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U. of Miami grad, journalism, NCAA basketball scholarship, advanced studies at MIT and Boston University Graduate School of Mass Communications, right brain creative, love to explore the human condition, 10 years as senior staff writer, hi-tech Fortune 500's, 5 years marketing communications manager, 7 years freelance copywriter, former reporter in Germany, sailing instructor in the British West Indies, professional jazz/classical guitarist, articles/essays published in national magazines, currently specializing in optimized content for Web sites. Email me at woods.lee1@gmail.com

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Don't Be Aftaid to Comment

The business world continues to spawn new ideas, new processes and new techniques at an astounding rate. The significance or meaning of it all, however, is seldom obvious to readers whose minds are occupied with other matters. When you plan your writing, see if you have any new information or raw data that needs a bit of explanation, or commentary.

Objectivity on the job is usually considered a virtue, but it became totally unwarranted several years ago during an incident at a Chrysler assembly plant. An ABC television correspondent, interviewing a worker responsible for driving new cars off the assembly line, registered more than mild shock when the man said:

"One day a steering wheel came off in my hand.”

"What did you do?" the correspondent asked.

"I jammed it back on the column and parked it with the others."

"Did you tell anybody?"

"No," the man said, "That's not my responsibility."

Total, unwavering objectivity — the refusal to add helpful information when it is called for — is at least irresponsible and can be, as this case demonstrates, downright dangerous.

A lab technician writes:

"During the experiment, the temperature rose to 750 degrees Fahrenheit."

He also believes the reading to be unusually high under the circumstances, but says nothing because he is sworn to the facts of the matter, no more, no less. In this case, he is letting objectivity rule his better judgment. Fortunately, such circumstances are rare.

Most business writing situations are based on ordinary, day-to-day events, where an appropriate comment seldom poses a threat to those who regard opinion as an act of treason. In a day-to-day example, a writer possessed by objectivity will say:

"The letters were sent yesterday, as you requested."

A communicator would add, "They will arrive later than usual, however, due to the recent postal workers' strike."

Have you ever listened intently to a specialist (doctor, lawyer, tax advisor. car mechanic), wishing that he or she would translate all those technical terms into something meaningful to you, something you could understand?

A classic example is the exchange between a detective and the medical examiner on any one of many TV and movie dramas. When the detective asks the "ME" how the person died, the doctor launches into a complicated explanation dominated by med-school jargon. The detective replies: "In English, doc."

Such moments demonstrate that there are times when an explanatory comment or two is needed — not only to convey information, but also to communicate.

Finally, when you do choose to include explanatory comments, make sure you are motivated by a desire to help your reader comprehend the significance of your information, and not by a momentary desire to inject inappropriate opinion or bias.

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