To Communicate Well, Give Some Forethought.


“Your words have helped the tottering to stand; you have strengthened feeble knees”  (Job 4:4).

Speak clearly.  Enunciate. Use simple, active language.  Avoid wordiness. Never try to impress the audience with large, unfamiliar words.

Encourage people with your speech.  “She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the law of kindness is on her tongue” (Proverbs 31:26).

“Take with you words,” said the prophet to God’s people, “and return to the Lord” (Hosea 14:2).

Words.  They matter so much.  You’re reading a compilation of them right now.  Ideally, I have so arranged them as to make sense and convey a message.

And yet….

The major reason writers edit their writings is to find the sneaky little culprits that would hinder communication. Like redundancies, grammatical slippances, and wordiness.  Using a big word when a little one would work better.

It’s essential not to use a word that would impede, stun, or burden the message.

The food section in our paper carried a huge article on how a good salad can improve a meal.  The headline said: “Ameliorate any meal with a simple pasta salad.”

Ameliorate?  The word means to improve, to enhance, to make something bad better.  But ameliorate?!!  When was the last time you used that word?  And why would a newspaper–where reporters and editors presumably work at effective communication–use such a word?

And consider the irony of finding ameliorate and simple in the same sentence!

Is the food editor playing with us?  Trying to drive us to our thesaurus?  or to drive us nuts?

When is the last time in church someone came near to pushing you over the edge with their endless announce-making, pontifical sermonizing, or other wordiness?

No one who communicates well and effectively does it without advance thought and planning.

This is about effective communication. 

I read about a lady in Maryland who owns a company called E-Write that helps airlines communicate more effectively with their disgruntled clients (translation: unhappy passengers).  Leslie O’Flahavan is “a customer service writing expert who runs a boutique business” (i.e., small) “which helps travel companies recast their letter template libraries into shorter, easier to read and ‘modern-sounding’ emails.”  (From USA Today, April 9, 2018)

She helps them to write gooder.

Oh, did you notice that she helps them “recast their letter template libraries”? Talk about unnecessary wordiness!  Let that be a reminder to us that even when trying to correct a problem, we may end up illustrating the problem!

Here are some examples cited in the article…

–The airline’s letter to the unhappy passenger might say: “We regret any inconvenience this may have caused.”  What makes this sentence offensive are the “any” and “may have caused.”  Ms O’Flahavan calls this a “passive-aggressive non-apology.”  The airlines aren’t really apologizing for anything.

Have you ever heard an apology that sounds like this? “If I offended you, I’m sorry.”  Or, “If you were insulted in any way by what I may have said, I’m sorry.”  The speaker is not apologizing for anything, but putting the onus on you.  Being offended was your problem, and I’m sorry you took what I said in the wrong way. Try not to do that in the future.

Passive-aggressive indeed.

A genuine apology might say, “We did it. We goofed.  We are sorry. Please forgive us.  We’ll try to do better next time.”

“Safety is our top priority.” The implication from the airline is that of course, you being a customer and not an airline, your own personal convenience is the most important thing to you.  But to us, safety is paramount.

Again, it’s an insult.

–“We will share your comments with the appropriate team for review.”  Which being interpreted means: “We’re done here” and “We are about to ignore your complaint.”

In our denomination, when the annual session votes to “refer your motion to the appropriate agency for consideration,” you can bid it bye-bye.  In most cases, it’s the equivalent of File 13.  But it allows the maker of the motion to save face.

“We appreciate your loyalty to our airline.”  Which is beside the point. This is not about loyalty but getting things right.

What can churches learn from this?

A great deal of written material comes out of the church office:  Worship bulletins, announcement sheets, letters to the congregation, cards for birthdays, and so forth.

Is someone overseeing them to make sure the sentiments are expressed well, simple, courteously, properly?  They should.

No letter should be sent, no email posted, no church bulletin printed without a second party proofing it to catch any error, typo, poorly structured sentence.

Have you ever seen a church sign with a wrong word or a misspelled one? We wonder why someone in the congregation or on the staff did not call it to the attention of the sign-maker.

There is an unwritten law that says the writer of a piece is not the one to edit his own stuff. When I go back and read something I’ve just written, I end up seeing not what is on the page but what I intended to write.  Ask any writer.

I love it when someone calls my attention to a mistake on this blog.  Often the writing takes place in the wee hours–it’s now 5:47 am–when the brain has not officially reported for duty.  I’m happy to make the correction.

The editor should have asked that food editor: “Ameliorate?  You really want to use that word?” And then, “What does it mean?”  And “Why do you wish to use it?”  “What are we trying to do here, help people plan their meals or educate them on their vocabulary?” (I’ve got a dime that says someone else wrote that headline and the food editor herself should have flagged him for that penalty.)

“What does this mean?”  And “why are you using this word?”

Questions that should be asked in the church office (or pastor’s study) from time to time.  Oh, btw, I know why they aren’t.  Someone is thin-skinned and they might take offense at being corrected, right?  Okay, then what you do is finesse them.  Try this…

What if you were to ask the sign-maker or the writer of that piece for the church bulletin, “If there were a mistake in it, do you want to know?” And wait for an answer.  Or, “Do you mind if I ask you about a certain word that you used?”  I’ve had people do that to me, and then I had the pleasure of explaining the use of the word and why it was exactly what I wanted to say.

I’m remembering that Alexander Woollcott, a theater critic and newspaper columnist who had a popular radio show in the late 1930’s and ’40, once used the word pubescence on his broadcast and got in trouble. A sponsor canceled him and a ton of letters arrived protesting his use of the word. (I’ll let you look it up.)  I’ve heard a similar story about a banquet speaker thanking the Lord for this succor which He had provided to fund a project.  The donor, thinking he had been called a sucker, stalked out and canceled his gift. (The word means “help.”)

Most communication slip-ups come from lack of planning and forethought.

Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!


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