When Words Betray Us

September 24, 2007

There have been a lot of reactions to the recent MoveOn.org ad attacking General Petraeus. However, Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute offered perhaps the best commentary in a piece entitled "When Words Betray Us: Stop Showing Off." His advice about communication problems with MoveOn.org's ad is advice that all of us should consider about our own communication. Here are some highlights:

I think what we have here is more than a failure to communicate. It's a seduction by creativity, an insincerity mated to hyperbole to meet the demands of a snarky and polarized political culture.

... In other words: Stop showing off. Never permit clever language to distort your message.

... I do not believe that the headline writer thinks that General Petraeus is a traitor to his country. Nothing in the ad under the headline supports the pun in the title. Instead, I think writer and editors succumbed to the oldest literary temptation in the book: to look clever in front of the world -- meaning and consequences be damned.

... "The great enemy of clear language," wrote Orwell, "is insincerity." Even the brilliant phrase must die if the writer doesn't mean it.
He makes an excellent point. Sometimes we allow our cleverness to get the best of us and then end up hurting our own argument. Hopefully, we will take this warning to heart so that we do not undermine our own communication.