Punctuation is not a crime

Why, suddenly, do people hate the comma? Did one go astray, leaving someone candidly exposed? Did an em-dash make someone choke on an appositive? Did an apostrophe try to possess the wrong thing?

Fear not, punctuation marks, I will defend you. You are full of character. You accentuate. You applaud! You provide context.

Where would we be without you? ‎Lost, confused, disorganized, and a bit troubled, I suspect. Let’s take a look, shall we?

“I like eating, the smell of summer rain, and my pets.”

Without the commas: “I like eating the smell of summer rain and my pets.”

I beg your pardon?

The semi-colon need not perplex; rather, it gives pause. It aids contemplation. We don’t pause enough in our rapid world. Thank you, semicolon, for reminding us to breathe.

Colons create drama and suspense: they are the orchestra leaders of the English language. When you see one, you know something big is coming next, like a crescendo of fact or a list of reasons.

And there’s the em-dash, that lively and vibrant storyteller, giving us hints and peeks, like an actor turning to the camera and winking. Some people dislike them—thinking them vain or disruptive, perhaps—but I think they’re dandy, like a conspiratorial sideways glance.

Exclamation marks have never been more popular, often used in an attempt to be heard over the din of voluminous content that saturates our existence. But even they are losing their spark due to overuse. We might as well just go back to the period.

People. Like. To. Use. Periods. Like. This. For. Emphasis. Such a method works well on occasion, particularly for irony. Periods cut to the chase and draw conclusions. They pace our words and clarify meaning.

It’s the lowly comma, sadly, that appears to be most at risk of an untimely death. I, for one, still love what it can do.

A few words about poetry

The words of ancient poets danced and droned as they spun tales of delight and dread about gods and goddesses; fight, flight and plight. Legends were borne brilliantly through metaphors, dreamscapes and visions, illuminated by wit and wonder.

Language was precious then and remains precious now, but for different reasons. In this day of short attention spans and information overload, what place has poetry?

In our glut of words, we need to find a new efficiency; an essential epiphany. Those lines that stay with you – that provide the visceral, evocative, poignant and resonant meaning to create a lasting impression – are the essential epiphanies. This is how poetry can help us cut through the clutter in an art of language that creates understanding and connection.

Here, too, less is often more. It’s not about absence, but intensity; where themes and ideas are expressed through the eloquence of essential meaning. Here are a few reminders from 100, 200 and 450 years ago…

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auden

keats

shakespeare

 

And one from me: Demarcation: A Riddle.

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Comparing apples

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” (Albert Einstein)

From the Fibonacci of phlox and forget-me-nots to the extraordinary resilience of a garden-variety dandelion, many lessons can be gleaned from nature. Strong as an oak. Red as a rose. Blue as the sky. Quiet as a mouse. Noisy as an oyster.

“A noisy oyster?” you ask. Everything is possible in a metaphor.

When contemplating the nature of transformational change, it helps to think about nature itself, comparing apples to, well, apples.

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Further reading on: leaders, leadership and change management.

 

Tell me a story…

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What’s old is new again

Storytelling has been around forever, and is at the heart of cultural traditions. It informs, connects and entertains. It has become very popular for everything from corporate communications to marketing. Storytelling isn’t just about words, but a variety of multimedia elements that, taken together, evoke, incent or inspire.

But we are drowning in content
Content is everywhere: the Internet made everyone an author/philosopher, but it didn’t make everyone a good writer. “Content curation” helps to sift through the voluminous mayhem, but curation is not a cure. How many times have you been hooked by a provocative title or headline only to find the content that follows unimaginative or unintelligible?

Shock, awe and ambiguity
Edginess often replaces creative and thoughtful content as a means to stand out from the crowd. But if nothing shocks or surprises us anymore, how can we similarly be delighted? Even the most dramatic language will eventually attract ambiguity. Just as “urgent” has lost its urgency, the extreme is becoming less extraordinary. The many messengers create further noise that first beckons our attention and then quickly loses it. Ambiguity (and the tolerance of it) is robbing us of delight through its sameness and saturation.

So what do we do?
We work at it! The formula for cutting through the clutter and creating effective communications isn’t a big mystery, but it takes serious effort. Too much detail in a world of short attention spans will lose your audience, but you have to paint a picture and help them connect the dots: facilitate. Plain language is more accessible – for EVERYONE. Skip the academic or corporate jargon. And stop spoon-feeding with detail. Remember Hemingway? Stimulate the imagination…

Creating a narrative that resonates

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…for an affective response
To be effective, you need to be affective as well. This is especially important for building narratives, regardless of the purpose. Individual words can have a tremendous impact. Think of the power of “yes” or “no” in a text, video or graphic.

Captivation: from “cool” to “wow”
To captivate, you must not only attract attention, but hold it. Captivation creates an affective experience that inspires both intellectual and emotional responses. When the audience member can imagine how it would feel to have been at the scene, or been in someone else’s shoes as described through the narrative, there is a point of personal connection. Crisp, clear language that complements visuals and other sensory offerings is far more effective than verbosity.

Why the blog format is so popular
The plain language and brevity of posts makes them easier to write and easier to consume. The blog format has a more “personal” feel – like a conversation. Blog posts often tell a story, and storytelling creates a more collaborative community or audience that shares relatable posts. The act of sharing stories reinforces the social benefits of the community.

Be careful with language
Watch out for buzzwords and clichés, and double-check meaning. If you’re undertaking a fulsome review, be sure that your review is excessive and lavish, because that’s what fulsome means. A tortuous process is full of twists and turns; a torturous process denotes something a little more painful.

But it still has to evoke…and entertain
(From my winning entry in the Toronto Star’s 2013 Poetry Week contest.)

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Building Effective Communications

The formula for creating effective communications isn’t a big mystery. Achieving effective communications, however, takes effort. To be effective, you should aim to be affective as well. People want to hear about what matters to them and in a format that is quick (brief), easy (plain language), informative (factual) and resonant (meaningful, connective, engaging). Always keep these elements in mind when crafting content, but most importantly, get to know the nuances of your audience first.

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