Thursday, January 29, 2015

Are you my Thought Partner?

Huh?  That's what I said to myself when I came across this expression in a letter from a nonprofit CEO referring to the accomplishments of the organization during the past year.  The writer declared many in the community viewed the group as a good "thought partner."  That got me thinking about the value of clear expression in any work, but especially in nonprofits, where if you grab an audience you should assume the reader/listener doesn't have all day to receive and understand your message.

Of course "thought partner" is jargon, defined by one reference  as "special words or expressions used by a particular group.... that  are difficult for others to understand." Aside from its vaguely Orwellian character (cf. "thought police" in 1984 ), the phrase only serves to show off the author's desire to abandon  plain speech in favor of a phrase du jour, perhaps with a view to impress.

There are two major modes of expression - aside from hand gestures and eyebrow lifts: written, and oral / spoken  ("verbal" should not be confused with "oral"). Good written expression is supported by diligent teachers and texts, such as the still superior The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White.  As any employer, editor or casual correspondent can tell you, the dam is breaking on careful writing. Emails and tweets are eroding sentence structure and grammar.  When I was in management and hiring people, the receipt of a clear and persuasive cover letter got that application to the top of the pile.

As for oral/spoken expression, the predominant formal practitioners- politicians- have been helped by the teleprompter. A good speech written in advance and loaded on the machine can make even the most suspect seem coherent,  content aside. But if the technology should fail, beware. Recently, Republican presidential hopefuls spoke to a convocation of conservatives in Iowa. Included was former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.  Midway through the speech, the teleprompter conked out and Ms. Palin had to resort to speaking ex tempore. The result was like a highway pileup of syntax, grammar, and metaphor.  It made no sense.  By comparison, the political debate format at least allows the listener an opportunity to see what may be inside a candidate's brain.

As for nonprofit managers, I have noticed that some have a tendency, once in front of a captive audience, to say too much for too long. Eager to tell the whole story, in which they are so invested, they forget that the listener, after a while, may have something else to do. Organization of what you want to impart is helpful. The late Mike Strang, my old friend and former Congressman, said that on the campaign trail he followed a simple rule of thumb speaking to a crowd: "Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell it to them, and then tell them what you have told them." That structure ideally imposes a need for clarity and, if you can keep it short, even better.

I hope I have been clear. If not, let me know and please do not ask me to be your thought partner. I will decline - on principle.

Comments on this and other blog posts are always welcome.