“Words matter, and the right words matter most of all. In the end they’re all that remain of us.” —John Birmingham
This quote is what I would call “preaching to the choir” because who could possibly disagree that words matter? Perhaps they aren’t all that will be left of us after we’re gone, but what we say in this life will be a huge part of our legacy. Do writers have a monopoly on knowing what to say and how to say it? Trust me; we don’t. My father started out as a chauffeur and wound up running his own construction company. He wasn’t a writer, but he was known for always knowing exactly what to say. He could come up with the right words for almost any situation, written or spoken.
It’s an old family legend that when he was running for the school committee in Nahant, his opponent gave a long speech about the fact that he had children in the school system, so he was the better candidate. At the time, my father was unmarried and childless. After a good forty-five minutes of this candidate talking about how fatherhood made him a good choice, he finished up. My dad stood up for his turn and said, “Procreation is not a pre-requisite for public office, in case anyone was unclear about that.” Then he sat back down and didn’t say another word. He won the election in a landslide that hasn’t been seen since.
Whether in the news, politics, or just around the dinner table, the words we use are important, but so is the delivery. If something is worth saying, it should be said in such a way that it lands with whoever hears it. Knowing your audience is important; if it’s your turn to give the holiday toast this year in front of fifty relatives, it might be wise to avoid politics or current events. This time of year is stressful enough without stirring up a hornet’s nest of resentment and anger because Uncle Bob still thinks a cabal of secret reptile people living in a cave stole the 2020 election. Best to keep your hopes and dreams to general good wishes for health and prosperity without getting into the recession and inflation discussion with Aunt Margaret, who thinks her coffee can full of cash is safer in the cupboard than in a bank.
Words should make sense too, which might seem obvious but hear me out. Having spent a couple of years writing marketing materials for corporate clients, nowhere is there more ridiculous vocabulary and sayings than in a business meeting. Phrases like “Move the needle,” “low hanging fruit,” and “drill down,” only make sense if you are somehow excavating a rainforest and need to know how far you’ve gotten. None of that applies to sales, marketing, and branding. If I hear, “put a pin in it,” one more time, it’s entirely possible that I will put a pin in someone’s eyeball, and that would be a career killer. So why do businesses think they need to use a catchy tagline? In one meeting, I heard an executive say, “We really need everyone to come to the table on this. All hands on deck should be peeling back the layers of the onion, thinking outside the box, and coming up with best practices to improve top-line numbers and maximize their incentives.” There was no box, no onion, and we were not on a boat. It would have taken way less time to say, “You all better start figuring out how to sell these widgets if you want a year-end bonus.” It’s simple, but it says it, you know?
Everyone should have a voice in their community; that’s how we grow and connect with others. Our words come out of us; we are responsible for them. So whether it’s around the table having a coffee with friends (I’m looking at you all in the window of the Muffin Shop) or a social media post, or a letter to the editor, choose your words carefully. Make them count by leaving out tired old phrases that are meaningless and using words that encourage others to listen. It’s not hard, I promise.
We are delighted Brenda Kelley Kim has agreed to write a regular column fo the Marblehead Current. She is a familiar voice to ‘Headers as the former longtime Marblehead Reporter columnist. She is the author of “Sink or Swim: Tales from the Deep End of Everywhere.” She resides in town with her family and a snorty pug named Penny in a tiny cottage by the sea.