Friday, June 3, 2011

Choosing which hairs to split

I was honoured to receive a teaching award from my PR students at their convocation this week - and as it turned out, the award provided a "teachable moment."

Red River College's College Relations department interviewed me for a short bio in the convocation program, which said that I had joined the faculty in 2008, "after serving 10 years at MTS Allstream, where she was Director of Corporate Communications." This is correct - I did serve as Director of Corporate Communications at MTS Allstream; and between MTS Allstream and its holding company, I did serve there for 10 years.

But I didn't serve as Director of Corporate Communications at MTS Allstream for 10 years, which is how that statement was understood by some. The College Relations writer and I actually discussed this specific sentence before it was printed, because I wanted to ensure it was accurate.

I started out as a Public Affairs Coordinator at Manitoba Telephone System in 1996; in the decade that followed, I was promoted, my title changed, and the company's name changed, too. All that detail, though, doesn't really matter to most people, we figured - so we gave the length of my tenure, and my title when I left.

My first call upon realizing how the sentence had been understood was to June Kirby, who was the Director of Corporate Communications at MTS from 1996-2000, and my boss at the time - I didn't want her thinking I had tried to take credit for her accomplishments. 

Her reaction? "Oh come on, kiddo, even I didn't read it that way! No-one will care!" (I love it that she still calls me "kiddo.")

Of course, I hope she's right - but I wanted to set the record straight regardless.

Finding the balance between efficiency and clarity in your writing

I spoke with the writer in College Relations this morning before writing this blog post, and we laughed a bit about how we had tried to make the sentence accurate while still straightforward... and obviously didn't do it well enough. 

He said he had considered adding something like "where she held a number of positions ending with..." but in the end, felt it over-complicated the sentence - and likely wouldn't matter. I had entertained the same thought, and had come up with the same conclusion. After all, the sentence was accurate as written... as long as you understood what we meant.

And that's the key. Whose fault is it, usually, if someone misunderstands what I meant? Mine. As writers, it's our job to ensure our messages are communicated clearly, with as little room as possible for misunderstanding.  

In the end, I don't know that anyone but me cares - but it's a good lesson just the same.  If you split hairs too much, your writing may be lumpy - but if you don't split them enough, you risk inaccuracy. Find the right balance, and your writing will be at its most effective.

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