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When Words Betray Us

There have been a lot of reactions to the recent 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'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.


  1. Chuck6:54 AM

    The general point is well made and taken, but I wonder what makes Clark conclude MoveOn didn't mean it? Does he not consider the history of attack ads and radical rhetoric?

  2. That makes me think of a headline workshop I led recently. One of the college papers were talking about getting in trouble for their headlines -- they were working so hard at being clever, they didn't care whether the headline supported the story. They walked out chanting "boring, but accurate."

    Not exactly how I wanted to be remembered, but I think it is far better than losing meaning for the sake of sensation.

  3. Hi Chuck.
    Regarding your question "what makes Clark conclude MoveOn didn't mean it?", Clark explains that he came to that conclusion after carefully reading the advertisement: "Nothing in the ad under the headline supports the pun in the title". He seems to have been one of the very few who did read beyond the headline.

    And that's the point: the poorly-chosen headline distracted everybody from the message they were trying to get across.

    We would all be well-advised to leave the juvenile name-calling rhetoric to school children and those who would act like one (Rush Limbaugh called Sen. Chuck Hagel "Senator Betrayus" long before this headline), and hold ourselves to a higher standard!

  4. Chuck7:29 AM


    I read the ad and each paragraph refers specifically to the General misleading the American people, Congress or both.

    Based on the definition of "betray" which includes "to be false or disloyal to" and "to lead astray; deceive", the caption perfectly captures the ad's content.

    Clark's conclusion, and your's if you share his, seems to be more of a ideological defense than a fact-based conclusion.

  5. Thanks for the comments!

    Chuck: Read the full article and you will find how he explains that the text does not support the idea of the General being a traitor. They were accusing him of being wrong, not traitorous.

    Jennifer: Exciting and accurate would be the best, but I will take boring and accurate over exciting and inaccurate.

    Stan: Well put!

    Chuck: The headline resulted in news coverage that focused on them calling the General a traitor and not on them questioning his analysis. The headline hurt their ability to get out their full message.


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