Teri Orr: How you say, what you say
August 22, 2014
Somewhere in high school I was diagnosed with sensitive teeth. My dentist suggested I use a special toothpaste and avoid very hot or cold beverages. About the same time, my eye doctor diagnosed me with light-sensitive eyes. Wearing dark glasses in the daylight was a good idea for me whenever possible. I adapted to these lifelong challenges and am reminded of my limitations only when I forget them on a daily basis.
Somewhere, just a bit later in life, during my brief stint in college, before I dropped out to major in motherhood, I discovered another sensitivity that was a raw nerve. It had to do with folks using and misusing words. Latching onto catch phrases and repeating them and beating them until they lost any intended meaning. "Right on," or as my slightly goofy sister thought she heard, "right arm." It meant you agreed with something/someone in an enthusiastic way. "Far out" meant something positive and out of your comfort zone perhaps. "Farm out," my sister would say with great enthusiasm. "Peace out" might have been a derivative of a Christian benediction, "go in peace." But it somehow had a drug-hazed, anti-war, cloud-infused, muted meaning.
All my adult life I have been overly sensitive to jargon jockeys… folks who grab a current buzz word or phrase and ride them until they have lost all impact and meaning. It really does hurt my ears and someplace deep in my brain to hear words like stakeholders repeated in a mantra. I don’t think of people who have a shared interest in an organization and its outcome. I think of a mob coming after vampires. It is all rather confusing.
I had a journalism professor who took apart brand names and made us examine how meaningless so many of them were. I just remember we spent an entire class period on how inane "Best Foods" was and that image said nothing, spoke volumes and gave people a false sense of security, at least when applied to mayonnaise.
A couple of years ago I was in a workshop where we were asked to create our own brand… for ourselves. Brand Teri, as it were, in my case. It needed a vision and mission and a logo. I failed miserably at this. I couldn’t imagine myself a Nike Swoosh or a Golden Arch, or robin’s egg blue box. And slogans to define oneself were limitless and kinda funny and luckily I was with a bunch of folks who dissolved into giggles at the idea of "marketing" ourselves like a soda or box of cereal. Someday I should share Team Richard with you.
Though I played organized sports with others, I was always happiest running solo or doing flips on the uneven bars in gymnastics or other solitary pursuits. Teams dug up emotions of being picked last or bringing down or disappointing others. I understand, in the military you need to rely on each other, on "your unit." In the real world, it helps to have folks who "have your back" and you theirs. But everyone isn’t successful being part of team. Having "their team." Creating a team. Planning with a team. "Visioning" with a team. See Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Anna Deavere Smith. Janis Joplin.
"Best practices" I hear like Best Foods. It is overused and abused and it means nothing taken apart and yet it has come to signify a kind of acceptable average. It is shorthand for "the way a bunch of others do things that doesn’t seem to draw attention or create innovation or can bore you to tears when expressed repeatedly."
Core Values…. What do you believe in and what motivates you to act or react to a situation, law, wronged person or institution. Core and values. Best and Foods. I see one of those machines that drills into the earth and pulls out a core of solid rock in a colorful strata. And I am drawn to the layers and nuances between them. And the colors that define them. The spaces between the spaces. And the colors that make us all the more layered and original.
Vision and wisdom and good decision making don’t come in sound bites or catch phrases, no matter how often they are repeated. Trust doesn’t come from the colors you choose to use to sell your product, though the book "Drunk Tank Pink" makes a lot of good points about how colors can cause us to act and react. As soon as you start defining someone as an iconoclast, the definition has lost its meaning.
It is hard work to find words strung together in an original fashion that encourage original thought. Verbal and written shorthand seems so much easier. And it is. It just rarely fully communicates your intentions, emotions, directives, inspirations, dreams, desires, frustrations, and wild imaginations.
As kids head back to school I am reminded learning is a lifelong endeavor. E.B. White is remembered by editors and others everywhere for creating the penultimate book on writing (and speaking) clearly. It all boils down to "omit unnecessary words." I would love to add to that sentiment "and overused, meaningless, catch phrases."
It isn’t much but it might just quiet some of the squirrel-like incessant, high-pitched chatter, this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.