Writing compellingly and speaking clearly

I am passionate about clarity in speaking and especially in writing.  If I am preparing a public presentation, I always go through multiple drafts looking for clarity and brevity.  I try to avoid acronymns and jargon, although in our acronym-ridden profession, complete avoidance is hard.  Even within an individual library, the jargon of one unit may be incomprehensible to another, especially for non-librarian staff. 

Here are some things I try to avoid.  Thanks to word processing, there is no excuse for using acronyms in writing and not much use for using them in speaking.  You don’t have to type “Arabic Manuscript Collection” every time you want to refer to it.  Many people will write Arabic Manuscript Collection (AMC) on the first mention and ever after use AMC.  Don’t!  Or do it in your draft, but for your final text, use find and replace and insert the full phrase.  If that feels cumbersome, then occasionally say “the Collection” or “the Manuscript Collection”.  Each of these flows off the tongue more smoothly than A..M..C – and conveys meaning.  Anything that stops the reader’s eye and causes him or her to look back in the article for explanation interferes with absorption of your argument.  People reading or listening do not want to (and should not have to) master acronyms to follow your meaning.

Admittedly, in libraries some acronyms are so common as to be impossible to avoid – maybe LC, ALA, ACRL, OCLC.  But keep your list short.

As a leader, public speaking is something you must do.  And you must do it well.  It isn’t hard, once you realize that you will be talking about what you know – your library, your plans, the needs of your community.  You do need to sort through what you might say to insure that it resonates with an audience of intelligent civilians.  This is not the place for esoteric language.  Some people think esoteric terms convey professionalism.  Often academics speak and write for each other and use words that laypersons must look up to understand.  And in doing so they limit their audience to insiders.  We librarians certainly talk to each other in the jargon of our profession, saying monographs and continuations rather than books and journals.  The word continuations has a definite meaning but not one that adds value to general discussion with users, administrators, or our non-librarians friends.  So strive for plain English, even when talking with close colleagues.  It is good practice. 

Remember that few non-librarians really understand libraries.  They might think they do, but the size and complexity of a contemporary library is not part of their imagination.  And the stereotypes of librarians are strong.  When I became a librarian, my younger brother used to say, “My sister is a librarian but she’s not like that.”  Indeed, many people pictured me at the front desk checking out books.  The older ones probably imagined me doing it with one of those pencils with a date due stamp at the eraser end. (Indeed, when I worked – in computing – for AT&T, my grandmother pictured me as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, the switchboard operator.)

So, when I am the “entertainment” for a group of non-librarians, I start with the size of my budget (tens of millions) and the number of my staff (hundreds).  Most people get “money” and “people”.  Then we can talk about the details.

2 thoughts on “Writing compellingly and speaking clearly

  1. Hi, Shirley. In your own publications, have you been successful in getting editors to not swap in acronyms for full names of organizations, projects, etc.? I thnk there is merit in your position for publications not aimed at a specialist audience. Whenever I read something in LRTS (ALA ALCTS’ journal), on the other hand, I can barely drag myself through the opening paragrahs where every acronym gets unpacked. For specialist reading, the effect of full names all the time, I think, is the same as that you posit for acronyms for the general reader–mental brakes get applied, and the train of thought can be derailed from the sudden stop.

  2. You have a good point, Mark, about publications clearly targeted on an expert audience. The publications that drove me most crazy were technology publications that were written for an audience of technologists and non-technology adminstrators. Reading them as myself or as a provost or president, I continually stumbled on acronyms that made me check back to the beginning to suss out.

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