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.

An ode to Jane Austen

I really ought to put pen to paper and send some thoughtfully composed lines to friends. My handwriting, alas, has deteriorated significantly over the years. These days, I must concentrate to make my scrawl simply decipherable, let alone artistic, though mine never compared to the wondrous curves of one friend’s cursive or the modernist angles of another’s. The latter friend attended school in Switzerland when we were teenagers and I delighted in receiving her well-travelled letters, living vicariously through these chapters of her overseas escapades and eagerly awaiting the next instalment every few weeks. Her personality illuminated the lines on the delicate stationery, the tales coming to life as the blue ink cast a shadow through to the other side, now part of a cinematographic dream sequence in my memory.

Letter-writing has of course long been a literary and film device, with dramatic deliveries of news from afar, invitations to effervescent balls, or kiss-offs sealed dramatically with red wax, which, once broken, forever change the plot and fate of the characters. Imagine a Jane Austen novel without letters! It was the catalyst of understanding between Lizzie and Darcy, for pity’s sake! Or that heartfelt – though dreadfully late – letter of confession from Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield to Angel Clare, which stays ominously hidden, quite literally kept under the rug, and becomes a clear harbinger of doom.

There is both a literal and figurative – and certainly tactile – difference in the nature of electronic communications that is dramatically less satisfying, even with stylized fonts. And indeed, a whole generation of young people has never experienced the exquisite pining wait for a piece of personal handwritten correspondence. Nor have they enjoyed the anticipation and elation of unfolding the stationery to reveal the physical beauty of the written word and the romance of the art that someone took the time to create just for them.

The idea of waiting for anything in this world of rapid-fire discourse is perhaps what is really at issue. We’ve become addicted to the immediate gratification of the latest buzz of electronic snippets. When I’m in a cell dead zone or my battery is out of juice, I sometimes feel the adrenaline shoot through me and the fear grow in the pit of my stomach that I must be missing something important, whether relevant to my existence or not.

Eventually I succumb and put the phone away, defeated. Next time this happens, I hope that I dig out pen and paper and write a letter about it. Perhaps I’ll even do so in a park under a tree. I know of a bench that has a metal plaque with the apt quote: “To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” Yes, those are indeed Jane Austen’s words. Who better to inspire a letter?

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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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Six Little Communication Pet Peeves

Decisions, decisions. If I had my druthers, everyone would make decisions rather than take them. While I reluctantly concede that either use is acceptable, every time I hear someone say they are “taking a decision” I want to ask: “Where are you taking it? Out for lunch?”

Impact. Impact is far better as a noun than a verb. “We experienced a significant impact because of this decision.” vs. “This decision impacts us in a significant way.” Also, please leave “impacted” for discussions about wisdom tooth extraction.

Embedded. Embedding should stay behind the scenes. When using this term, keep it to strategy discussions as an outcome of what you hope to accomplish (i.e. “Through this initiative, these concepts will become embedded in our policies.”).

Engagement. Like embedding, engagement should be an outcome and stay behind the scenes. It should inform strategy, but not be part of final communications. You shouldn’t have to tell people you’re engaging them; just engage them!

Passive vs. Active Voice. Passive voice, despite what you hear, still has its uses. Trying to morph everything into active voice sounds odd and contrived. Modern written communications should reflect a balance of the spoken language and reasonable grammar. (It is also okay, on occasion, to end a sentence with a preposition, particularly for informal conversational narratives.)

Acronyms. Introduce acronyms for projects or initiatives at the earliest opportunity in a text and then stick with the acronym the rest of the way. But OMG, please leave text-message acronyms for text messages.

 

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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Putting a value on art

There can be no debate on how much art is valued, both as commodity and object of beauty; that is, not only for the dollars and cents, but also—begging your pardon, fellow Jane Austen fans—for the sense and sensibility. It is as intrinsic to our modern life as it once was to cultures thousands of years ago.

But what defines priceless? The rediscovered Impressionist painting? The abstract installation you examine from multiple angles to fully comprehend its meaning? The look of pride and joy on a child’s face when revealing a masterpiece in crayon? Stunning architecture? A film that leads you to unabashedly roar with laughter or quietly weep in a theatre full of strangers? It is this less quantifiable value that leads to waxing poetic: the soul value.

When even the stalwart commodities plummet, the worth of art increases—from the finest gallery pieces to the conceptualization energy behind everything from engineering to marketing. It is at the root of our curiosity and our creativity; one naturally feeds the other. It also enhances our ability to maintain delight in the everyday and a sense of awe in the extraordinary, particularly at those times when we need it most.

Supporting art—and the cultural institutions that provide the opportunity to experience it—is not about defending esoteric kingdoms where only the well-heeled can live; it is about ensuring our greater collective wealth. Art makes us think and thinking leads to dreaming; both help us to better manage the broader core priorities and issues du jour.

We can all afford to appreciate art. For less than the price of a standard-fare pub meal, you can enjoy a visit to a museum or other cultural institution and learn something—or experience something—that will change your perspective on life, history, nature, the universe (your pick) forever. That’s about as fundamental as it gets on this human journey. We value art because it is how we discover, define and celebrate life.

 

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