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July 2016

Lessons From The Old-Tech Box

"The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were."
~David Brinkley.

As a former print reporter (Kansas City Star, Business Week), I've often wondered about my brethren (and sistren?) in the electronic media. Never having covered a story from the visual point of view, with its emphasis on the 10-second "sound bite," I always felt a bit superior about a newspaper or magazine writer's obligation to go deeper on a story, thanks in part to all that white space after the ads find a home.

But now we've got social media, where addled news consumers struggle to absorb all those competing and accessible Internet and cable channels. What's this have to do with David Brinkley? With his wry attitude about the world he conveyed to us every weeknight, I can't help but picture him looking askance at what social media has done to his beloved profession. And I can see him chuckling at this Dave Barry quote:

"I do not mean to be the slightest bit critical of TV news people, who do a superb job, considering that they operate under severe time constraints and have the intellectual depth of hamsters. But TV news can only present the 'bare bones' of a story; it takes a newspaper, with its capability to present vast amounts of information, to render the story truly boring."

That brings me by a circuitous route to radio, which, thanks to its very nature, sounds pretty much the same way I remember it four or five decades ago. I'm talking here about news and genuine news analysis, not the red meat commentators on the left and right. Radio intrigues me for two reasons:

  • I tell participants in my media relations classes, which involve a lot of role-playing, that they should seize any opportunity to get a message across on live radio -- unedited and direct. Offer strong opinions in a concise package and don't equivocate. Spoken words in a one-on-one interview can carry focused power, compared to, literally, five or six cable TV chatterers shouting over each other.

  • Done properly, writing for radio is both the most demanding and the most effective. The language must carry the message with maximum clarity because the audience cannot go back and read it, as in print journalism. By contrast, in the visual world of television, the words can fade into insignificance in the rush of images.

Some time ago, I was working with a bright young college graduate whose major in philosophy had left her a bit adrift as she tackled a new job at a PR agency. "Start with the assumption that you're writing for radio," I told her. "Be spare and direct, and you'll find that the press releases you write for local papers will hit the mark for those busy editors."

Hall of Shame

My annoyance with copycat, imprecise "businessspeak" once led me to enshrine some of the worst examples. The need for clarity, brevity, and plain (not condescending, but direct) writing is still urgent, if a recent writing training trip to DC is any indication. Cliché-infected, unthinking phrasing still muddies communication in the halls of power -- meaning the entrenched federal bureaucracy and the K Street lobbying corridor:

  • Negatively impact, as in "Our failure to fabricate even one paper clip that actually holds two sheets of paper together is negatively impacting our sales performance." First of all, "impact" became a verb only about 30 years ago, even though the verbs "affect" or "influence" did the job quite nicely. But now that it’s here, why compound the damage by adding an awkward adverb (fellow Mainer Stephen King said in his book on writing, "The adverb is not your friend.")? Why not rely instead on unambiguous, active, space-saving standbys such as "harm" or "hurt?"

  • Core competencies, as in "Our core competencies include a flexible attitude about quality control and a collective tendency to stretch the lunch hour beyond normal parameters because we adhere to the principle of saving personal energy." Does anyone realize that by using the adjective "core" to define "competencies," you’re implying that you have other "competencies" that might not be so "core?" And that a careful reader could deduce that those other competencies might actually be subpar, or at least rather pedestrian? Here’s a solution, in plain English: "What we do best is…" or "Our reputation rests on the way we…" or "We are known for…"

  • Skill sets, as in "Our employees can bring the most unique set of skill sets to finding a solution to your problem, which is why we consider ourselves a high-end firm that can justify overcharging you for our services." First of all, you can’t be "most unique" because "unique" means one of a kind. I used to think that foolishness was restricted to the sports broadcast booth, but now I’m seeing it on websites, which was probably inevitable.

    Anyway, I ask you: What’s wrong with just using "skills?" How can "sets" possibly add anything beyond the useless appendage of another four-letter word? If you use "skill sets," ask yourself: "Why? What have I gained beyond the obvious tendency to imitate others unthinkingly?"

  • Going forward, as in "Going forward, we will have to address those issues." Oh yeah? Where the hell else would you go? You can't go backward, and, unless you're in some sort of Twilight Zone, you can't get stuck in the present. Take that boneheaded redundant phrase out of the sentence I just used, and you get, "We will have to address those issues." Have we lost any meaning? Of course not.

  • Past experience. Need I say more? (By the way, if you are adept at future experience, it would be my pleasure and honor to buy you a fine meal at Pimlico or Churchill Downs, during which you can counsel me on wise betting choices.)

Best wishes,