Opinion: spare the fireworks, change some minds

23 Feb 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 25 Feb 2015

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Field Office
Explosive language lacks subtlety and can overwhelm meaning

Public discourse is peppered with bombast. It has no use and dilutes the quality of debate - if you want people to rethink their opinions then pick your words more carefully.

Communication is key to the modern world, with exchange of ideas both providing direction and used as a commodity.

For third sector bodies, its importance is growing, including an increased need to speak to both the political class and the public.

The best writing or speaking remains honest while tiptoeing along the finest line between blandness on one side and cacophonous, gargling, overwrought, brimstone nonsense on the other. It is also clearer than both.

But communication does not occur in a vacuum – emphatically not, in the age of the internet, where more people read more views and observations from others than ever before.

It might seem unlikely at first, but this is vitally important not just as a personal point of interest for anyone who cares about clarity, but specifically for any community or voluntary body with information to spread.

A glance at the comments on social media or below news articles can be disheartening. The less galling examples frequently see polemic instead of debate, while elsewhere there is outright nastiness.

Whataboutery - which we know all about in Northern Ireland – and other fallacies are rolled out repeatedly as a way to dismiss messages or ideas without engaging with them.

There is also the rise of trolling, a web-enabled phenomenon, which is no more or less than casual invective designed to pass the time: a modern hobby.

Within dialogue of this nature, it is difficult to see how anyone would ever have their mind changed on an issue. Instead people will at best tend to identify with views they already hold.

Newspapers themselves – a major target for anyone looking for publicity – are trying to monetise their online presence and increasingly the model they follow is one harmonious with social media and its sharing potential.

One consequence of this blurring of the lines between traditional and social media is that, for example, a third-sector PR drive exists in the same zoo of data, claims and comment as all these other social media norms – not in a nebulous way, but directly.

Columnist Charlie Brooker went so far as to say that papers are the most dangerous drug in Britain, adding: “In its purest form, a newspaper consists of a collection of facts which, in controlled circumstances, can actively improve knowledge. Unfortunately, facts are expensive, so to save costs and drive up sales, unscrupulous dealers often "cut" the basic contents with cheaper material.”

Writing what one can get away with saying, rather than what is precisely correct, is nothing new in media practice.

Clickbait is the dismissive but entirely suitable term for articles designed to produce an initial WOW! but which either have little substance or are actually misleading. It seems on the increase and regardless provides obvious pitfalls for those with an honest message.

The risk is two-fold – firstly, PR scripts can be stretched for a headline-dominated approach and thus be self-diluting, while secondly those at the other end can perform their own contortions to fit sometimes dubious editorial desires.

This is all to be avoided - but these are not contrarian observations designed to invert the classic guidelines of storywriting, which include finding a polished top line which grabs attention. Journalism has no objective universal canons, but if it did the first rule should be “don’t be boring”.

However, equating a reasoned tone with the opposite of ready readability is wrong.

If you have an opinion or information worth sharing then there will be a way to communicate it both interestingly and with integrity.

This, precisely, is that above-mentioned finest line – and it is also the best way to change the minds of those who might initially doubt your message.

Keeping powder dry on the bombastic bomb blasts and opting for a slower-burning, measured tone will often be more honest. It’s also the best way to gain further support and perhaps the only way to stand out in a world burning with hyperbole.

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