11 May 2014
Category:
Writing
Comments: 0

Writing and speaking in a distinctive voice

Speaking in a distinctive voice has little to do with using big or complex words (though I must admit I’m often amazed by how otherwise educated people have developed such a limited a vocabulary).

A distinctive voice is more simplicity than flamboyance. The simpler the words and sentence construction the more transfixed recipients are likely to be.

Simplicity is always more powerful than complexity. Profound truths come in simple phrasings that cut to the bare bones of the thought or situation. Complexity is over-packaged language that leaves us feeling off balance and wondering if our interpretation is pure and accurate.

But let’s get back to basics. I said last week that our voices lack distinction because we all walk around parroting one another, all using the same old clichés, making our voices indistinguishable from the vast choir of people saying the exact same things. So we blend in rather than stand out.

That can change by ridding our language of all those echoes. Here are some examples of common clichés, followed by the same information expressed in a distinctive way.

Cliché: Think outside the box. (Irony: Using clichés isn’t thinking outside the box.)
Revision: Come up with original ideas.

It’s a no brainer.
It couldn’t be any more obvious if you handed it to me on the end of a skewer.

This isn’t rocket science. (Irony: Rocket science isn’t actually all that complicated.)
This isn’t particle physics.

This is a win-win situation.
Both sides benefit from this deal.

We need to focus on core competencies.
We need to stick with what we do best.

The proposal is cost prohibitive.
The proposal is too expensive.

We need to hit the ground running.
We need to move fast.

I don’t have the bandwidth.
I don’t have time.

The 800-pound gorilla.
The big problem.

Improve ROI (return on investment).
Improve our financial performance.

Our mission is to assist the economically disadvantaged.
Our mission is to help the poor.

Which of these two managers do you think the CEO will consider direct and clear thinking?

Manager one: “The current spending plan is unsustainable.”
Manager two: “We’re going to run out of money.”

The first manager sugar coats and minimizes the situation. The second gives the chief executive the bleak and direct truth about the company’s situation. Who do you think the CEO is more likely to respect, remember and promote?

Let’s take a real-life historic situation. In 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during takeoff killing all astronauts aboard. At the White House two senior staffers – Chief of Staff Donald Regan and Communications Director Patrick Buchanan – walked into the Oval Office to notify President Reagan.

Regan spoke first saying, “Mr. President, there’s been a tragedy.”

Buchanan, a no-nonsense straight talker, immediately added, “Sir, the Space Shuttle blew up.”

Reagan leapt to his feet after hearing Buchanan speak.

What Donald Regan said wasn’t a cliché or common phrase but it was too general to make an impact commensurate with the situation.

It was Buchanan who evoked the appropriate emotional response from the President by telling him what happened in simple, specific, brief language.

Donald Regan blew smoke. Patrick Buchanan lit a fire. No surprise that Buchanan, not Regan, was the White House communications director.

Simply rewording clichés and speaking more directly is just a first-level effort in the campaign to develop a voice distinctive enough to turn you into an oak among willows. We haven’t even touched on tone, color, metaphors, similes, storytelling, and so on.

Still, this first-level effort alone can make you a remarkably refreshing speaker and writer, one who sounds more like the office soloist than a choir boy or girl.

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