I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to improve how messages are communicated.
An English major back in school, I’ve worked in trade magazines in the US, book publishing in Israel, marketing at a think tank and a day school, and project and proposal management for a high-tech company and a broker, and what I’ve learned through all of this is that words matter, word choice matters. If you can’t accurately describe what you are offering or want, the reader will misunderstand.
But I’ve also learned that it is not enough, because even the most precisely chosen words are useless in a vacuum.
This means that you must also take into consideration who the target audience is, how to reach it, how to get it to do what you want…without this, word choice alone really means nothing. A few years ago, I wrote a LinkedIn piece looking at how to ensure your words do what you want them to. I called it How to improve your communications in three-and-a-half easy steps, and I was very proud of how it distilled the elements of what it takes to get your message across effectively to the basic building blocks.
Lately, though, the space surrounding messages is something that has been catching my attention even more than usual. Museum of Design Atlanta’s current exhibit, Text Me: How We Live in Language, with over 100 contributions from 60 designers, was full of examples of how language can be used in art, sometimes in unconventional ways. The point there was less about getting a consumer to take an action step and more about providing food for thought: How can we integrate pictures and words, fonts and design?
Then there is the other extreme, where design is irrelevant. Did you know that this past week marked 25 years since the first text was sent? (who remembers flip phones?) One article in the Australian media cites a study showing, surprisingly, that texters haven’t lost their ability to use grammar appropriately in other settings. But at the same time, the article also reported how quickly texting’s own grammatical landscape has changed; abbreviations kids used to use are no longer in vogue.
In Israel there is an Academy of the Hebrew Language which makes decisions to do with language and grammar that is binding on the government. I remember when I was living in Jerusalem in the 1990s, the Academy forbade the airing of songs with incorrect grammar on the governmental radio stations, something I could never imagine happening here in the US.
Forget the fact we have no ruling body for matters of language or even the fact that states and the federal government don’t work together, we would still have issues of artistic freedom, of freedom of speech, to contend with. And in this crazy world we live in, “alternative facts” means words lose their meaning altogether.
So that brings us back to the beginning. Even if we arrive at precise accurate factual meanings, how do we ensure they fall on people’s ears? For me, I am embracing the opportunity that the Atlanta Jewish Times/Times of Israel have given me with this blog. I look at it as a platform and at me as having an obligation to treat it well. With this, as with any platform, care must be taken. As I pointed out to my second grade Hebrew school class this morning, the difference between the water (mayim) and the sky (sh’mayim) turns on only one letter. No room for error when each letter matters. Otherwise, we may as well just shhhhh.