The first high school teacher to take me under her auspices was Mrs. Chapin, who taught 10th-grade English at the leafy private school I was sentenced to. In some ways, Mrs. Chapin saved my life. If that's too dramatic, she taught me that it's our responsibility as humans to take a close look at words and how they are used.
Among other things, Mrs. Chapin introduced me to William Styron, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Flannery O'Connor and a host of other writers. She loaded up my brain and school-locker with dozens of books beyond the curriculum because she knew that reading would make me think and thinking would keep me somewhat out of trouble.
There were others, too, who made me think about words. When Shelley Lazarus was quoted about Steve Hayden one morning in the Wall Street Journal, she said, "He takes complex ideas and reduces them to simple thoughts. He never writes in jargon." Those words became my professional brief--and again reminded me to think about words and their meaning. And of course, I learned from others, too.
Viktor Klemperer in his famous war diaries, "I Will Bear Witness," and "The Language of the Third Reich," emphasized the point. As did Eric Arthur Blair in the essay I refer to more than any other, on how to think and write well, "Politics and the English Language."
The point in language should be to communicate clearly, beautifully and succinctly. But most people--and certainly most corporations--usually use language to deceive, obscure and skirt. They use long words when a short one will do. They use over-used cliches that because they are so common don't get heard, and they use jargon that no one--not even the speaker--knows what it means.
There were probably 10,000 announcements and commercials not long ago about "these unprecedented times." We all stopped listening. Over-use made the words meaningless and, as bad, notice-less.
The first job of communication is getting noticed. If you can think back to just seconds after you emerged from your mother's womb, or from a dirty test-tube, you probably wailed like a dozen police sirens in war-torn Europe.
You got noticed. That was your job.
If your cry as a baby sounded like white-noise or an in-flight announcement on how to fasten a seatbelt or a pharma-commercial, you would have perished and our species would have died off 4.5 million years ago, or 5,000 if you're a non-science believing republican. Because mom wouldn't have paid attention and babies would die.
Just now I got off the phone with a client and I fucked up. He was late for our call, so I called him. He stammered a bit--nervous.
"I'm dealing with alternate-side," he said, "and my 11 moved to nine."
"Why don't you just call me when you can," I responded. "I have some things to share with you."
I did it.
I used a cliche. A bad one.
I said I was going to share some things.
I don't share with clients. Not that I'm imperious or an ass.
sharing implies we have an equal stake in creating the work. We don't. It's my work. I don't share it with you. I show it to you. Then I sell it to you.
If it were really sharing, I'd take your input and follow it. This ad is a shared effort after all, and we're in this together.
Only we're not.
I'm here to guide you. Not follow you.
Of course, I'll take suggestions. I'll listen to reason. And everyone from Secretariat on down to Joe DiMaggio misses sometimes, and I certainly am no better.
But we're not sharing.
60 years ago Bill Bernbach wrote this sentence for Robert Townsend, then the CEO of Avis.
"You will approve, disapprove but not try to improve. If you do that, you'll have everyone in the agency fighting to work on your business."
GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware company has grown quite a bit in the year since I was freed to open my own place and make real money.
I try to follow Bernbach's guidance as often as any human can. BTW, the mentors you choose don't have to be alive. As Yogi Berra said, "you can observe a lot by watching." And you can learn a lot by thinking, listening and writing.
That's what I've learned so far.
Thanks Mrs. Chapin. Viktor Klemperer. And George Orwell.
Thanks for sharing.
BTW, if you want to watch a 1950 Oscar-winner about being noticed (at least as a Language Does Not Lie antidote) here it is. If nothing else, it might hand you a smile. And who couldn't use a smile?