Thursday, August 11, 2011

What are words for? by Terry Burns

Most of us use the written word all the time, probably more than we realize. But it seems to me they have four primary uses.

For information - here I’m thinking newspapers, magazines, various types of nonfiction books, warranties and instruction sheets, etc.

For entertainment - books, short stories, some types of blogs

To convey a message or inspiration - articles, devotionals, blogs, again various types of nonfiction books and even inspirational fiction.

To stay in touch with family or friends - letters, postcards, email, social networking

Even in our conversation, chances are we are using our words for one of these four uses, giving information, trying to entertain, trying to convey a message or just networking. Which of them is the most important? I thought about that and it seems to me it depends on what is going on in our life right at that moment.

If we are concerned about something that is going on in the world, these days often related to what the idiots in Washington are doing, then giving or receiving information may be what is on our mind. Digital and electronic means factor in this and the other three  strongly, but right now I’m just concentrating on the written word. If our water heater is on the fritz it may be that warranty or instruction sheet, otherwise that may be the least important set of written words that we have.

If our concern is getting our message across, if we have something to say then conveying that message is what is important. It goes without saying when we have a friend or family member on our mind what our priority will be. In the case of any of these conveying exactly what we want the other party to get is the primary importance.

So written words are important. I had a professor in a college course say something one time that has always stuck with me even though that has been over 40 years ago. He said we all need to think of ourselves as having a box full of index cards (remember I said 40 years ago) and on those cards were written the sum total of our upbringing and family environment, our education, our experiences, our likes and dislikes, everything that makes us what we are. When we get ready to convey a message, written or spoken, we thumb though the cards and we compose a message that says what we want to say.

The problem is, the receiver of the message has a box of cards too, and chances are every card in their box is different from the ones in ours, but they are going to use THEIR box to decode the message, not ours. Possibilities for misunderstanding are rampant. The key is for as much of the message as possible to be written or spoken in areas where the boxes have common ground.

The words themselves can get in the way. This is why most things are written on about a 7th grade level. It is a level most people can read at and it is a comfortable reading level even for people with much larger vocabularies. It would kill a good story, for example, if the flow were interrupted every page or two because somebody had to stop and look a word up to see what the author was saying. I figure two, maybe three times and that would be the end of that.

The bottom line is that being an effective communicator is important whether we are writing for publication or just standing in line at the grocery store talking to someone. How often have we said something to someone only to have them get indignant on us because they took a meaning from the message that we didn’t even know could be there. I’ve done that a lot. I remember asking a friend of mine how it went after he took the opportunity to speak at a board meeting. His response was “I think I just missed a wonderful opportunity to keep my mouth shut.”

We are never ‘just’ talking or ‘just’ writing. We have to remember we are always communicating, and that is a skill that can and should be learned and developed.


Linda Glaz said...

Ooh, I miss too many of your friend's opportunities to keep my mouth shut, particularly during an election year. You made some great points here, Terry. But that last one--OUCH!

Katherine Hyde said...

Terry, I think you missed one of the functions of words: to expand the reader's world. I don't mean by giving him information or a message, per se, but by causing him to think about things more deeply or from a different angle than he may have done before. That's what the best writing does, in my opinion.

Tea Time Consultants said...

Thank you Terry, a good lesson.