sign up for our newsletter

Writing and media training services for businesses,
nonprofits and government agencies


December 2015

A Revelation

Greetings once again.

I’ll start off on a personal note. Like most of you, I hope, I’m appalled by the hatred spewing from modern-day nativists who prey on fears of terrorism. Going negative and blustering about the "other" is the path of least resistance, and it’s the price we often pay for First Amendment rights.

Well, a few weeks ago, I spent time in a place dominated by people who don’t look like most of us, don’t pray like most of us, and don’t speak like most of us. They were "foreign nationals" working at the U.S. Agency for International Development in Cairo, Egypt. I was there to boost confidence in their English skills via two courses -- "Writing for Results" and "Clear Writing Through Critical Thinking" -- under the auspices of the Washington-based Graduate School (

Among the most eager learners I’ve encountered in nearly 15 years of full-time writing instruction, these Egyptians were motivated in good part by the desire to keep and excel at jobs that must be among the most prized in Cairo. They were high achievers, every one. What impressed me was that the natural leaders with the biggest smiles and a willingness to help me understand their culture were two women wearing the headdress of the Islamic faith. "So much for women being subjugated" in Muslim society, I told myself.

From the classroom, I shared the experience via email with my brother, who lives in Zambia and used to work for USAID. "Egyptians typify the true soul and character of Islam," he replied. "Such a shame that the extremists have denigrated a religion that has given the world so much."

Take Charge, Be Active, Be Honest

Although they had a decent grasp of English, my students presented a special challenge because the Arabic language consists largely of long, convoluted sentences. So when I started talking about the brevity-clarity connection and the use of strong verbs to carry the message, they needed to go through several exercises to get the point.

Writing like you speak, as I noted in the November newsletter, is the best approach to workplace communications, as long as you don’t descend into profanity or colloquialisms or egregious grammar errors. To make that point, I told them about President Ronald Reagan’s notorious attempt to answer queries from the media and Democrats in Congress about the Iran-Contra affair, which involved the secret sale of arms to Iran despite an arms embargo. White House officials had hoped to secure the release of several U.S. hostages and fund the Contras fighting revolutionary Sandinista rulers in Nicaragua. The problem was that Congress had prohibited further U.S. funding of the Contras.

So…after much hue and cry, the Gipper finally went to the White House briefing room and said, "Mistakes were made." Now contrast that with what he could have said, "We made mistakes." See how the first one is a sort of verbal shrug, with no actor to blame, and the second one is more forthright and honest? Such passive construction is a telling example of language designed to obfuscate, not illuminate.

Here’s another example from "Officespeak: The Win-Win Guide to Touching Base, Getting the Ball Rolling, and Thinking Inside the Box," by David Martin, who calls passive voice the bread and butter of press releases and official documents: "Five hundred employees were laid off."

Says Martin, "These layoffs occurred in a netherworld of displaced blame, in which the company and the individual are miraculously absent from the picture."

I hope you have a memorable holiday season.