Sunday, November 19, 2017

Communicating with Clarity, and Humor

Funny, unless you are selling tools!
Mealtime was serious at my childhood house. Children were to eat, not speak. They were also to eat their vegetables before their meat, not drink their milk until done with everything else, and not dare to rise until they had been excused from the table.

“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.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Holiday Stress and Laughter

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Zen and the Art of Doing Laundry

The old saying goes something like, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." This story was written few years ago; it came back to my mind recently.  Sometimes, no matter what is going on in your life, the laundry has to get done.

Zen and the Art of Doing Laundry
©2017 Noreen Braman

Doing laundry was a good thing. A traditional, household chore with an established pattern of steps. Sort the clothes, load the washer. Add the detergent and fabric softener. When the cycle finished, move the clothes to the dryer. Start over again with the next load. Like the mantra on the shampoo bottle of “lather, rinse and repeat,” doing laundry had a simple pattern, an attainable goal, and a reasonable time frame for completion.

Once the clothes began sloshing around in their hot water wash cycle, she made coffee. More defined steps, more secure routine. As the hot, fragrant liquid began to dribble into the pot, she loaded the dishwasher, plates on the bottom, glasses on the top, silverware in the baskets. Following the prescribed motions and steps required to keep the home running was easy; easy as long as she pushed herself, easy as long as she kept the end results in mind; clean clothes, fresh coffee, sparking dishes. Little goals, to be sure, but just enough to keep her from crawling back into bed, burying her head in the pillows and sleeping the day away in a restless dream world.

Without the house to anchor her, she would soon be adrift in the ocean of her life, with nothing to keep the waves from crashing over her head, drenching her, swamping her, drowning her. Swirling around her were discussions of bankruptcy, foreclosure, and the impossibility of selling the house in such a bad market. Her delicate financial infrastructure had not collapsed completely, but was swaying and trembling as its foundation crumbled away. It didn’t help that she lived in worked in one of the most expensive counties in New Jersey.

At work she was barely treading water, every time she thought things were calming down another storm would leave her gasping for breath and holding onto floating debris. On days like today, she couldn’t even face the office, its chaos and the underlying decay of demotivation.

She knew she should have been better prepared. Children grow up and leave home – child support ends. She just never expected it to end so abruptly. She had been sure that by now the promised promotion would have come through or a new job would have been acquired. The worst scenario had been that she would have to sell the house at a generous profit, and move into a funky urban loft or suburban townhouse. She had never considered that her office would be plunged into a desperate struggle for survival, that the economy that had been built around the security of the value of real estate would spiral downward out of control.

She cut off the cable television, turned down the thermostat and drove nowhere except to work. Her refrigerator and cabinets were bare; buying groceries became a carefully considered task consisting of purchasing lots of pasta and canned vegetables. Centered in the empty freezer was a 10 pound turkey she had gotten for free and was saving to sustain her for that week when there was nothing else.

The coffee pot beeped and she poured herself a cup. This small pot of coffee was made with the last two scoops of a gourmet blend left over from a Christmas gift basket. The next pot would have to be made from the one of the hotel coffee packets she collected when she traveled for business. If she could get coffee in a hotel lobby, the in-room packets would go in her suitcase, along with the leftover shampoo and lotion. She always left the skin-drying bar soap behind, considering her liquid body wash to be a necessary purchase. Lately, she had considered taking the soap, too.

She heard the washer’s spin cycle slow down and stop, and she transferred the wet clothes to the dryer. She set up for the next load, changing the temperature to cold for her dark things, and walked back and forth from her bedroom with her arms full. Step by step. Laundry was easy, predictable, unchanging. She fully understood how generations of women had found both comfort and crushing boredom in the task. It brought to mind the Dalai Lama’s teaching about finding purpose and happiness even in the simplest chores. She wondered if he did his own laundry, smilingly filling washers and dryers with yards of saffron-colored robes and wrappings. She closed the washer lid and left the appliances to their work; their defined, predictable, unchanging work.

Tomorrow she would force herself to return to work, to make an appearance in the outside world where her tiny boat was constantly battered and tossed on unfriendly seas. She would face the inevitability that she was destined to drown; but not today.

Today she had laundry. Step by step by step.