Monday, November 4, 2013

Show a little respect, would ya?

“Men are respectable only as they respect.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

How do we show respect for our readers and listeners? Here are three suggestions drawn from my years as an editor at The Reader's Digest, which was read by 100 million people around the world.

1) Never talk down. If you do, your reader will sense it, and your chance to persuade will be lost. People may not have your education, skill or experience, but they aren't stupid. Everyone, including yourself, particularly in the United States, is in the process of becoming something better. They think of themselves as what they envision. Speak to them as they intend to be.

A marketing executive at The Digest once told me that the best customer for our magazines and books was someone with three years of college. This person was eager to complete his or her education. So, high school graduate or eager learner?

I was recently at a big teaching hospital for a routine checkup. I was first seen by the "student." I asked him where he was in his training, and he said he had six more months of medical school. I don't know if that means he is called an "intern." Doesn't matter. This was one smart dude. Do you think he would rather be addressed as a student or as a doctor?

2) Be sincere. After the death of DeWitt Wallace, the founder of The Reader's Digest, they found among his papers notes he'd made to himself. Turns out that if he ran an article entitled "Six Secrets to a Happy Marriage," he'd try those secrets out himself. He didn't fill his magazine with untested junk. 

Today this ersatz advice is everywhere. It's called "content." A good bit of it is got up just to fill pages. It reads like it. It's quite disrespectful of the reader, and the reader knows it at some level. Are you slinging business "content" or offering genuine, helpful ideas?

3) Make it easy. The Reader's Digest was created at a time when writers were paid by the word. More words meant more money. RD made even more money by getting rid of those needless words. At the same time, its editors cleaned up the grammar -- made the passive voice active, and the like -- thus adding to the readability of its articles.

It will take you longer to write succinctly and clearly. But you will be saving the reader time, and you will be making it more likely that he or she will be able to comprehend your brilliance. You will show respect for the reader if you do, and the reader will return it. 

All of this is pretty much what your mother taught you.

I was looking for some inspiration on this topic in Aristotle's Rhetoric, of all things, and ultimately found the following quote among his writings elsewhere. If I'd found it first, I might have avoided writing this post.

“Excellence is never an accident," Aristotle wrote. "It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives -- choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”

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