|Funny, unless you are selling tools!|
“Please may I be excused from the table?” is a mouthful for a small kid. But, you mastered it, or you sat there. Mastering it meant not changing the words, either. “Can I be excused?” would be met by this answer: “I don’t know can you?”
Yes, my parents were grammar sticklers. Even the use of pronouns was a touchy subject. Innocently referring to my mother as “her” was disrespectful and grounds for some quick discipline. There was no tolerance of a Brooklyn accent in our Brooklyn home, and one of the biggest disagreements I ever had with my Mother was her constant reminder to me that warm-blooded animals were “mammals,” not “mamamals.”
I was a bit less strict with my own children, who started saying, “Please excuse the table?” as toddlers, and I couldn’t stop giggling about it. It persisted way longer than their realization about what they were really saying. So does “all of the sudden” which they still think is the way to say “all of a sudden.” (Sorry, Mom!)
As a writer and communicator, these stories come back to me, as my mother knew they would. Words are important. The right words, used and pronounced correctly.
Today, dealing with tweets, sound bytes, 10-second elevator pitches and attention spans that get shorter every day should mean that we have all learned to communicate with clarity. Fewer words, more need for using the correct ones. But, how terribly poor clarity is today, is, well, pretty clear. Clear as the difference between asking “Can I?” or “May I?”
A friend taught me a French expression, “le mot juste,” which translates to the English equivalent of “the right word.” For communicators this means saying the right words in the right format to the right people at the right time. How hard could that be? So hard that some famous writers have been paralyzed into silence looking for them.
While you are at it, you may be expected to do it in a clever, and possibly humorous way. However, mayhem ensues when the humor comes first and the clarity becomes, well, less clear. Especially if the only humor you can come up with is using Comic Sans.
For those of you who still watch network television, and the commercials that come with that, you experience this all the time. A commercial plays utilizing a comical plot, a play on words or an absurd charachter or situation. It makes you laugh or groan, abut five minutes later you can’t remember the product. In fact, let me sit here in front of my TV and wait for an example. Oh, the silly grandfather trying to read "The Three Little Pigs" but he can't huff and puff. "Just like you, Grandpa," the kiddies say. They all laugh. What are they selling? Children's books? Cough drops? Life-saving medicine for a seriously ill person? I can't quite remember. But I can see that wheezy Big Bad Wolf.
How about people on Twitter trying emphatically to make a point, but their grammar or spelling or misuse of a word ruins their efforts. Or an imprisoned, dethroned prince sends you an email, desperately trying to share his inheritance, but you can’t get past his fractured syntax. Missed opportunities, all.
The best humor that communicators use will make the target audience smile, but doesn’t break the connection to the message. Think of your message as a greeting card, serious, funny, nostalgic or sympathetic on the outside, but still says “Happy Birthday,” “Get Well,” or “Thinking of You” on the inside. You can "leave 'em laughing" as long as the humor reinforces the message, not overshadows it. If you can do this, you may be successful. (See what I did there? I am so my mother's daughter.)
Take that Oxford comma in my title and let it give you some time to pause before you add humor to your message. My mother would thank you.