Timeless advice on communicating ideas

RBC Communication of IdeasThe basic principles of good communication haven’t changed over time. If anything, technology has made clarity, brevity and the astute choice of words more important today than it ever was. Anyone who has tried to pack a complex idea into 140 characters on Twitter can surely appreciate this.

Unless you are writing creative fiction or poetry, choosing simple and direct language to communicate your ideas is always the best practice. Save the $100 words for Scrabble, as one of my profs used to say.

Years ago, after my father passed away, I found this little gem of a book among his belongings. “The Communication of Ideas” was published before I was born, in 1963, and is a selection of monthly newsletters of the Royal Bank of Canada. Good for a laugh or two, right?

Not so fast.

Although there are a few passages that date it, this turned out to be 134 pages of timeless advice on writing. Here are a few of my favourite kernels of wisdom.

On Saying What You Mean
There are four questions which will help to make clear the general problem of the communication of ideas:
What is it we wish to communicate?
To whom?
What is the best medium of communication?
What sort of words will best carry our message to this audience through this medium?
Urbanity of style does not necessarily grow out of verbal agility. To write well, even to write clearly; to use words so true and simple that they oppose no obstacle to the flow of thought and feeling from mind to mind; these are the virtues rooted in something deeper than word acrobatics.

On Style in Writing
A genuine style is the expression of the writer’s mind. Great writers do not aim at style for its own sake. They are inspired by their subject, and this inspiration shows itself in their words. They do not leave us in doubt about their topic: Macbeth is about ambition, Othello is about jealousy, Timon of Athens is about money and King Lear is about renunciation. The style fits the subject and it is only by being willfully blind that one can fail to understand what Shakespeare is saying.

On Simplicity
Be concise. Use short, direct, simple statements to cover your points, and state them in a well-organized order. When you are inclined to use the words “and, but, however, consequently” in the middle of your sentences, try putting a period instead. You will find that this adds to the clearness of what you are saying. It dissipates the fog, and saves your reader from having to back-track to find the path.

The book goes on with chapters on writing reports, letters, speeches and articles. Each one contains timeless truths. And each reminds us how the basics of clear communication and good writing have remained unchanged, whether we are posting, blogging, tweeting or writing with an old-fashioned pen and paper.

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