment when patronage has soared as more and more people use the library to job hunt, take advantage of the computers, and feed their reading jones when they can’t afford to buy books.

Some people just complain and lament our shrinking language habitats, but our good friends at Central Rappahannock Regional Library ( decided to drive home the point with fun and frivolity. We can all absorb lessons about communication from this video, but chief among them are

Important messages don’t necessarily require a serious platform


Electronic media allows (requires?) you to show a lot of personality

Thanks to Sean Bonney and the gang in Fredericksburg, Stafford, Spotsylvania, and Westmoreland, Va., for sharing their efforts.

(I’ve posted the long version below, but if you only want the highly delicious disco segment, you can link to it here.)

It’s Not What. It’s Why.

I have never read a business book that couldn’t have been reduced to a good magazine article. But there are people out there who make me think with greater depth, and I value them beyond reason for that ability. Right now, I’m stuck on Simon Sinek, who has identified what great leaders have that people respond to.

Most of us communicate from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. We explain “what” first, “how” next, and “why” last. “Why” is always the most difficult to explain, but it is where our passions reside.

Few of us can be great leaders, but all of us can inspire employees or prospects and establish ourselves as people of worth and substance. We only need to invert our communication tendency, and first explain why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Watch this presentation Sinek gave at the TED conference in Puget Sound.

Want to know more about Sinek? Check out his website.

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

Great Big Dead Tree Poster

Do you read Sports Illustrated? It has been one of my favorite magazines since I was a teenager, and the thing I love best about it is the quality of the writing. While most magazines are written at an 8th-grade level, SI hits a higher mark, and it’s not unusual for me to have to go to the dictionary or encyclopedia (how quaint) to understand a word or reference.

Would you put this on your wall?

In the NFL Preview Issue a couple of weeks ago, SI included a poster sponsored by DirectTV. It’s huge, and as soon as I opened it, I doubted my presumptions about the educational levels of the readers – or, at least, SI’s understanding of its readers’ education. This poster is a classic example of meeting the needs of an advertiser and doing little to serve the needs of the audience.

Here are several reasons why.

  1. The entire poster hangs on the tagline, “Every Game. Every Sunday.” I was immediately confused because the NFL has been playing games on other days of the week since the late 1960s. So, the first thing I did was check to see whether the poster had every game, or only every game that is played on Sundays. Answer: Every Game. The tagline, while clever, is wrong.
  2. I like football and have spent too much of my life watching games. To be honest, though, I really don’t care about the match-up between Atlanta and Cleveland October 10. Or Jacksonville vs. Buffalo the same day. I will be all over the Bears game (don’t care who they’re playing) and Packers vs. Redskins that day. Point? Very few people are interested in every game. We only want the schedule for the teams we follow plus big matchups.
  3. You rightly can ask if I got the scheduling information for that last paragraph from the poster. That would prove some usefulness. I didn’t. The information for all the games appears in searchable databases on the internet, which are much more usable and dynamic than this poster.
  4. A poster? Really? Now I’m sure there are people who will hang this thing up somewhere, but I’m also pretty sure the age of the average SI reader is greater than 15, which is when I stopped decorating with posters.
  5. Finally, binding this poster into the magazine required a small engineering feat and yards of glue. To read the magazine I had to remove the poster, scrape the glue off my hands, and tear out the heavy inserts. The result was a torn up magazine that delivered a lower customer satisfaction level.

Detail of Poster

What did I gain from this effort, this wholesale slaughter of trees? It had no value for me, actually made my user experience less pleasant, and generated another heap of trash.

For DirectTV the value is different. The poster raised awareness of its brand and showed how complete its NFL broadcast schedule is. But, the advertiser can achieve the same goals with a far less invasive advertising package that doesn’t risk alienating readers. Sorry, SI, but you haven’t served your audience well on this, although I’m sure someone got a really swell commission.

In the new era of communications and content marketing, I thought we had grown past this kind of Jurassic-like advertising strategy.