Posts Tagged ‘Rhetoric


Language Crashes

Magnetic lettersI’m not a particularly patient person. I’m reminded of this shortcoming every time I get in a car. No, I don’t subscribe to out-of-control road rage, but I do tap the steering wheel and “yell” at the cars going under the speed limit or straddling the lane lines. (I offset this aggravation by singing along with the radio, but only if I’m alone. Yes, I’m weird.) I also try to avoid offensive gestures unless they’re directed my way first, which doesn’t happen very often.

On closer inspection, there’s something interesting that happens when we drive our cars: we’ve created another, mostly non-verbal language to effectively communicate actions and behavior. What does your driving language say about you? Do you use your signal? Do you yield to oncoming traffic? Do you run red lights?

Think about the judgment calls you’ve made concerning other drivers. For example, if there’s really as many idiots in the world as my driving experience would indicate, we’re in trouble. However, I suspect just like our verbal language skills, our driving language skills aren’t always adequate to the situation.

One day driving home from work on the freeway, I carefully checked my mirrors and went to move into the right lane. I’m not sure if it was a shadow or just a quick look, but I luckily saw the motorcycle previously in my blind spot just seconds prior to completing my move. A quick wave from myself and the motorcyclist made it clear that we were both aware of the close call. But what if I hadn’t seen him in that split second? Regardless of how carefully I checked my mirrors and looked around, there still could have been an accident.

Causing Language Crashes

I think these accidents happen in regular language, too. We know all the “rules,” we try to carefully consider all the circumstances, but sometimes it still isn’t enough and we end up making a gaffe, creating a language crash. Most of our individual language crashes don’t amount to much, unless we happen to be in the public eye.

Our fear of crashes can inhibit us from saying things of value. Modern day business and politics punishes crashes so harshly that our leaders have taken refuge in meaningless, lifeless rhetoric that tells us little but lowers their risk of a crash. I’ve said many times that I’d much rather engage in conversation with someone I disagree with 100%, if she is equally engaged, versus chatting with someone who completely agrees with me, but can’t tell me why he does.

No Patience for Language

We’ve run out patience with our language. I haven’t decided if it’s a time issue, where we think we shouldn’t have to listen as much or as closely to get the message, or if it’s a question of knowledge. I posted before about how I tend to use “big” words and some friends like to tease about my word usage. To me, it’s not a question of using big words. I’m using my vocabulary. It just happens that my vocabulary is a little larger than most.

Sometimes I feel sheepish when I get the “look” that I’ve used yet another “big” word, but at the same time, why are we so willing to put words into categories? I don’t think we should all be walking around with dictionaries, but I’m not convinced that words should go unspoken simply because they aren’t common. The same goes for the thoughts and ideas we share with one another.

Accepting the Language Challenge

Today’s politicians aren’t necessarily any worse or better than their predecessors. The same goes for CEOs of large companies and any other individual in a position of authority. Today’s leaders, however, face the dreaded sound bite and a public with an increasingly short attention span who has little interest in hearing an opinion that differs from their own. So we hear very little that challenges us and even less that interests or moves us.

You should be challenged when leaders, or anyone else for that matter, speaks. I’m not calling for adding unneeded complexity to our conversations. Rather, I’m pushing for adding new ideas that challenge the status quo, forcing you to determine what you really believe. Do you actually prefer hearing the same thing over and over again just because it’s easy to understand?

To break the cycle, we have to increase our patience for language and ideas. We have to embrace all parts of language, even the one’s we may not fully understand yet or that make us uncomfortable. We have to be open to crashing more than once as we pursue long-term ideas and results that take time and patience, two things that seem to be lacking in today’s society.

What about you? Have you crashed lately?


(Image courtesy of Gaetan Lee. Some rights reserved.)


Arrogance No Substitute for Real Conversation

Sigh. Poor communication skills seem to be one of the few things the American government excels at. In spite of 29 states introducing legislation, and six actually passing bills against its implementation, the federal government is moving ahead with its REAL ID program. I’ve written about REAL ID issues in the past. However, this time it’s the federal government’s arrogance that baffles me.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, citizens of states that have balked at implementing the national ID authentication program will face some difficulty starting in May when anyone with a non-compliant ID won’t be allowed to board a plane or enter a federal building. Consider the following that came from an official spokesman:

“Come May 2008, [their] citizens . . . will feel the consequences” of the states’ resistance, Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke said Friday. (link)

Feel the consequences? Last I checked, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) claimed that REAL ID wasn’t about creating a national ID card. Doesn’t that mean that states still have the right to determine how they issue their driver’s licenses? Combine this fact with the ominous mention of “consequences,” and I’m wondering at the federal government’s marketing strategy. How do they expect to convince anyone? Or do they only plan on ramming it through with brute force? Personally, I’m betting on the latter given the federal government’s past behavior.

I’m still stuck on an official spokesman throwing around threats of “consequences” for state’s exercising their constitutional rights. Stop trying to scare me (“For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons”) and engage me as a citizen with a brain. Clearly there’s a reason to question the program. Otherwise, why are over half the states introducing, and in some cases passing, legislation putting a halt to it? The small, optimistic part of me hopes that things improve after the next election, but I have a hard time believing that any candidate is genuinely interested in rolling back government power and oversight. I wish that governments, like businesses, understood that you need conversation to stay relevant. Arrogance won’t cut it.



Looking for Answers in Numbers

Spiekermann House NumbersWe have gone crazy with numbers. No matter where you look, it seems like we’re trying to reduce life and people to a bunch of digits. I posted yesterday on how if you want to be a successful creator, you have to be an equally good listener. Besides listening, I think you have to stop seeing people like they’re a number.

For the last week, pundits and other media types have wondered how pollsters got the data so wrong in New Hampshire, predicting a blow out for Democratic presidential hopeful Barak Obama. In the end, Hillary Clinton “stunned” said pollsters with a “comeback win.” Of late, I’m seeing two trends: (1) people want numbers to be the ultimate answer to the question (whatever it may be); and (2) the rhetoric surrounding data feels more forced.

Numbers as the Answer

There’s beauty in numbers. They give the appearance of a clear and concise answer to many sticky problems. There’s an issue with relying so heavily on numbers for the answers. Data shields the source of the numbers—people—and people are anything but clear and concise. But we so desperately want clarity that we latch on to the numbers to declare victories, defeats, and everything else in between.

Forcing Numbers into Boxes

Whether it’s how the stock market performed or the latest poll on whatever topic that holds the public’s attention, the translators of said data are in trouble. For years, people dutifully answered questions put to them by pollsters. Now, some people intentionally give the “wrong” answers, hoping to skew the results. However, this reality seems to have little effect on the people gravely sharing the results of said poll as thought it contains the answer to life itself. The same goes for market research. Will we ever own up to the fact that we put huge amounts of money and time behind data that may or may not be valid?

Sometimes Numbers Matter—Sometimes They Don’t

On Thursday, Jeremiah Owyang commented on how happy people were that he posted data on social networks. He made the incredibly important point that:

Without insight, context, and analysis, data itself is a crutch, and remember the numbers only indicate what has happened, and sometimes point to what could happen.

There’s a reason why polls don’t always match up with election results, or why products predicted to fly off the shelf stay in place: human beings don’t like being seen as numbers. Reminiscent of a child who refuses to do what a parent wants, even though what the parent says makes sense, we fight the notion that someone can direct our individual behavior. Deep down, we hate the thought of being predictable and easy to categorize. What child says, “I hope a marketer has my buying behavior totally figured out by the time I’m 18?” We don’t want to lose our mystery, and numbers have a way of stripping the mystery from each of us.

From now on, the next time you see anyone touting a number as an answer, ask yourself whether the question posed is really answered by a number or if it’s a bit more complicated. I’m betting on complicated if the question is about people, because humanity is rarely that easy to define or to describe.


(Image courtesy of Stewf. Some rights reserved.)

Candidates of Change

Massive ChangeI suspect very few of you watched the debate Saturday evening, giving that it was a Saturday night and playing opposite a football game. Regardless of your politics, one big idea stuck out that applies to everyone, and not just politicians. It’s the idea of change.

A good chunk of both debates involved the candidates, particularly the Republicans, arguing with each other about who is best equipped to bring about change. According to Gov. Mitt Romney, during Saturday’s debate:

“…this is a time when America wants change. Washington is broken. That was the message coming out of Iowa. I’ve heard it across the country. Washington is broken. Not just the White House, not just Congress—Washington can’t get the job done on immigration, on lowering taxes, on fixing schools, on getting health care, on overcoming radical jihad. They want change.” (link)

In case your wondering, we want change. I shouldn’t poke too much at Romney, but I think he’s missing an important point. When it comes to change, actions speak louder than words, and his actions are making it easier for people to wonder about his rhetoric on change. Then, as candidate Giuliani points out:

“…change is a concept. Is it change for good or change for bad?”(link)

In the real world, I believe many people abhor change, otherwise, I can’t believe they’d continue to vote for the same people that make a mess of things in Washington, D.C., but perhaps that more of a lesser of two evils issue. Any time I hear a political candidate, or anyone for that matter, tout themselves as standing at the forefront of change, I cringe a bit. For me, change is one of those things that you either do or you don’t, so why waste time talking about it?

True Changers

For example, while I have mixed emotions about Apple as a company, they continue to produce products that change things. The business world seems more comfortable with true change than the political world. I would place very few politicians in the category of being true change leaders. Historically, we know who the great changers in politics were—the Founding Fathers, Lincoln, Roosevelt (both of them)—and it’s highly doubtful we’ll see their like again given how we currently elect officials.

I not sure when or where I heard it, but I do remember being told that it takes three weeks to form a habit, but at least twice that to break one, if you ever do. That’s why I find rhetoric focusing on change so interesting. As change is described, both in politics and everyday life, I have my doubts that society could truly withstand it if all described changes were enacted. I think there would be a large number of mental breakdowns if suddenly everything changed, but that doesn’t keep politicians or CEOs from touting the value of change.

Respect for Change

I’m not opposed to change, but I would prefer that it be spoken about honestly instead of thrown about casually in a stump speech. For all that we talk about it frequently, I think we overlook how important and big change can be, and its impact on our lives. Just consider some of the “minor” changes that happen in our lives.

For good or bad, starting a new job is a huge change that can be mentally draining—meeting new people, learning new systems, creating new routines to name a few. The same thing happens when you move to a new place. It doesn’t matter if it’s better than the old one. You’re still living through a change that requires adjustments. Now, just imagine people’s reactions if they suddenly woke up and had a government that truly changed every time there’s an election. I wonder if the country could continue to run.

My recommendation? Take the talk about change lightly and focus on the people who are actually doing something different. And maybe consider having more respect for the power of true change, because I believe the good kind is an endangered species.


(Image courtesy of 416style. Some rights reserved.)


I Promise…Sort Of

I occasionally make fun of politicians, mainly due to the numerous opportunities to do so. However, sometimes they make writing a post incredibly easy. This time, John Edwards takes a swing at Congress, appointees, and even himself (potentially), that never had any hope of connecting, but I guess you can give him points for being bold.

First, I’m a big fan of accuracy, or at least attempting to be accurate. Second, I’ll never understand why people make claims that can be quickly disproved. My favorite line from the whole thing?

…I’m going to use my power as president to take your health care away from you. There’s no excuse for politicians in Washington having health care when you don’t have health care.

Edwards is taking a stand on an issue that’s important to many people in this election cycle. So why did he, as my brother likes to describe it, throw it into oomph gear rhetorically, making a statement that’s so easy to ignore? His basic argument is sound. Why should politicians and their families have insurance provided by the government and not all Americans? It’s a valid question, but the question’s value is lost by Edwards burying it beneath a promised action he can’t take.

Politicians already enjoy notoriety for not keeping promises, but at most, all Edwards can do is introduce legislation; he can’t guarantee its passage. From his campaign, I found the following explanation:

On the first day of Edwards’ administration, he will submit legislation that ends health care coverage for the president, all members of Congress, and all senior political appointees in the legislative and executive branches of government on July 20th, 2009—unless Congress has enacted universal health care reform.

Edwards will require Congress to pass universal health insurance that meets four principles: (1) It must be truly universal; (2) Anyone who has health care must be able to keep it and pay less for it; (3) Anyone who doesn’t have health care must get it, with help if they can’t afford it; (4) Doctors and patients, not insurance companies and HMOs, must have control of health care decisions. (link)

Edwards’ ad probably wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows if he’d said, “I’m going to introduce legislation that ends…” instead of “I’m going to use my power as president to take away…” The former definitely isn’t as sexy as the latter. Personally, I think we’re at least partially to blame for politicians’ obsession with catchy sound bites.

We’re so distanced from modern day politics, whether from disgust or disinterest, that candidates throw all sorts of nonsense our way. The hope? That some phrase sticks in your mind come election day and you check the box next to said candidate’s name. When was the last time you engaged, saw, or heard a dialogue between an elected official and anyone else? I suspect what you heard was a bunch of canned, political-ease that added up to very little.

In general, unless the status quo of politics affects you in a direct way, when do you pay attention to what’s happening in D.C or your state capital? The coming weeks will offer many opportunities to hear what your elected officials have to say about the country you call home. Please, please take advantage of the next few months to exercise your voice and challenge the candidates who talk about how they’ll use their power. Unless they’re superheros, whatever power they have is granted by you with your vote.


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