Why Stephen King would be horrified

messaging writing May 10, 2021

I love Stephen King’s writing. And I love his advice to writers. The tip that I want to focus on today is particularly relevant to anyone who has an important message, and needs to share it with an audience.

Let’s start with a mini rant from the author of more than 60 novels:

“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.

“This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”

I’ve worked with a lot of people as they struggled to define the message they wanted to share with an audience. What I noticed in those workshops is this: the more important the message, the less we trust our instincts.

We turn away from the conversational us - the person who charms friends with warm conversation and comforts them with words from the heart.

We feel our natural, conversational vocabulary is inadequate. So we send for reinforcements. With a blare of trumpets, a squadron of extra syllables marches over the hill. Suddenly, from the mouths of perfectly nice people, we hear:

“High quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.”

You just don’t talk like that to anyone you care about. You wouldn’t dream of talking like that to your mother. Just pause for a minute. Try it. Put ‘Hi Mom’ in front of the sentence and say it out loud:

“Hi Mom. High quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.”

It doesn’t work. You are much more likely to say:

"Hi Mom. If kids are to learn, they need a good place to study."

‘Hi Mom’ keeps you from straying into the land of bafflegab. If you are working on a message, and it sounds a bit clunky or grand or pompous, stick ‘Hi Mom’ in front of it and say it out loud.

If you can’t hear yourself saying it to someone you care about, don’t inflict it on an audience. (Unless you’re the sort of person who is inclined to dress up the family dog in a tuxedo).