Category Archives: Rhetoric – the Art of Persuasive Communications

Advice on the effective use of language to persuade people.

The Glorious Fourth of July

Every year I promise myself I will write about about the Fourth of July holiday, and what it means to me, and to the world. Most years, I don’t remember to do it until it’s too late. This year, not so.

We celebrate the Fourth of July because it is the day in 1776 when 50-odd men representing thirteen British colonies signed a document declaring their independence from Britain. This is interesting in several ways.

First, it was four days late. Like most committees, they got behind schedule.  😉

Second, people rebelling against their rulers usually don’t bother to write out a list of why. They just rebel.

Most importantly, though, was the idea – the unshakeable idea:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The idea was not altogether new. Other Enlightenment thinkers had come to recognize that, as God’s creation, we are equal before our creator, and are therefore equal before the law. Furthermore, we, not the discredited Divine Right of Kings, are the holders of sovereign, ultimate civil power on this earth. Not some king. Not some religious leader. Not even some elected government – such a body is the servant of the sovereign, not the master.

In 1776, this was a VERY radical idea. It still is; in many places in the world, ‘democracy’ means merely an election to pick a new dictator.

Critics point out that the signers of that document conveniently forgot that many of them owned other human beings. They omitted any mention of women.  Equality before the law would be a long time coming. But that misses a key point. Why don’t we celebrate October 19, 1781? Or September 3, 1783?

It’s because of the power of declaration. The transcendent, over-arching power of a solemn declaration of the way things WILL be. Max Weber said:

“Somewhere [a man] reaches a point where he says, ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ This is something genuinely human, and genuinely moving. ”

Declaration alone does not bring things to pass, of course. But it is the necessary first step. And THAT is why we celebrate July 4 – the date of DECLARATION. Those other dates? October 19, 1781 is when Lord Cornwallis surrounded, and we ‘won’ our revolution.  September 3, 1783 is when we and the British signed the agreement recognizing the facts. Those dates are forgotten; but the Glorious Fourth lives on.

In the years since, we have made enormous progress toward the goal of equality before the law for all men and women in America, but there’s still some distance to travel. I fear we may be backsliding, however, because equality before the law does not mean equality in life, or in outcome. It is plainly obvious that our creator did not create us equal in either body or mind. We remain, however, equal in our souls, before our creator, and hopefully before our own laws.

It isn’t easy. The word ‘democracy’ comes from the Greeks, but democracy in ancient Greece was a series of tragedies and train wrecks. It rather looks like democracy in modern Greece is not working out very well, but time will tell.

The men who founded America, who crafted the Constitution, knew this, and were concerned that America would follow the Greek pattern and turn into a dictatorship. So far, we’ve avoided it, but we remain at risk. Every election is the risk that we will vote unwisely, that we will vote for “me first” instead of what’s best for the nation. Voting cannot make you rich, or happy. It can, if used with great wisdom, help to keep you free.

How does this affect the rest of the world? That’s an easy question to answer, but a far more difficult one to bring to pass. Our Declaration said ALL men (and meant women, etc) – not just Americans, but every person on Earth. However, the idea that humans are not sovereign, that somehow the government or one’s faith is supreme here on earth is common. When you hear someone say the people have to change so the government will work better, they have it backwards. We are not here to try to fit ourselves into some government official’s idea of what we should be. It’s quite the opposite.

This is also true for religion. No church, synagogue, or mosque rules you here on Earth. No pope, no rabbinical council, no imam, gets to decide what you do or do not do. In the next life we will surely find out what we should have done, but in this life we are each sovereign, able to make our decisions, and if we are truly mature, happy to accept whatever consequences may result.

So on this Glorious Fourth, please remember what we celebrate. The power of declaration in general, and the ongoing power of that declaration 239 years ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

TMI and Over-sharing

Recently, the actress Lena Dunham suggested that the terms TMI and over-sharing are sexist. She is reported to have said:

“The term “oversharing” is so complicated because I do think that it’s really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it’s bravery and when women share their experiences, it’s some sort of  TMI. Too much information has always been my least favorite phrase because what exactly constitutes too much information? It seems like it has a lot to do with who is giving you the information, and I feel as though there’s some sense that society trivializes female experiences. And so when you share them, they aren’t considered as vital as their male counterparts’ [experiences] and that’s something that I’ve always roundly rejected.”

She has some good points, but what the heck does that have to do with technical documentation? Easy. Figure out how much your audience wants to read (or watch), and adapt your message accordingly.

For most of us, our most precious commodity is time. I think this is what is driving the trend to shorter articles and content of all types. You will lose your audience if you waste their time, and people often make that decision within seconds of encountering your message.

I can’t say if Lena is correct in her overall assessment, but she is incorrect about it having to do with the sender of information. It’s the receiver. Tailor your message to your audience. And yes, in some cases that may mean considering whether your audience is male or female.

Here’s an amusing example: There is a theory that the universe began with a big “bang”, probably around 13 billion years ago. It went from a singularity, a point of zero dimension, lost in a void of darkness. Imagine that you are a physicist with a deep understanding of this theory.

Now, your first task is to explain it to a group of fairly bright college freshmen who are enrolled in a physics class. You might have a 20 or 30 minute lecture.

You second task is to explain it to a group of first-graders. You might have something like this:

“Darkness was over the surface of all. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness, and created the earth and the stars.”

Sound familiar? Of course. It’s a loose adaptation of Genesis. Is it fully accurate? No. But neither was your college-freshman explanation. Both are simplified versions adapted to meet the intellectual of the audience.

At Plans2Reality, we rarely use biblical text to explain modern technology, but we do have a number of strategies and techniques that we can apply to make sure your message is tailored to your audience, and doesn’t have “TMI”.

Banished Word: “It’s in Our DNA”

Time to retire this cliché.

It is not “in your DNA”. You don’t get to vote about what’s “in your DNA.” You certainly don’t get to change, at the whim of the marketing department, what’s “in your DNA”.

There’s a good chance that what is in your DNA is as lovely as cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs’s Disease, or sickle-cell anemia. Especially if you are a large organization.

So knock it off!