When you have something shocking to say

The news reports buckled my knees. According to a Pennsylvania grand jury, hundreds of Roman Catholic priests across the state sexually abused more than 1,000 children over a 70-year period.

handwritten letter about a case of child abuse

Image source: Josh Bernoff

The details are shocking and sickening. It’s hard to imagine the scope of the damage done.

Imagine having to write about that story. How do you do it? How do you keep from veering into lurid sensationalism on the one hand and cold, dispassionate, recitation on the other?

The anonymous person who wrote the grand jury’s report handled it brilliantly.

In his excellent analysis, Josh Bernoff calls the report “an amazing document, a model for clarity of description in an emotionally charged environment.”

Josh mixes excerpts from the report with his comments. Here, I’ve boldfaced some of Josh’s comments and added mine in response.

I hope you’ll add your comments as well.

Bernoff: Here’s what you can learn from this: if you have something shocking to say, or shocking facts to report, say it plainly. It will speak for itself. Don’t soften it, and don’t inflate it with the language of outrage. If the facts are damning, just write the facts and let the reader react.

The older I get, the less I write. I don’t mean that I write less often — I mean that, when I write, I use fewer words. (Just now, I almost wrote fewer words to make my point — but, see: I shortened it and made it better.)

Many of us learned in school to puff up our writing. How else to complete those dreaded 500- or 1,000-word essays? How else to sound erudite?

I also learned — even if my teachers didn’t intend it — that my readers needed my help. That I had to lead them by the hand, tell them what to think. When I wrote about an awful situation, like the child-abuse story, I had to describe it, preferably with lots of adjectives, and then say that it was awful.

Turns out, all those words just get in my readers’ way. Turns out they’re smart enough to look at the bare information and draw their own conclusions. If I’m writing to persuade, I can include an introduction and a closing paragraph. Otherwise, the facts will stand for themselves.

Bernoff: If you wonder about the importance of language, pay close attention to the way the Church used words to minimize the impact of acts of child rape….Euphemisms implicate all who use them.

Remember when, a couple of years ago, the new Samsung Galaxy Note7 phones started catching fire and exploding? Here’s the first paragraph of Samsung’s recall notice:

Samsung has announced an expanded voluntary recall on all original and replacement Galaxy Note7 devices sold or exchanged in the United States in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and in partnership with carriers and retailers. Since the affected devices can overheat and pose a safety risk, we are asking consumers with a Galaxy Note7 to power it down and contact the carrier or retail outlet where they purchased their device.

How well did Samsung use words? I give them a C-plus.

First, they buried the lede under that convoluted opening sentence. I would’ve moved the second sentence to the top, or at the very least rewritten the opening sentence to say, simply, We are recalling all Galaxy Note7 devices sold or exchanged in the United States. At least Samsung put the cogent information into the first paragraph; it could’ve been buried even farther down.

Second, the affected devices can overheat and pose a safety risk softpedals the real truth. They can catch fire and even explode — which poses a serious safety risk. The chosen wording does make its point, and it’s far from the worst use of euphemisms I’ve seen. But, remembering the media sensation associated with that recall, this phrasing sounds like Come on, give us a break. It’s not like exploding phones are that bad.

Bottom line: You don’t want to cause a panic. But you want to convey the full import of the situation so that people will take the appropriate action.

Bernoff: There’s one final lesson here: use specifics in summaries, rather than generalities. Use “for example” to show what’s happening.

This is invaluable advice. Examples are stories, and readers respond much more readily to stories than to generalities. It’s hard work finding examples that support my point, and the lazy side of me wants to short-cut the process. But lazy writing is always second-rate writing.

When you have something shocking to say, remember Josh Bernoff’s advice. And use this grand jury report as inspiration.

By the way, if you’re not regularly reading Josh’s blog, Without Bullshit, you should be.

5 thoughts on “When you have something shocking to say

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Marcia. You’re right: all forms of communication — B2B, B2C, whatever — ultimately boil down to human-to-human. Clear writing is about respecting our fellow humans so that we’re honest and forthright with them.

  1. Steven Jong

    As a piece on effective business communication, Larry, this is right on target. The language cited in the grand jury report is shocking through clarity.

    As for the Samsung example… Call me a cynic, but in a larger context, I question whether Samsung was actually interested in plain speaking. If they sought a piece of business communication crafted to soft-pedal the situation and avoid legal exposure, I’d have to say it was right on target as well.

  2. Pingback: When you have something shocking to say – Technical Writing World

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