Advance Apology: I’m going to talk about politics in this post, despite my usual warning that talking about politics at work is generally a bad idea. If, like me, you’d prefer not to think about the U.S. Presidential Election, click elsewhere. But please trust me when I say that I have an educational purpose in mind. “Trigger warning” having been issued, I shall now continue with my writing.
It’s not the words you use…
It’s painful for a technical writer to admit it, but words are most likely NOT the most important aspect to communication. In print publications, layout, font, graphics, and white space can distract from or aid a reader’s willingness to read the actual words. Online, in addition to the items I just mentioned, you can add things like site usability, screen resolution, interactivity, quality of images, background colors/patterns, and even background music.* All of these components are part of a complete communication package, within which the reader/consumer eventually encounters the words.
(*And all this ignores the things you can’t control, such as the circumstances under which the user actually encounters your content–in a paper manual read in a noisy room, on an app on their smart phone, or on a laptop at their desk in an office where the air conditioning/heat is not working.)
Beyond the internet, the next level of challenge is that confusing, contradictory, fuzzy world of actual face-to-face interactions: individual conversations, meetings, or presentations. A presentation can combine all the challenges regarding the computer-based content described above with the dynamics of an uncomfortable meeting room, uncertain or divisive office politics, or the individual style of the speaker. In fact, in a face-to-face situation, verbal information (the actual content writers sweat over) can have as little audience impact as seven percent, with body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and other externals making the major bulk of the impact.
Which brings me to the Presidential Debate this past Tuesday.
Presidential debating as a technical writing exercise
I won’t lie: I deliberately tuned out the debate show, preferring to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns instead (more on that later). The guy I’m voting for this year wasn’t even invited to the event, so I really didn’t have a dog in the fight. I did, however, promise myself that I would read the transcript of the debate the next day to see what the two most prominent individuals running for the office had to say.
To begin, I pulled up a comment-free transcript from the Washington Post. Even the minimal number of advertisements and links was a little too distracting for me. I just wanted the text, so I copied and pasted the entire transcript to a Word doc, reformatted it so the font was easily read and spacing reset so that I could print out the whole thing if I so chose. Even with an 11-point Calibri font, single-spaced paragraphs, and one-inch margins, the entire thing fell out at 35 pages, so I decided to stick with reading the text on the screen.
Now here I must step on toes here, and I apologize. If you just read the statements by the two candidates over the space of 90 minutes, there’s not even a question that Hillary Clinton won that debate. She spoke in clear, complete sentences and for the most part answered the questions put to her. Donald Trump’s answers often wandered off topic or–if I am reading the transcript correctly and the transcript was faithful to what was actually said–didn’t always make sense.
I think building the middle class, investing in the middle class, making college debt-free so more young people can get their education, helping people refinance their — their debt from college at a lower rate. Those are the kinds of things that will really boost the economy. Broad-based, inclusive growth is what we need in America, not more advantages for people at the very top.
We are in a big, fat, ugly bubble. And we better be awfully careful. And we have a Fed that’s doing political things. This Janet Yellen of the Fed. The Fed is doing political — by keeping the interest rates at this level. And believe me: The day Obama goes off, and he leaves, and goes out to the golf course for the rest of his life to play golf, when they raise interest rates, you’re going to see some very bad things happen, because the Fed is not doing their job. The Fed is being more political than Secretary Clinton.
In this case I tried to capture two responses about the same topic that were of reasonably equal length and to capture the essence of Clinton’s and Trump’s respective styles of communicating. What’s interesting, now that I think on it, is that Trump’s natural speaking style does not translate well into direct technical writing. Clinton’s chosen style does. That reflects extensive preparation, I believe, but again, is a style that “reads” better when you see the words as plain text.
What does all this prove? I still don’t agree with Clinton on policy matters, but I at least understood clearly what she was trying to say. I was reminded of the college professor who gave me a backhanded compliment by saying that the nice part about my writing style was that it was clear enough to identify exactly what was wrong with my ideas. The fact remains that when translated into text, Clinton’s words were an excellent example of policy-focused technical writing.
And yet, judging by a smattering of online polls the next day (not the scientific kind, but still…), Trump was the perceived winner of the debate. This might outrage you because you’re a Clinton supporter, you dislike Trump, you have a preference for clear language, or a combination of these situations. So as I puzzled over the polls, a line from one of the Star Trek: TNG episodes came to me:
“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.”
– Jean-Luc Picard
Leaving aside whatever those results mean for the ultimate election result, I’d instead ask: what do those results say about politics as a technical communication exercise? Quite simply, it isn’t. Or, at least it isn’t primarily. Remember all those externals I mentioned earlier? They are the focus of most of our political culture, maybe more than the 93 percent reflective of most face-to-face communications. What is the candidate’s body language like? What is their tone of voice? How are they dressed? How relaxed do they appear? Who has the more “commanding” or “leader-like” presence?
I don’t think this is a particularly new phenomenon. Literature snobs like me might admire the opening lines of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but the fact remains that George Washington and the Continental Congress still had to do a lot of politicking and working with people to convince the American colonies to revolt against the British Crown and stay committed to independence through a hard-fought, seven-year campaign.
All this is not to say that words do not matter in politics or technical communication. Words absolutely have weight and value. Excellent words, delivered with conviction by a document or person with the right external attributes can change history–ideally for the better. So while the aesthetics of our technical communication products can affect their ultimate reception, the words that we use should still receive the same tender-loving care we always give them. History is watching.