Sunday, August 31, 2008

Thinking Clearly

During a Charlie Rose PBS interview on July 7, 2008, David McCullough, writer of best sellers about some of this country’s most interesting history, said, “To write well is to think clearly.”

That struck me the moment I heard it. There is magic in words that are on target and that exactly convey the message. As readers, we recognize good writing even if we don’t always agree with the statements it contains.

Thoughtful contemplation is rare in these times. We rush to communicate, tapping out text messages, grabbing our cell phones and firing off emails. However, the more instantaneous the words, the less meaning they seem to carry.

I once taught a business communication workshop in which a young man complained that his emails prompted cubicle visits from angry colleagues. As we examined his process, we discovered that he replied immediately to emails. Instead of taking a moment to digest what he had read and organize his thoughts about it, he responded right away because he thought that is what he was supposed to do. Unfortunately his desire to be high-speed was promoting tension in his department and jeopardizing his career.

Taking a few extra moments up front saves time later. For our intent to be clear, we must understand what we are about to say. We must examine every word for its true meaning and we have to consider how our words will be interpreted by our readers. By being precise in what we say initially, we don’t have to restate it later.

McCullough is right. I write my best when I am knowledgeable about my topic and when I have carefully considered what I will say and how I will say it. In other words - when my head is clear.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Election Campaign Truth

Candidates in England get about six weeks to campaign, the election is held, and then the politicians get back to the business of running the country. I sure wish it worked that way here.

Political campaigns in the United States give me a headache. There is precious little communicating and a whole lot of pontificating in campaign ads, speeches and from talking heads pretending to be journalists. The closer we get to the election, the more ridiculous it gets. Thank goodness for and

Our country was founded on a great ideal but it works only if the citizens who live here take an active part in governing it. Sadly, we got lazy. Now we make our decisions based on the emotion generated by 30-second TV ads.

Why do we do that? We know politicians lie to us yet we believe what they say without question – no matter how preposterous it all sounds. We put our common sense on the shelf and hope that the people who run for office, whether school board trustee or president of the United States, can be trusted. Unfortunately, recent history shows us that many people asking for our support are lying to get it.

For those who care about the choices they make, there is a Web site that sorts fact from fiction. is a non-partisan site that shows us the truth behind the claims made in speeches and ads. tells us, among other things, where the millions of dollars come from that finance a candidate’s campaign and provides a view of a candidate’s actual voting record. Both sites include races for Congress and the Senate in addition to providing information about the presidential contest.

Perhaps the reason we no longer seek the truth is that, as one famous movie character stated, “You can’t handle the truth.” I remain optimistic that we Americans will ignore the television ads and find out the whole story on the candidates. If we don’t, we have lost the one thing our founding fathers fought so hard to gain – the freedom to govern ourselves. If we blindly believe what we are told, we might as well go back to being ruled by a king.

Please. Before you trust what any politician tells you in a campaign ad, find out the facts. Visit and often.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

One Caption Makes a Big Difference

The current family project is cleaning out my parents’ basement. What we find is often junk – scraps of old wrapping paper and empty shoe boxes - or items for donation to Goodwill and the library. But other things are bits of family history.

One of those bits is my grandfather’s photo album. The leather is so old it crumbles into dust when touched but many of the pictures are in pretty good shape. I did not know my grandfather well. He was a very private person and passed away when I was a child. Consequently, I am very interested in those photographs.

In taking the pictures and carefully placing them in a leather bound album, my grandfather told us these people and places were important to him. But sadly, not one of the photos is labeled. We recognize my grandfather, of course. My mother can identify his parents and sister. We have no idea who else is in the pictures and why the people or events were significant.

We will throw many of the photos away. Because my grandfather did not effectively communicate with us about them, they are meaningless. That makes me sad. I never thought that the caption on a picture would be so important.

I have a lot of digital pictures stored on CDs and have not taken the time to add captions to the files. After seeing my grandfather’s photo album, I made a promise to add captions to ten pictures each day. In no time, they will all be labeled so those who follow me will know something about me through the images I saved.

Communication takes time and we all have precious little of it. Based on this experience, I believe the messages you leave behind for your family are vitally important. Long after you are gone, your words, even simple captions on photographs, will connect you to those left behind. Your family will thank you.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Too Much Communication?

In my last post, I praised email because it is uniquely suited to a specific communication need. That got me thinking about the recent history of various forms of communication that I routinely use.

I am just old enough to remember when the technological advance called a fax machine appeared. It was a giant leap forward and many businesses resisted the expense. Little did we know that form of “instant” communication in the early 1990’s – not even twenty years ago – would lead to people staying connected via email or cell phone – even when on vacation.

As technology takes us down new roads, I look at the way we conduct business and shake my head. Business managed just fine when the fastest form of written communication we had was the fax machine. Is business doing any better now that we are constantly connected to one another? Are American companies healthier and more stable with the advent of instant communication? I think not.

As a society, Americans have convinced themselves that inactivity is evil. If we are not doing something every minute, we must be slackers. So we show everyone how hard we are working by making calls, writing lots of emails and sending text messages.

There is a problem however. All this communicating leaves little time for thinking. If we do not reflect on our business, we cannot change it to meet new challenges. Years ago, Toyota saw the need for a hybrid car but GM did not. How many GM managers were furiously downloading emails to their cell phones back then instead of thinking about the future marketplace and its desire for a Prius?

Perhaps we would do well to dust off the fax machine. Or better yet - smoke signals anyone?