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Thursday, May 30, 2024

May I Have a Word With You?

Words can soar and swoop; inspire and inflame; turn a chump into a champ. Words are the building blocks of thoughts, the bricks and mortar of ideas that shape our lives, our society, and our universe. Words can unite us and divide us. Taking the Orange Line to a meeting recently I heard three women conversing excitedly in Spanish; a pair of students who alit from the vehicle at Valley College speaking in German; and what appeared to be an elderly man and his daughter bickering in what I believed to be Armenian. And I didn’t understand a word of any of it. I felt as if I were the middle of a Tower of Babel on wheels. Words and the use of them to inspire others are the exclusive province of neither the good nor of the evil. Could anyone inspire good better than Winston Churchill? Could anyone inspire evil better than Adolph Hitler? Both would have believed writer Joseph Conrad when he said, “Give me the right word and I will move the world.” Teddy Roosevelt could pound his bully pulpit like no one else in his early-twentieth-century world, while no one could be more soothing than his fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, in his wartime Fireside Chats. Nathanial Hawthorne might have been referring to the Churchills and Hitlers and Roosevelts of the world when he wrote that “Words … how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” Melvyn Bragg, whose English radio series, The Routes of English, traced the course of spoken English, said: “‘The nation had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to give the roar,’ Churchill is reported once to have said about his pivotal role in the Second World War. But the roar that he gave the country was far more than sound it was a subtle mixture of words and delivery, of voice, vocal pyrotechnics and a deep understanding of the power of language that was unique.” But sadly, much of American business, and the lawyers whose opinions are usually taken as Words from On High, too often use language to obfuscate, complicate, and even excuse. Here, for example, is just one sentence in a document that many of us recently received in the mail from AT & T;, entitled Residential Service Agreement: “You agree that AT & T;, our employees, officers, directors, affiliates, subsidiaries, assignees and agents, shall not be responsible for any claims, demands, actions, causes of action, suits proceedings, losses, damages, costs and expenses, including reasonable attorney fees, arising from or relating to any use of any services, or any action, error, or omission in connection therewith, by you or any person you authorize or permit to use any services including but not limited to matters relating to: incorrect, incomplete or misleading information, defamation, libel or slander; invasion of privacy; name, trademark, service mark, or other intellectual property; any defective product or service sold or otherwise distributed through or in connection with any services or any injury or damage to person or property caused thereby; or violation of any applicable law or regulation (collectively ‘Losses”).” One sentence; 133 words long. And, if I may say, hopefully without jeopardizing delivery of my home telephone service, exceedingly boring, not to mention overwhelmingly obtuse. The entire document is more than 7,800 words of equally unintelligible legalese. Those of you still awake and lucid after reading that sentence are invited to finish this column; I promise you no sentence more than 55 words long. I asked an executive of AT & T; what that sentence meant, and after giving me a slightly sheepish grin, he said, “It sounds as if you as a customer cannot sue AT & T; unless there is any willful or gross negligence on the part of AT & T.;” He is, of course, right and why couldn’t have AT & T;’s communicators (and I use the word exceedingly loosely) just have written that? Imagine if AT & T;’s corporate lawyer/copyrighters had been afforded the opportunity to put into legalese, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Or “Make my day.” Or “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” As all of these examples prove, simple words do not equate to simple thoughts. Our sixth President, John Quincy Adams, wrote that “Slovenly language corrodes the mind.” He could have also written that unclear and deliberately difficult-to-comprehend language equally corrodes the mind. To those who believe that a simple sentence is inferior to compound or complex sentences, may I recommend the writings of Al Martinez in the Los Angeles Times, Ernest Hemingway, or Andy Rooney now there’s a diverse trio. But they all have one thing in common, they write simply and succinctly, and communicate clearly. Got it? And one final sentence: Happy Holidays. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” — Mark Twain Martin Cooper is President of Cooper Communications, Inc. He is President of the Los Angeles Quality and Productivity Commission, Founding President of The Executives, Vice Chairman-Marketing of the Boys & Girls Club of the West Valley, and a member of the Boards of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley and of VICA. He is a Past Chairman of VICA, Past President of the Public Relations Society of America-Los Angeles Chapter, and Past President of the Encino Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at [email protected] .

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