Theo Coggin

A blog on communications

Archive for the category “Writing”

Delicious typos and predictive text… Both can be mouthwatering

oie_transparent (13)I am sure typos and predictive text have caused us all a mixture of irritation and embarrassment from time to time. But they can also bring with them mirth and a welcome chuckle.

Whether this case in point which has so amused me today was in fact a typo – or just predictive text – I don’t know. But it was delightful.

Blissfully devoid of television during a sojourn in the mountains, I resorted to online cricket commentary from The Guardian’s Tim de Lisle. My immediate concern was the state of play in the cricket test match at the Oval in London between South Africa and England, and so I missed Tim’s commentary on the third over, watching as I was only for the score. That, in itself, is a lesson in how often we blissfully read over mistakes. But the sharp eye of an unseen follower, somewhere else in the world, Bob O’Hara, picked it up and sent a tweet which said: “Please don’t correct your typo in over 3. The image it gives of international diplomacy is one to savour. @Cricket_Germany”.

That piqued my interest, big time! So I scrolled to the third over to read Tim’s description about Morkel, the South African bowler. It read: “Cook goes forward to cover-drive Morkel for four, then back to tuck him for four more. Textbook stuff. Merkel retorts with a shorter ball, in at the groin; if it hurts, Cook isn’t going to show it…”

Merkel? She of Germany and European Union fame? As Mr O’Hara suggests, the image – and as I would suggest, consequence! – of international diplomacy gets the imagination going. In some cases in which politicians are over-sensitive, such a matter might evoke many varied results.

But a more delicious and captivating typo is hard to imagine.

oie_transparent (14)The lesson for us as communicators: always proofread before publishing!

  • I can’t end this blog without paying tribute to the brilliant way in which Tim de Lisle provides his commentary. It reminds me of the South African radio cricket commentator, the late Charles Fortune, who had a brilliant command of English and a canny ability to take one, unsighted, on to the field of play.
  • Tim’s typo has already led to some witty comments via Twitter, for example, this one from Brian Withington. “Liking the emerging theme of international cricket diplomacy started with your 6th-over reference to the German Chancellor’s mean bowling. One or two others spring to mind – captain May guilty of an overly optimistic early declaration; and that living advert for a political DRS, one Donald Trump (mystery spinner and flat-track bully).”

Has vulgar grammar become the norm?

There have been many takes on the phrase “English as she is spoke”, the title of a book written by José da Fonseca  and Pedro Carolinho, first published in 1855. In his introduction to the US edition,  Mark Twain penned these thoughtful words:

“Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure.”

These words in this book with its memorable title have occupied my mind over the past two days as I read what can only be described as vulgar grammar, first in a tender document published by National Treasury and second in an article published by the huge media group, News24.

Perhaps the poor language in the tender document can be excused since it might not have been written by someone who earns his or her living from the craft of communicating English in an understandable way. Others will argue, of course, that a tender document should be crystal clear to avoid misunderstanding and ensure correct submissions.

It is the article published by News24 – a commentary by a contributor on the Economist Chris Hart’s recent tweets which have been interpreted as racist – that troubled me most. News24, after all, as a purveyor of news should be expected to edit articles it publishes so that they appear in a pristine form.

The article in question is pock-marked with vulgar grammar, making some of the sentences incomprehensible. A quick scan revealed more than two dozen grammatical and/or editorial glitches. The first few words of the article illustrate the point: “Firstly let me place on record that Chris Hart’s were problematic…”.

Chris Hart’s what? If one was following the debate one might subliminally insert the missing word, “tweet” or “views”, as one reads. But if one were not doing so one would simply shake one’s head in disgust at such an obvious omission, such a wilful neglect to proofread, such inept writing, and turn to a rival publication.

The problem is this is not an exception. One regularly sees examples of such abysmal writing in magazines and newspapers published in South Africa, and hear the same errors on news bulletins on radio and television.

It is inexcusable.

No wonder then that so many of those who come to the courses which Quo Vadis Communications offer also look at one with amazement when one speaks of getting one’s grammar correct. These are usually people who head or work in communication departments in corporates, government, and NGOs.

The good news is one is able to address these issues – very often simply by teaching people the discipline involved in writing.

But people also need to be open to learn about the importance of grammar, proofreading and editing. Unfortunately, many aren’t. Only when mindsets change, will our standard of communication in South Africa improve.

2016 Schedule of courses for Quo Vadis Communications

Gently does it

Conducting a gripping interview for television or radio, or one that will make your copy sparkle in print media, is an art in itself. I am not talking of the invasive and aggressive interviewing such as one often sees in the British media. That has its rightful place and it’s a pity that South African journalists don’t apply it more when interviewing our own docile politicians.

I have in mind interviews in which a skilled interviewer can coax momentous, colourful and compelling information from his or her subject.

An interview presupposes a question and answer process. This should not result, however, in what is often a boring Q&A manuscript in which the questions inevitably appear in bold (as if the question is more important than the answer!) and the answers in medium type. This can be most boring.

Ideally an interview should readily transform into a lively conversation in which the interviewer puts keen questions, postulations or even speculative assertions to the interviewee, and encourages responses that will keep you reading, watching or listening, with undivided attention from beginning to end.

Two recent examples spring to mind – both of them television interviews.

The most recent is the interview with Brett Martin, the RAF pilot who, while on holiday, discovered the gruesome scene of the slaughter of engineer Saad al-Hilli and his family in the Combe d’Ire forest, near Chevaline in France. In an interview on Sky News, he said it was as though he had come across a scene from a Hollywood film.

His description was thoughtful with his words chosen with care, one of the most riveting sentences being, “There was a lot of blood and heads with bullet holes in them”.

My overarching impression during the interview was that there was no interviewer present at all; such was the gentle and natural nature of his questions and his ability to let Brett Martin tell the story in his own words.

All he did was guide him to ensure viewers got the full picture. That they did with stark reality.

The second was the interview with Chad Le Clos’ dad Bert, a television piece that went viral shortly after he won the 200m butterfly at the recent Olympics. Chad’s dad was barely comprehensible as he enthused about his son’s victory and his pride was allowed to burst into our living rooms. No parent, and no father in particular, could fail to have embraced that joy and awe.

But what allowed it to come through in such a memorable way is the sensitivity of the interviewer who gently guided Chad’s dad through the vortex of the emotions stirred up in him by the performance of his son.

In both these illustrations I have used the word gently in describing how the interviewer elicited information. Hard-hitting questions are often necessary in the hurly-burly of many socio-political and economic interviews, but good old-fashioned sensitivity will often trump such an approach.

And it may result in the most memorable response of all.

Missing the moment with old words

My long absence from blogging, I am pleased to say, has a justifiable excuse – but apologies to those of you who’ve directed the odd complaint to me about it. The excuse is that during the past month, I have been captivated by both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, but more particularly by the latter.

My absorption in the track, field, pool and other venue invasions of my living room through the wonders of television could not be ascribed only, however, to the remarkable performances of athletes from all over the world in what must rank as the most colourful display of talent we are privileged to see. No, it was born of a fascination I have with words, and the manner in which the various commentators were able to use them in describing the events on which they reported.

I can’t say that I found any of the commentators to be riveting in their use of words, their vocabulary or their imagination. To be sure, they had the advance of commentating for television and thus knew that were seeing the pictures which they were reporting. Yet there is a necessity for such commentators to use words in such a way that they take us beyond the picture into the realm of the athlete him or herself. There is a demand that their research must be done prior to an event and about every athlete involved, as I said in my previous blog when I referred to Chad le Clos’ victory over Michael Phelps.

Natalie du Toit of South Africa, a living legacy: receiving her last Gold Medal for swimming at this year’s Paralympic Games in London.

But perhaps research is more than just knowledge about the athletes – it is also preparing oneself to use words that will transport us into the lives of those taking part, which means that one has to give thought to how one is going to use the vast vocabulary that is out legacy.

Words such as “incredible”, “amazing”, “terrific” and similar epithets were in abundance in the verbal stream that emanated from the ether into our living rooms.

But it is on the Paralympics that I want to focus for a moment – an event which a friend of mine who attended it, Dot Field, described as a “life-changing experience”.  Her comment does not surprise me and clearly many of the commentators also saw it in similar terms. But the commentators’ use of words belied the fact.

They missed the moment.

I was eventually simply saddened by their overuse of the word “disabled”. Disabled?

Here were people reminiscent of Dickensian descriptions of some of the members of the human race. People with claws attached to half arms. Amputees, the blind, and the lame.

All performing feats that very few of us can even imagine we would ever have the courage to attempt. One young man, on receiving his bronze medal, had to place the bouquet of flowers he was given under his neck, for he had no arms at all. Waving to the crowd, which he did with unbridled enthusiasm and a heavenly smile on his face, was done by using his shoulders.

Disabled? No.

A new word is necessary.

Most-abled.

Communication is so often about inspiration. Let it talk to you and transform the life-changing experiences into whatever new ways you can dredge out of the depths of your consciousness so that what you say or write will transport your listeners or readers to new levels of understanding and  of knowing they are with you, at that moment, in that place.

The magic is in the tale

Image“A magician with words” was the plaudit I received from the chap whose article I had just professionally edited so that he could submit it to what is colloquially termed a “trade magazine” was very kind.  It got me thinking.  Magic is seldom achieved alone.

Now, to be sure, like most of us, I can happily handle a compliment like that! And, indeed, I certainly felt that I had done an excellent job on his article. I believed I had added value to it by using some of my experience in “wordsmithing”, my knowledge of the correct use of syntax and the introduction of a flowing style without hijacking his writing style.

Everyone has his or her own style, and an editor should be diligent in not destroying it.

Editing his article had also been an enjoyable exercise and learning experience.  One can’t always say that about an article submitted to one for editing by executives and others whose main purpose in their working life is not writing. 

This was an exception – not because it was brilliantly written per se.  I should hasten to add also that it was not badly written either.   Indeed, the author is in the middle of participating in one of the Quo Vadis writing courses which I facilitate, and it was pleasing to see how much he had learnt from the first part of the sessions with us. 

Most importantly, his piece of writing appealed to me as an editor because, in the first place, it was not too long and not too short for the publication for which it is intended. I could see that from a quick glance at the manuscript – always gratifying for an editor to know at the outset that he or she is not going to have to cut word after word in an attempt to get the article to its required length.

Secondly, a speed-read through the piece – something I do as a matter of course, but not every editor I know will do so (each one has their own methodology) – illustrated that the writer had done some research. I knew he was highly conversant with his subject and was academically qualified to write it, but he had thrown in pieces of research which added richly to the story. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, his introduction to his article, and the manner in which he constructed the main body that followed, grabbed my attention – and held it throughout. His use of words, syntax and general ability to write grammatically correct English were not always brilliant. In fact, at times, it jarred.

But the logical flow of the article, and his appeal to basic human interest, won the day.  He had a story to tell. Editing came easily and I believe we have an article that will stand out in the publication for which he has written it.

The lesson in all of this is clear. When writing an article, ensure always that you have organised your facts, real or fictional. Work hard at an excellent introduction that will grab the attention, and then build on that foundation by introducing human interest.  That’s the beginning of the magic.

Some people say this is impossible when dealing with a “dry” subject. I have always argued thImageat this need not necessarily be the case – provided one sticks to the advice given here.   Implementing that advice will almost certainly always lead to a finely tuned piece of writing attractive to both the specialist and non-specialist, even of a “dry” or “foreign” subject.

Oh, and the subject of my writer’s interesting article that held my attention so well? Accountancy – something I generally find extraordinarily mundane…

Anti-socially social media can be fatal

“The medium is the message”, declared Marshall McLuhan, widely recognised as the father of the modern Information Age. By this he had in mind, among other things, that the effects of media and the technology it uses both have a seminal influence on the manner in which humankind communicates. Professor McLuhan would have a field day in our modern age, given the plethora of media available.

Discernible in his influential writing is the fact that the media is immensely influential and powerful – what I would dub an all-seeing eye, ever-alert ear and radiation-like interpretation by people of what it is being used to say.

Another media commentator, Malcolm Muggeridge – former editor of the satirical but now defunct magazine, Punch – hit the nail on the head in one of his London Lectures in 1976. By then a journalist who was perhaps more than just a little fed up with the manner in which the media used its influence, Muggeridge said:

“For me personally the media have come to give off a whiff of sulphur, and yet at the end of the day I have to admit that they can enrich as well as debase a life. For instance, once when I was standing waiting for a train in an underground station, a little man … came up to me and asked permission to shake my hand. I gladly, and rather absent-mindedly, extended a hand, assuming he had mistaken me for A J P Taylor, or maybe Mike Yarwood.

“As we shook hands, he remarked that some words of mine in a radio programme had prevented him from committing suicide.

“The humbling thing was that I couldn’t remember the particular programme he had in mind; doubtless some panel or other, to me buffoonery, and yet a human life had hung on it.” (My own emphasis.)

Half a century old, or getting there – that’s the age of those quotations I have chosen to start with. Yet their age makes them no less relevant today, given two tweets by a couple of South African models – both possibly a tad naive as a result of the image they have in the local bling media.

I refer of course on the one hand to the racist tweet by Jessica Leandra Dos Santos in which she used the k-word. (To be fair to the bling men’s magazine that had elevated her to fame status, it immediately stripped her of the model of the year accolade it had bestowed on her. In hindsight one hopes that in future it will look beyond mere superficial beauty before showering such recognition on a young model.) The outcry was instantaneous and justified. Dos Santos’ immediate reaction was reactionary and defensive, before she withdrew it and apologised. Too late.

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In the second instance I have in mind the reported reaction to Dos Santos from another model, Tshidi Thamana, in which she tweeted the wish that all “white people were killed” some time ago because Dos Santos’ racism would then not be experienced “right now”.

In both cases, the medium is the message, and two promising young ladies’ reputations hangs on their mindless use of a social networking medium. Thamana and Dos Santos are two names that should live on for a while in South Africa as living illustrations of how not to use social media. Sadly, the counter tweets and other social messages have at times been just – if not more – vitriolic. One hopes this is not a trend in our society where one thinks one can get away with saying anything one likes.

One positive development is that they have both apologised and, after being brought face to face by a local politician, have claimed they can be friends. To be sure, their change in tone is to be welcomed, but what a pity they had to be thoughtless and despicable in their journey to get there; if only they had given some thought to their use of words!

Of course, many would argue that their ranting simply illustrates an underlying racism in contemporary South Africa, and indeed the world. There is lots of truth in that, but the purpose of this article is to talk about the manner in which one should use different mediums for proficient and effective communication.

The problem is that contemporary media, particularly in the sphere of social media, is seductive in the ease with which it invites an immediate response. Email was the first to illustrate this, but people have not learnt – hence the thoughtless tweets by the two models. Contemporary media is simply too alluring for our own good in allowing anyone and everyone to “publish” and be “seen” in public. It negates the need for responsible communication, and encourages us all to lower both our ethical and writing standards. It need not be so.

The manner in which we communicate should always be as arresting as possible. After all, the objective is to get people to read, watch or listen to our message. But this does not obviate the need for responsibility. Muggeridge’s powerful anecdote should convince us of that. Never underestimate the impact and consequence of what you communicate –in these days, especially via social media.

None of what I have said should suggest that a communicator cannot be controversial – that has its place in robust writing and other forms of communication. But avoid the instantaneous gratification that comes with typing a quick response on your keypad and hitting “Send”. It may be your undoing, as the two models discovered, to their surprise, it would seem!

Simply stated, don’t use social media to be anti-social. Use it to be positive and, when needs be, provocative – but never to alienate or to give vent to your particular brand of hate speech and prejudice.

A human life might just hang on it.

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Mustard to beat Writer’s Block?

It’s a malady few have not experienced: frustrating and sometimes the excuse for procrastination. Any creative soul will attest to this. Just about every possible solution has been suggested – mostly to no avail. Get up and walk around. Go and look at the garden. Take a minute and make some coffee and then the words will flow. Play with the dogs. You’d rather kick the dog, actually, such is the irritation Writer’s Block is likely to cause!

Perhaps the only positive thing that can be said about it is that there are no favourites. Writer’s Block treats everyone with systematic equanimity:  male and female, rich and poor, clever and stupid, the experienced and inexperienced, academics and non-academics, professional journalists and sometime writers, old and young (well, perhaps not the very young, but that’s a subject for later on).

The bottom line is that there appears to be no easy solution.

But a lesson I was taught when I was about 14 has stood me in good stead for many years, and got me out of many a writing jam, not least when I was on a tight deadline and simply “did not know” where to start. Of course, we all usually do know where to begin – more or less at least. The challenge arises because we freeze and tell ourselves we don’t.  And so we put the block firmly in place and proclaim: “I have Writer’s Block!”  The consequence is dire as we struggle sometimes for hours, nay, even days, to overcome what we think is an external issue but is of our own making.

The solution is to Get Moving (note the caps!). And by that I don’t mean put the kettle on, or phone a friend, or smell the roses. I mean, get your fingers and brain moving simultaneously.

So back to the lesson of that 14 year old boy, manfully tackling his father’s trusty old Royal typewriter to write an assignment for school but stuck with the evil Writer’s Block. I vividly recall being surrounded by impressive, tall bookshelves in his study, packed with his catholic collection of books – anything from popular whodunnits, yarns of yesteryear, poetry and classics, history, theology and philosophy. And the odd empty space between the volumes, just large enough for a tiny jar.

Looking up from his book, he put aside his pipe and looked quizzically at me as I completed an exasperated spoken sigh about “being stuck”.

“The secret,” he said, “is simply to start writing. Anything, but perhaps something a little unusual.” With that his hazel-coloured eyes scanned his chock-full shelves and fell upon a small jar of mustard nestling in one of those empty crevices. What it was doing there, who knows? But it was his answer to my quandary, one that became my lifelong inspiration to deal with Writer’s Block. “Write something like, ‘There is a mustard jar on the shelf’, and then keep writing. Anything. Just write. And you will see that the words you are looking for will come.”  He was quite right. They did, and  have done ever since.

When I tell this to delegates who come on the writing courses we run at Quo Vadis (www.quo-vadis.co.za) and advise them to adopt this unusual but simple approach, I am often greeted with  looks of disbelief. But those who have tried it – and of course one can launch forth with anything out of the ordinary – have without exception finds that it helps. What is it that makes the difference?

I have no doubt that it is the simple act of moving into gear. No journey begins without movement; so too with writing. Just get those fingers operating on the keyboard and start writing. Anything. The words will come. The creative juices will flow. From the seemingly absurd – like the mustard jar on the shelf – will come the compelling and readable. And Writer’s Block will be but a figment of your imagination (as it should be) and someone else’s problem.

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