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There are some books that we should keep reading regularly. For me, Don Watson’s Weazel Words and Death Sentence are two of them. The opportunity to listen to Don Watson’s presentation at the Lantern Legal Group annual conference was one of those lovely benefits of being a conference presenter. Thank you to Andrew Barnes and Stephanie Beard for the invitation to stay and hear Don Watson share his views on:
Powerpoint – “the most destructive force in the English language”
Management speak- outcome, window of opportunity and deliverable all came in for the weasel word treatment.
Bullet points – unsurprisingly, he isn’t a fan
Yikes! I can’t think of a week that goes by without using powerpoint, discussing a learning outcome or editing a list of bullet points summarising management jargon. More and more of my day job is writing and many of you know I’m getting back into combining academic research and developing professionals. The land of the impenetrable academic journal article is my daily reading. I’m fluent in that language and can translate with the best of them, but I don’t want to write that way unless I really have to. I’m always on the look out for ways to improve the quality and reduce the effort to write – call me lazy, curious or both.
Here are the messages that resonated with me – in a numbered list for the skim readers with as little management speak as possible in a nod to Don Watson.
Language is what makes us human. We should use it to say what we mean and connect with other people. This starts by caring about the language. Being interested in how language works, studying it and reading the great writing of others.
Writing involves a certain amount of pain. It’s not good enough to make do. Writing should make your brain ache with the effort to get it as good as we can. Don’t do the “slack-arse thing” - we always have a choice to write as well as we can, each time we write.
Use verbs to make a message concrete and avoid platitudes. Churchill’s famous “We will fight them on the beaches”. Bring your audience in close by really wanting them to understand what you are saying. The alternative (yes, I almost wrote, this could be contrasted with) would be to use platitudes, management speak and jargon in an attempt to keep the audience at a safe distance.
Now we reach the moment of reflection that I think listening to a great presentation makes you do. I’ve now had the good fortune to write four career coach articles for the NSW Law Society. The first three I’m pretty happy with. They provide a clear answer to the question asked with a minimum of management jargon and plenty of verbs in the sentences. Now I know where I went wrong with number four. It would be sensible to include it here so you can see it, but I’m hoping that those of you who have read this far, and are members of the NSW law society don’t find the time to read the May edition. I’ll do my best to not be a slack arse in writing the June column and I might even challenge myself to re-write the May column. Thank you to Don Watson for helping me work out where I went wrong and to the Lantern Legal Group for listening to the powerpoint presentation I made before Don Watson – at least I wasn’t after him, that would have been awkward!
THE CONFERENCE TO DO LIST
Being able to see other speakers is one of the nice bonus parts of my job. Each time I’m in the audience of a presentation, I try and find one or two specific things I can do afterwards to remember the key points. You might already be able to guess what the first one was. The others are:
Re-read Don Watson’s Weazel Words – it sits in the office library with a couple of other gems on writing, a battered thesaurus and a well worn copy of Elements of Style as physical proof I’m an Arts Grad. Maybe there are several that I should be re-reading more often?
Download Churchill’s speeches and Warren Buffit’s letters to shareholders to the ipad air that Qantas let’s you read from – no good having them on the ipad pro if it’s too big to use on a domestic flight. Re-reading both with this new focus could reveal things I didn’t see the first time.
Poetry has never really been my thing but I was struck by the parallel’s between the examples of good writing Don Watson read aloud from the 1939 Royal Commission into bushfires in Victoria and my patchy memory of Banjo Patterson & Henry Lawson poetry – it was burned into our brains as kids whether we liked it or not. As long as it doesn’t sound like my Dad reciting it on long car trips it might be another way to remember the point well made between a “fire event” and “the bone dry tinder crackled under foot” or a “wind event” and “ a wind of great force”. You get the idea. Compare “in a timely manner” with “as soon as you can” and the many others used every day in email.
Find any new publications from Don Watson. They are sure to be an interesting way to pass the time should weather, late running pilots or the odd security event shut down an airport terminal. I don’t usually read for fun unless I’m on holiday, so I guess I could book that too – now we have a plan.
Thanks for reading and happy writing.