Category Archives: writing

High on Hal

You can buy the witty detective novel, Stein Stoned, by Hal Ackerman, UCLA  screenwriting prof, at

Full disclosure: I’ve known the old author ever since he was a young author.


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Nuance, Words and Public Relations

I’m writing about public relations in plain English. At the same time, I have the ability to write in ways that might not be fairly described as plain English. Some would call it “spin,” which is what critics of President Obama are saying about him this very afternoon as he attempts to sell the Administration’s health care plan to a handpicked audience in Portsmouth, NH.

One man’s spin is another man’s truth. Or another man’s “strategic ambiguity.”

One of the famous old sayings I  never bought is that sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt  you.

Are  you kidding? Words can break your bones, your heart, your spirit — whereas sticks and stones have been survived by legions of brave, tough individuals from soldiers to nonviolent protesters.

We are wordy people, said Kenneth Burke, one of the giants of modern rhetorical analysis — the Aristotle of the twentieth century, perhaps. Freud theorized that slips of the tongue were not at all meaningless but a veiled revelation of barely concealed feelings and thoughts beneath  the  socially acceptable surface. Aristotle used the  poet Homer’s creations — particularly the crafty  Odysseus — as models of the art of rhetoric. The master of  words, the great poet T.S. Eliot wrote that words break, crack, fall apart: I can not say exactly what I  mean.

Public relations is about meanings, says Robert Heath, a leading PR  scholar. To be about meaning is to be about words — at least to a large extent. It may sound contradictory to tell  you that more than 90% of  what  we perceive of a speaker is NONverbal — body language, eye contact, tone of voice, pace of speech, and so forth. But  when Mr. Obama held his press conference today, he was speaking verbally and nonverbally simultaneously. He wasn’t doing a mime performance on the health care debate.

The reason Obama couldn’t mime his explanations and defenses of the health  care plan is that the plan — like so many other public issues — is far too complex for nonverbal communication. Words are needed. Yes, simple words are needed. The shorter the utterance, the clearer the audience’s understanding. Britain’s prime minister Winston Churchill, an excellent, even eloquent author, had this advice for writers: Short words are the best. And what he advised was shorter sentences, shorter words.

Fair enough. Short and simple and clear. Right? So why don’t politicians speak plainly? Why aren’t press releases clear and, in the cliche of the day, “transparent?” Let me answer a question with a question: Why don’t you say exactly what you mean all the time? When are those times when you know well enough  that you can’t speak plainly? How do you handle yourself at those times?

It may not be popular to say this — nor is it profound to say that life isn’t simple. It’s simple in  songs that say  that life is just bowl of cherries or as Forest Gump says, Life  is  a box of chocolates. But, really. We all know that it isn’t. Relationships are neither simple nor clear, nor are public issues. And while it is admirable to make our  best effort to use simple, clear language, it is also an inconvenient truth that complex issues and products and relationships — highly emotionally charged ones and very technical ones — are not always fairly and accurately described in simple terms.

Related to this communication problem is the matter of nuance — when what we’re trying to chracterize is neither this nor that, neither black nor white, neither  complete right nor utterly wrong. Much of life falls into that gray area. Neither fish nor fowl. Neither socialist nor capitalist. Neither conservative nor liberal.

To be sure, there are enemies of nuance. Propagandists — Hitler’s technique of “the big lie” — insist very loudly and repetitively that you are either this or that and if you’re not part of the  solution, you’re part of the problem.  Hitler’s lie was to blame Jews for Germany’s troubles. Stalin blamed the peasants. Mao blamed the capitalists.  Ahmadinejad blames The Great Satan. Some radio talk show hosts insist there’s no middle ground between the  patriots and the liberals, where “liberal” means cowardly, anti-American traitors and worse. The blogospherical left blamed Bush. Senator Barry Goldwater, campaigning for the  U.S. presidency and losing to Lydon B. Johnson in l964, said that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation is no virtue.

Propagandistic language operates on the emotions by nuking the moderate, the middle — which is exactly the place recommended famously by Aristotle as “the golden mean.”

Unlike  propaganda, public  relations and its ancestor, rhetoric, operate in the everyman’s land between propagandistic extremes. At its best, PR isn’t about spin but nuance because what PR deals with — complexity, crisis, chaos, issues, among other  things — inhabits the world of nuance not simplicity. Thoreau  advised Simplify, simplify! But read his journals and you’ll quickly discover he’s anything but simple to read. He’s a mystic, a poet, a symbolist. The poet and the scientist in him are fascinated by the intricacies of the world, which do sometimes seem to present themselves in a brilliant simple flash.

Words can hurt me.  And you, too.  Are doctors who perform a safe, legal abortion “baby  killers?” Are citizens  who protest against health care reform “wackos?” Does believing in the value of affirmative action make  you a “moon bat?” Does sleeping with your boyfriend make you a “slut?”

The art of politics is compromise, not coercion. And what is compromise but an address found in the  land of nuance? It is this land that public relations is often called to map and express and inhabit and name and articulate.

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Digital Immigrant/Intolerance

I am not a digital native. I’ve come from the world of books. Charles Dickens. William Faulkner. You know what  I mean.

There it is: the “you”.Who are you? Almost 50 years ago, I began writing in a diary. I didn’t call it that. It sounded too girlish, which was intolerable for  a l6-year-old boy then — and, I suspect, now. The 3×4 pad on which I began writing was something I called a journal.

On April 17, 1961 I wrote my first entry. I remember that date for no other reason than that it marked the beginning of a new relationship I was undertaking with myself — what communication theorists call “intrapersonal communication.” In graduate school I wrote a paper about the way in which Saul Bellow’s character Herzog, in the eponymous novel, was actually engaging in a self-to-self conversation when he wrote letters to Nietzsche, God and other correspondents who couldn’t or didn’t and weren’t expected to reply.

This is how I  live my life: engaged in wondering about such oddly framed esoterica, and this is why I have always been drawn to writers who think in this way, if not about the same things I  think about. For example, Erving Goffman’s “microsociological” observations about the marvelous strategies  we have for acting in such a way as to protect our “face,” our identity, from perceived and real threats. Another example: Roland Barthes concise and imaginative analyses of the cultural, unconscious, hidden meanings of things and people and events — Marlon Brando, butter, and so forth. Freud’s fabulously imaginative interpretations of human behavior — dreams, slips of the tongue. I love this stuff.

I have a friend I see only on special occasions such as the birthday of a mutual friend. At a recent birthday dinner, this fellow launched into a familiar rant of his about how psychoanalysis isn’t science because it isn’t testable. It’s witch doctoring, astrology — unlike cognitive therapy, which is actually “scientific.” Another rant of his is that rock and pop and country and all other forms of music except classical, opera and jazz aren’t music at all. (Reason: His ear hears that the so-called musicians arew out of tune(!).

I know. This is one very rigid guy, at least when it comes to opinions. If you looked up “opinionated” in the dictionary, you’d find this man’s name. It also so happens that when it comes to his opinions about how people do or should behave, he appears to be tolerant — I say “appears” because he claims to accept a very wide range of behavior. But that’s another post. My point  — and I actually have one — is that this fellow’s rigidity of taste and opinions comes across to me as a kind of poverty of imagination.

This is not the sort of individual you’d seek out if you wanted to have a conversation because sooner or later the conversation would  be bound to veer into an area of his opinionated  intolerance. In other words, his rigidity disables him socially because it makes him unable to hold a civil conversation. The social rules for conversation, which prevent discourse from going off the rails into the unpleasantness of unwanted argument, advocacy and debate, include the practice of conversational compromise — the building on another’s observation, opinion or idea, rather than the destruction of it or the deconstruction of it or the holding it up to ridicule. Almost no one finds that sort of behavior desirable or even tolerable.

But I digress — which is the beauty of a blog. I have no editor but myself, and unlike my friend, Mr. Rigid, I am tolerant of my digressions and opinions and feel free to change my mind halfway through an argument with myself. I wonder whether Herzog does the same — but although I haven’t read the novel in decades I suspect that Herzog doesn’t switch opinions in mid-letter because he’s just too animated, too obsessed, too focused on articulating, venting to God and Nietzsche and any other person, living or dead, whose name he can affix to his sub-self, his othered self.

But as I  began this post, I am a person of the book — not a digital native. Video streaming and attaching and disseminating links and YouTubes are not activities that come naturally to me — or even that enthuse me. I like words. I’m a wordsmith and have made my living that way, one way or another. Other than my ability to make people laugh, writing is my only more or less marketable skill. I say more or less because my income comes from teaching, not writing — although I made a living ghostwriting, which isn’t writing in its purest sense. I also write poems, which of course are hardly marketable except to earn a reputation and a sinecure such as a teaching post or a grant.

When Holden Caulfield digressed during one of his English teacher, Mr. Antonelli’s public speaking classes, his classmates were encouraged to call out, “Digression!” This was one of J.D. Salinger’s ways of making a point about the evils of coercion and conformity and cowardice. The  point has not been lost on me all these long years since I read Cather in the Rye when I was in junior high. I, too, digress. But when I have to, I can command the strike zone.

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