Say What You Mean

July 22, 2014

Flyfish3

This week a sad thing happened: it was announced that some 12,500 employees are being laid off at Microsoft’s devices unit. What elevated this event from merely a shame to an outrage, and at the same time a sort of uneasily, weirdly hilarious outrage, was the way they found out.

As reported in New York magazine, the man responsible for sharing this news did so through a truly awful memo that starts out, “Hello there…” and goes on to dribble out more than 800 words before getting to the point.

The point being, “So sorry—you’re fired.”

Long before it gets there, though, it has fully numbed the brain with passages like this one:

Whereas the hardware business of phones within Nokia was an end unto itself, within Microsoft all our devices are intended to embody the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, while accruing value to Microsoft’s overall strategy. Our device strategy must reflect Microsoft’s strategy and must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope…

… which is followed immediately by this:

Therefore, we plan to make some changes.

Aha. Changes. So, what changes, exactly?

The memo blatts out 583 more words of nerve-deadening explanation (“To win in the higher price segments, we will focus on delivering great breakthrough products in alignment with major milestones… we will ensure that the very best experiences and scenarios from across the company will be showcased on our products … we plan to select the appropriate business model approach for our sales markets while continuing to offer our products in all markets with a strong focus on maintaining business continuity … we will determine each market approach based on local market dynamics…”) before it finally winds into the specifics—namely, that they’re cutting 12,500 jobs.

It reminded me of a memo my friend Scott Ohlgren sent me years ago:

Team members:

While in the run-up to transitioning in this phase of right-sizing and redeployment, we still need to—at the end of the day—drill down and make sure that our mission-critical, goal-oriented core competencies are in alignment and on the same page as the most current best-practices paradigm.

While we as a customer-centric longtail company are still on the runway, we need to each firewall enough time to allow out-of-the-box thinking and strategize the low-hanging fruit in the marketplace. Envisioning the metrics here will require accountability management on each team member to come up with a value-added solution that doesn’t require putting out fires or a lot of bandwidth.

Bottom line? The truth is we have to step up, work smarter, not harder, and create a Web 2.0 solution.

I’ve got an open door policy, so touch base and keep me in the loop. If we can move forward and proactively get on the same page about this, it’ll be a win-win-win.

Remember: our people make the difference.

For me this gibblespeech all started in the summer of 1973, when my dad and I sat in rapt attention every day in front of the television watching the Watergate hearings.

My dad, a German immigrant who never lost his outsider’s fascination with all things American, was completely engrossed. So was I. We spent many hours in stitches together at the elaborate circumlocutions of some of the testimony. “I believe I relayed that information telephonically” was a snippet I recall echoing giddily around our house for days. It was my first real exposure to the squeamishly evasive language of bureaucracy.

Another one of our favorites:

I cannot recall with specificity.

Years ago I heard this piece of advice: “Never use a twenty-five-dollar word when a twenty-five-cent word will do.”

I don’t entirely agree. There’s a reason those $25 words exist, and the simplest or shortest solution is not always the best solution. Full disclosure: I love the poetry and music of big words and long phrases. Writing about the novelist John Updike, a reviewer once wrote, “Updike strings out sentences as gorgeously as veteran flyfishers string out a line.” (Not a bad sentence itself!)

I love the lilt and magic of “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe,” and sentences that sound like that but actually mean something to boot.

Last night I read this passage, from Raymond Chandler’s “Trouble Is My Business”:

Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon’s tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. … I watched her shake her ash from the cigarette to the shiny top of the desk where flakes of it curled and crawled in the draft from the open window.

Now, did Chandler need all those words to get to the conversation his hero had with this woman? Maybe not, but I’m sure glad he used them.

Still, as an editor, and then as a writer, I’ve gained a keen appreciation of the virtues of cutting the %&*@ to the chase.

Over the twenty-five years I spent editing other people’s articles, much of the work I did consisted of taking things out. Yanking out the deadwood. Deleting the unnecessary, the redundant, the imprecise, the obfuscatory. (Now there’s a word that does what it says!)

If I had a dollar for every time I edited out the phrases, “In my opinion,” “It seems to me,” “At the end of the day,” and “If you want to know the truth,” I would be able to finance my own trip to the moon.

(We already know it’s your opinion, because you’re the one writing this piece; we already know that this is how it seems to you, you don’t need to clarify that for us; the time of day has nothing to do with what you’re talking about; and what else would I want to know but the truth—a lie?)

My favorite, by which I mean my least favorite, is this statement placed immediately after a particularly meaningful point has been made: “Think about it!” (Like I was too lazy, or else too stupid, to figure out for myself that I should employ my brain to perform an act of thinking about what I just read in the previous sentence?)

The most famous passage in Strunk and White’s uberclassic The Elements of Style is Rule 17: “Omit needless words.” E.B. White recalls his teacher, Will Strunk, being so vigorous about this rule when teaching it in the classroom that he punctuated it (ironically) with generous repetition:

Rule Seventeen: Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!

Of the 1,111 words in the Microsoft memo, my guess is that Will Strunk would have omitted about 1,011.

Shorter is not always better. Repetition sings, and multisyllabics dance. As I said, sometimes I like the sound and sense of those $25 words. And man, are those flyfishing sentences of Updike’s poetry or what?

But if in all these years I’ve come up with a single solitary of rule of good writing, it would be this:

Say what you mean.

9 Comments

  1. In my opinion, if you think about it, the fact that it is even necessary to create extensive and redundant verbiage to communicate relatively simple, easy, straightforward, clear, and understandable notions, ideas and concepts, is really just simply a matter of the valuation of form over function, and, of course, the inherent but time-honored habit formed over long years of tradition within certain, ahem, learned and respected professions. Of which I profess, but I must say I do try to make every effort to simplify and condense whenever possible. If you really think about it.

    Reply
    • Hoh boy. I’ve let myself in for it now, haven’t I?

      Reply
  2. This is one of the most entertaining blogs I’ve read. Quite appropriate. Bravo!

    Reply
    • Thanks, C Haley — I never turn down a bravo!

      Reply
  3. This has to be the best piece of writing, closely followed by Kristi’s comment. Wish I’d been able to respond first 😀

    Reply
  4. I told Scott that I’d quoted him in my blog. He wrote back: “Our core competencies makes the difference!”

    I replied, “Together, a new beginning! (Except that you’re fired — so just me, a new beginning.)”

    He responded with: “For those whose job has been repurposed, the company will open the kimono and work through the next three years to provide support.”

    Don’t you all feel better now?

    Reply
  5. So powerful!

    So relevant!

    This past week I had a frustrating experience with a person who communicated with me passive aggressively. I found myself frustrated because I was confused.

    One of my mentors taught me that our job is to deliver the message in communication and it’s up to others to choose how they are going to receive it. I agree with his advice 100%, however I think we all need to constantly improve how we communicate and get feedback on our messaging.

    This is a process, not a destination.

    Thank you so much for the great work that you do!

    Reply

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