Friday, July 25, 2014

Writing Lessons From Microsoft and Weird Al Yankovic

This week I have been humbled by Microsoft and Al Yankovic.
First came the “Hello There” memo that announced 12,500 layoffs amid a mountain of jargon.
Then came the parody video “Mission Statement” that seemed to reach into my computer to pull out whole phrases from my hard drive.
Rather than sue Weird Al for plagiarism, I think it’s time for me – and all corporate communicators – to respect the fact that we’re all just playing with loaded guns.
Real writing is dangerous. This hit home while reading Marja Mills’ new memoir "The Mockingbird Next Door":
  • The first few pages quote Harper Lee’s description of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1932. It’s been far-too-many years since I last read those lines – and they still gave me goosebumps.
  • I also remembered that my dad didn’t want me to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 8th Grade because, he thought, the book was “too dangerous” due to its depictions of racism and rape. I read the book in defiance, to prove to him I was a grownup.
As a dad myself, I sometimes recited poems to my little girls at bedtime. Their favorite was invariably the last poem ever written by Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee”:
  • “We want to hear the ‘I was a child' one!” they’d excitedly beg in 1994.
  • Da-ad, do you know how depressing that poem is?” they protest 20 years later.
Yet it’s still a favorite poem and vivid memory for them; me too.
Real words crafted by real writers have meaning and resonance for decades.
The written word is so powerful that even the disguised phrases we sometimes use to communicate layoffs or express business concepts have incalculable impact on real people.
Perhaps the blank pages of all writers – even corporate communicators -- should include a warning label like those required on cigarette packaging… or like the dangerously evocative label on Woody Guthrie’s old guitar.
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