Great communicators eschew vague generalities for specific details. It’s easier to find examples of muddled writing and speaking weighted down with vague generalities than the opposite.
Recently, for example, a New York congressman was asked why he is sponsoring a bill to arm Syrian rebels. “Because,” he said, “doing nothing is a worse option and the United States has to stand for something.” When we use “thing” and its variations, “things”, “something”, “everything”, “anything”, our readers and listeners are stuck playing a maddening and distracting guessing game, wondering exactly what we may have been thinking.
• The United States has to stand for the rights of people anywhere in the world to resist authoritarianism?
• The United States has to stand for commerce anywhere in the world, including arms sales?
• The United States has to stand for any and all approaches of ridding the Middle East of Assad?
Another case in point. A school district curriculum director attempts to explain the Common Core (four minutes long, start at 1:49), but succumbs to vague generalities. She uses the term “content” repeatedly, and “topic”, and “rigor”, and “depth”, but never refers to a specific classroom lesson; consequently, her presentation left me more confused than beforehand. I got excited and perked up at the 1:49 point when she said, “For example in math. . .”, but alas, she continued to torture me with vague references to “content”, “topics”, “content”, “rigor”, “content”, “depth”, “content”.
I would buy her a roundtrip ticket to Hawaii if she would just say, “For example, now when fourth grade teachers teach fractions. . .” or ”For example, now when sixth grade math teachers teach ratios. . .” It’s like craving fruits and vegetables and having to settle for a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonderbread.
Contrast those negative examples with these positive ones. Last week’s George Packer excerpt, which I used to highlight the way he engages readers through unpredictably short, medium, and long sentences, is equally noteworthy for it’s wonderful specificity. Here again is Packer’s nutritious opening sentence:
Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S.
Our congressman and curriculum director might have written, “Amazon is selling everything and getting really big.” Packer takes the time, no doubt through multiple revisions, to explain Amazon’s reach through specific references that even someone like me can easily grasp:
. . . like Walmart, like Apple, like Con Edison, like Netfilix, like Random House, like Paramount, like the Paris Review, like Fresh Direct, like U.P.S.
Your reward, George, is in heaven.
Granted, the writer always has the advantage over the speaker because she can “put every word on trial” over and over. But through repeated practice, we can “think forward”, developing a mental teleprompter of sorts, and learn to speak more clearly by illustrating abstract concepts and insights with specific details.
Consider, Kenny “The Jet” Smith on last week’s edition of the NBA’s brilliant “Inside the NBA”. I dig that show so much sometimes I tape it for the next morning’s indoor cycling session, never the game that precedes it though. It’s worth deconstructing for several reasons, but last week The Jet decided to help out the humble blog with this rumination on the San Antonio Spurs continued success:
It’s the ultimate view of trust. They just trust. That I’m gonna sprint back. If the play on defense is to send the guy baseline, I’m just gonna trust that someone is going to be there. If I run the lane, I trust that I’m gonna get it. If I set the pick. . . If I dribble up the court and I’m Tony Parker I trust that the guy is coming open. It’s the ultimate viewing of what trust in basketball is all about.
The concept of “trust” is about as abstract as they come, but he explained it with repeated, specific examples that made it easy to grasp.
Follow in George’s and The Jet’s footsteps. Your audiences will thank you.