No Oblique Speak! Introduction: Let Me Tell You a Story…
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
– Bernard Shaw
Business (life) Means Building and Maintaining Relationships
What follows is the introduction to a four-part essay on corporate communication. This section introduces the concepts of “secure-accept-respect” and “no-oblique-speak.” These themes will be presented in detail in Part I and appear throughout the essay. While the basic information deals with all levels of human interaction, the focus is on the communication concerns of fast-paced, early stage, entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial ventures.
Once Upon a Time…
On June 14, 1999, I had a right modified radical mastectomy to remove an invasive ductal carcinoma. Breast cancer. In the beginning, this uninvited—and mind-numbing—voyage was distorted by a cracked prism of blurred colors. When I squinted very hard, the view would suddenly burst forth with distinct edges and hopeful clarity only to slip back into a murky and surreal world of distortion and confusion. In September of that year I decided to write a book of reflections and lessons about my new journey, “Voices from the Edge.” As with all memoir-type books, the motivation came as much from a need for personal healing as it did from a desire to share my new perspective on life.
I had passion and a story to tell but I needed the help of an editor to keep me from mucking it up by meandering all over the place. As luck would have it (make that fate) I didn’t have to look any further than my own family.
My brother, David, now deceased, was a brilliant professor of creative writing as well as a law professor at the University of Southern California. He was a supreme practitioner of the “secure,” “accept,” and “respect” philosophy and a master of the “no oblique-speak” school of communication. As a writer—or in any life circumstance—you always knew where you stood with Professor Samuelson. With compassion and crystal clarity, he’d let you know if his respect for you was waning. If a behavior was unacceptable, he’d let you know. If the overall security of the relationship was in danger, he’d let you know. And, in every case, he’d offer up suggestions on how to get things back on track. If he said nothing at all about these issues you knew that you, your work, and your relationship with David was accepted, respected and secure.
When speaking with my brother there was no place for innuendo, vagueness, hyperbole, distortion or any other form of oblique-speak. As a result of this clarity, conversations and interactions of any kind were always free of “How should I put this…?” or, “What did you mean by that?” You could say what you wanted to say and you listened carefully because what he said he meant. Wow, just like when we were kids!
Somewhat hesitant at first, David did agree to copyedit and critique “Voices…” under one very important condition. He made it perfectly clear that from the first corrected semi-colon to the final punctuation mark, he would no longer think of me as his brother. I was a writer and he was my editor. Period. We repeated this arrangement for two additional books that I wrote, “Moments…Not Years” and “What Would Mickey Say: Coaching Men to Health and Happiness.”
Easy, right? I mean how blunt could he be, he’s my big brother? He certainly wouldn’t hurt my feelings or discourage me, right? Okay, but if it was necessary to correct my writing, he would do it with velvet words wrapped in a big warm supportive smile, right? WRONG. He was direct and to the point. He didn’t waste time, emotion, or words with his criticisms and suggestions. I asked for his professional evaluation and guidance…he gave it to me…take it or leave it.
Ready or Not
The following are direct quotes from his critiques of my work:
- “That was a lazy paragraph. Inject energy or throw it away before you lose your reader. Here’s a suggestion…”
- “I hope you feel better after writing this chapter but it has no business in this book. File it away for another time.” Consider…”
- “You lost [character’s name] voice, here. Sound’s more like [another character’s name]. If you’re going to use stereotypes (I don’t recommend it), at least make them consistent. Here’s a suggested re-write…”
- “You nailed it with this chapter. Best work to date. Let me tell you why…”
And, of course, being a master of no-oblique speak, there were times when he would dot the pages with blue punctuation pulled from his personal stylebook. I’m pleased to say the books, when published, were met with critical acclaim and earned jacket endorsements from Larry King, Ken Blanchard, Dee Edington, Brian Luke Seward, Jim Prochaska, and The Lance Armstrong Foundation. I received subsequent written kudos from Betty Ford, C. Everett Koop, Tom Ridge, and others. But, of all the nice things said about the books, whose praise meant the most to me? Yes, of course, my brother, David. Just like when we were kids!
It’s All About Trust
What made my editor/writer relationship with my brother work was trust. Trust is a two-way street. It wasn’t enough that I knew I was accepted, respected and secure in my relationship with David, he also had to operate with the same understanding when it came to trusting me. He had to be comfortable knowing that I could also compartmentalize. He knew he could give frank, clear judgments without concern for losing my acceptance or respect; that our relationship as brothers would remain secure. He knew also that there may be times when I would respectfully reject his recommended edits and that my expectation was that he would accept my decision without prejudice. As an example, on one occasion, he questioned my use of a made-up word, “Thrival.” He pointed out the fact that it wasn’t a word and suggested an edit using the accepted word, “Thrive.” I pointed out that “Thrival,” when used as the next step beyond cancer survival, was an audience accepted and appreciated word. It aptly described an aspiration. His suggestion was to keep the non-word, but use parentheses. In this case, we both agreed that function trumped form. Most important, we both knew that, if needed, one or both of us would bring troublesome issues to the surface for discussion and resolution.
In a case where form served function—and was clearly in the editor’s domain—let’s take a look at an actual critique. It refers to a blended fact and fantasy book I wrote about the life of Mickey Mantle. The book has eight central characters including a resurrected Mickey.
Brother David: “Your characters are losing their identity. Remain consistent with your backstory so that the personalities progress logically. Your tone and voice are getting jumbled. You can do so much better. Here’s a suggestion…”
- Now, remember, at this point, he is no longer my brother, he is Professor David R. Samuelson, PhD. The first three statements from the good Professor are clear. In his professional opinion, character development is breaking down and character behavior/dialogue is inconsistent with established background. Because of his reputation for excellence, coupled with his academic credentials and experience, I am not defensive nor do I question the intent or veracity of his statements. I TRUST his integrity as well as his judgment.
- When he tells me in the next sentence, “You can do better than that.” I don’t take it as an empty platitude thrown out to make me feel good (although it did). I take it, again, as a professional critique. I TRUST his judgment.
- He then finishes his critique with a suggestion on how I can round out and strengthen my characters. I followed his advice. Why? Because I TRUST his judgment.
If David felt that he needed to sugarcoat his comments or boast my self-confidence with empty compliments, my work would have suffered and same goes for our relationship. The moment he accepted responsibility as my editor and the moment I accepted responsibility as his writer we entered into a sacred trust of unencumbered honesty and clarity. “I wonder what he meant by that…” was replaced with, “Got it, thanks.” And, “Let’s see, how should I say this…” was replaced with, “Okay, here’s the deal…”
Art, Society, and Business Operating Systems
David’s trust-based, direct, no nonsense, no oblique-speak approach to teaching is a solid model for building clear lines of communication that can accelerate business success.
Everyone in an organization (particularly in early stage development) must have a clear understanding and a singular interpretation of mission, vision, strategy, tactics, execution and evaluation. To have otherwise is akin to an orchestra pit filled with musicians perpetually tuning their individual instruments, or a chorus doing vocal warm-ups. It’s just noise…and, before long…very annoying noise. This article is about cutting through the corporate noise. It’s about orchestrated four-part harmony.
Part I : Six Keys to Effective Communications
Part II: Human Interaction: The Order of Preference
Part III: Building and Maintaining Relationships: A Formula
Part IV: Summary (So What?)