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My Inbox and Twitter feeds keep serving up more fish.

My Inbox and Twitter feeds keep serving up more fish.

Our last post dealt with bulk, unsolicited – i.e., SPAM – messages pretending to be from banks. Since then, I have come across an additional form of SPAM that is relevant to my interest in plain language: that which claims to be from individuals we know, and which comes to us ‘from’ them via their mail or Twitter account.

These new examples show that just because something’s plain, doesn’t mean we trust it. Other elements always come into play in how we receive the message.

A fish of a different odour…

Both messages resulted from someone hacking into those real people’s actual accounts, then pretending to be that person. So they looked to actually be from an individual I know, not a faceless sender in a large company.

Both are from colleagues in other cities: people I have not yet met in-person, but whom I know from years as fellow plain-language practitioners. I’ve written to both of these folks several times over the years, and participated with them on discussion groups. So, I know how they sound when they ‘talk’ online.

So when I saw the notes ‘from’ them this past week, I knew something was up. They were both clear, so no problem understanding them. They both used short words and a conversational tone. Again, totally plain language.

But what made me smell fish was the tone of voice and choice of words each of them used.

Message #1: The ‘help me get back home’ scam

The first, much longer message was ‘from’ one of them who lives about five hours away. Except it said she was out of the country, and that she had been mugged. She was writing me because, left with no way to get back home, she was hoping I would wire her some money … okay, you already see the commonality between this and other SPAM notices.

But before I even got to the request for money, I already sensed it was a bogus message. First, the context was all wrong. I’d only expect to get a longish message from this person if it was about our mutual work in our professional association. The other thing that tipped me off was the first line, which said ‘How are you doing today? I know this might surprise you, I apologize for not informing you about my travel to England for a Conference…’

Knowing this person in the professional capacity – and knowing her to be an excellent writer – I wouldn’t have expected her to sound like this. Clear and direct or not – I knew I couldn’t trust the message to be authentic; the first few lines sounded ‘canned.’

Message #2: The ‘someone’s saying stuff about you’ lure

The other message was shorter, and sent to me via Twitter. It was from an Australian colleague this time, one with whom I’ve corresponded over the past month or so. It was a direct message to me that said ‘Someone has been spreading rumors about you’ and gave a TinyUrl link.

Again, it looks like a normal tweet, and its meaning is crystal clear. But it still smells like fish. Again, the tone is all wrong for the context. (I was also surprised to see an Aussie spelling ‘rumor’ without a ‘u’ – but that’s a fiddly editor’s matter most normal readers might not notice.) So I did not click the link.

In both cases, even though the message had come directly from these people, I emailed both right away and learned that their email and Twitter accounts had indeed been hacked into.

The point of regurgitating even more SPAM (and of mixing canned meat with smelly fish metaphors) …?

Plain language writers sometimes need to counter the common perception that ‘plain language’ means a ‘dumbed down’ form of language that most people would find patronizing, because it boils the subtleties and beauty of language into monotonous-sounding, Dick and Jane-style narratives.

These two examples struck me in how they were so clear and direct – in fact, overly so – and it was because they didn’t fit with either the senders’ typical tone of voice or the context of my relationship with them that I knew they were fakes.

And similarly, our readers won’t trust what we write if it still does not sound authentic. And, if it doesn’t sound authentic, then it was not truly written with the reader’s needs in mind.

True plain language writing only does its job of communicating effectively if it also captures the human element with the right tone, context and choice of words. Thus, it embodies much more than short words and sentences.

If you're reading this, you probably have one of these.

CBC Radio One aired an interview this morning about the problems that arise when people pass away without having addressed how to manage their “digital footprint” or “digital legacy” after they’re gone. Today’s show was prompted by the latest effort in Nebraska to propose legislation to allow next of kin to control digital accounts after a user has passed away

I’ve faced this dilemma over the past year, when facebook asked me if I wanted to be friends with my recently-passed mother-in-law.

You see, she fully had no more intention of leaving anytime near when she set up her account, than we had of seeing her go. If she did leave instructions to take down her profile (which I suspect not), they have not yet been satisfied.

Even while I’ve hit the little x when my poor mom-in-law’s profile box appeared – a bizarrely final thing to do anyway – her name and photo still show up each time I search on fb for a name starting with the same first few letters as hers (I simply cannot bring myself to delete another good friend’s contact info from any of my lists, even though she’s been gone for four years now).

One of the people interviewed today on CBC says that facebook is just starting to tackle this issue, having dealt with requests to take down pages from people not even related to someone…or of people still very much alive. It’s sad.

And, it’s become rather insidious, as noted by this site, appropriately titled Death and Digital Legacy. A more well-known example mentioned on that site is of Janna Moore Morin, who died violently and unexpectedly, but whose facebook profile has taken on its own momentum in the two years since her death.

Some think that the directing of all these data toward us – whether we’ve asked for them or not – is a part of a larger, more sinister movement to hyper-market to us by using info about us gotten from our digital footpath, and feeding us only the information related to those preferences – and of course, to the products that can help us further feed the image of ourselves we’ve put out there. The Daily You by Joe Turow explores this more closely, and Professor Turow blogs about these issues regularly on Media Today and Tomorrow.

Would you want to share every part of your digital legacy?
Getting back to the more general issue of the digital footprint, another point made this morning was about including it as a line item in our long-term plan. Aside your will, insurance papers and other instructions in your emergency plan, we’re being advised to ensure we have a list of all of our online accounts and their entry passwords, which we give to our partner or someone else we trust…just in case.

But what if there are accounts we only use for the stuff we don’t ever want people to know? (Course, you might argue quite rightly, as many have done, that you should never exchange anything online that you wouldn’t want shared.) And after you’re gone, well, it’s really all quite moot anyway, right?

Have you considered your digital legacy?

But what if, by sharing that info with your partner, you’re leaving yourself open to that trusted person using that information, er, before they need to? Then, if you do have some things to hide, you could be discovered while you’re still here to have to deal with the fallout?

These couple examples are likely just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Once you engage with something that is capable of transmitting every one of your deets across the planet and back, these things are now part of your baggage, whether you like it or not.

Still not sure you should be worried? Click the video on the right side of the Death and Digital Legacy site. Follow Digital Nick and his exploits, which only magnify in interest…only problem is, the real Nick has died.

Sometimes, I admit, I work through my lunch hour even when working at home. But the Have you had your plus sign today?way I lighten things up is by flipping on yesterday’s Y&R episode. You really don’t have to turn toward the screen to know what’s happening with soaps, after all.

This is especially true of commercials which — as many know — are often louder than the show you’re watching and, during daytime TV, are often about healthcare, household or cleaning products (hence the term Soap Opera, right?)

But the other day, I heard three in a row that were refreshingly clear and positive. Which is probably why I actually easily could remember and write down their key slogans when they were long over:

  • The Ontario Government (really!), promoting the Flu Shot: “Making our immune system stronger.”
  • Rogers (yes, again, really!) advertising its new electronic home security package: “Stay connected. Stay close.”
  • The Canadian Sport for Life movement’s campaign to prevent childhood obesity and promote lifelong physical activity’s “Active for Life” campaign.

I’ve written here before about drug commercials: their droning background voices, scrolling tiny-type disclaimers and negative side-effect warnings. But the above three were nothing like that. With each slogan, you know immediately what you stand to gain. It’s the “WIIFM” factor we always hear about.

They’re also aspirational: A statement of the organization’s goal in providing the service, rather than a focus on what it’s trying to prevent (massive flu epidemics, risks to someone’s home and family and obesity respectively). And, as is often the case with strong messages, they’re all in the simplest of language.

You still may not feel that you want or need any of these options; and, if you’re like me, you’ll be skeptical about what’s behind the messages in these three ads. But at least you can easily grasp their expressed benefits.

Quite a contrast to other ads that focus on risk and make readers/viewers retain long streams of information about all of the possible negative consequences the buyer might face.

E-mail was a newer toy back in the early '00s.

Back in 2003, I wrote a grad school paper that analyzed the flaws of e-mail communication: how our content and tone can lead to people getting a different meaning than what we intend – and how the results can be disastrous!

Now, that was back when we didn’t yet use handhelds to converse with friends and colleagues. We were still mainly using online Webmail or some kind of ‘e-mail client’ such as Outlook.

So we still hadn’t established so many of the conventions we now use to send words across the ether: No emoticons, shortcuts for txtng or little graphical additions to clarify our intent. We had to rely much more on the tone of our messages to ensure we got across the way we wanted.

What’s this got to do with the Save button?

Lots.

Through much embarrassing trial-and-error of my own, I’ve learned something about e-mail: One should never fire off a hastily-typed message about something important right away.

Okay, maybe you’ve got one of those jobs where you barely have time to pee, let alone think through every important message before hitting Send. But really, even (and maybe, especially) you will benefit from making the Save button your friend.

Anyone who’s lost a long document because they didn’t save their changes can tell you that the Save button is aptly-named: it even saves your *ss if you’re working under a tight deadline!

Save is your friend, before you click Send…

The same goes for e-mail. Taking a few more seconds to review your message before clicking Send will help you catch more than just typos – you may also often find that you’ve forgotten to enter something critical that would really have helped them understand better. And if you’re like me, you may also realize that you’ve included far more info than they need or can use at that time.

So see if it works for you. Here’s how:

  1. Blast out your message, fingers a-flying.
  2. Click on Save (and minimize if you need privacy)
  3. Go get a tea or your chosen consumable.
  4. Come back and re-read, with a refreshed focus.
  5. Edit as needed. Then – and only then – click on Send.

After repeating these steps a few times, you may also find yourself reconsidering whether to send the message at all (really!). It could be that you actually don’t need to respond until you have more time or information. And after all, with all the info we don’t need that we all already receive, this could mean you’re doing someone a favour by not sending it.

This Hallowe’en weekend, some people complained after the Royal Canadian Legion in Campbellford awarded first prize to the person wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume.

The legion’s president issued its official apology for their questionable judgement (this labelling is not just according to my values; they had to know that this might affect their reputation).

She said:

“I humbly apologize to all those offended by the events that took place at our Halloween party on October the 30th, 2010. The events in no way reflect the views of the royal Canadian legion or its members. Those responsible have been spoken to.”

In my view, this apology is a classic example of how we still use passive, indirect language when forced to take account for our mistakes. It reminds me of another phrase I often put up at workshops:

“Mistakes have been made. Others will be blamed.”

After all, was the Legion prez only apologizing to the people who were offended? What about the others, who thought they deserved a prize? And who spoke to those responsible? What did they say?

No wonder people have a hard time finding meaning in  an apology like this, no matter their education level.

Why? Because it takes the doers out of the actions and – in this case – isn’t that clear on the actions, either.

What would I have said? Something more along these lines:

“I humbly apologize about the events that took place at our Halloween party on October 30, 2010. They in no way reflect our views or those of our members. We have alerted the people responsible of how inappropriate their behaviour was. We will only let them continue to come here in future on probationary terms.”

I heard this morning on Newstalk 1010 that at least four major Canadian papers have published on their cover pages graphic photos from the Russell Williams case.

As a clear writing specialist, I usually support openness in communications, including on the news media. But I’m surely not the only person who thinks we don’t need to see what kind of twisted taste in underwear some unfortunate military leader has.

I don’t care if it echoes that kind of in-yo’-face journalistic style that the kids are finding ‘just so random and sick’ nowadays. There are just some things we should not have to see, unless we actively seek them out. Our children do not need to stumble upon that kind of depravity on their way home from school. There’s enough we have to explain to them already, about the ways people and the world can go horribly wrong.

And there are already lots of places for the more curious among us to go, if we really are compelled to see the photographic proof. We’re on one of them right now.

footinmouthEdmonton-Calder Conservative MLA Doug Elniski’s now-infamous Grade 9 graduation speech sure has given us an example this week of why it’s important to carefully choose both your words and the context in which you use them.

This guy got the message wrong on so many levels when he said – then posted on his blog for all to read – the following:

“Ladies, always smile when you walk into a room, there is nothing a man wants less than a woman scowling because he thinks he is going to get s–t for something and has no idea what.”

“Men are attracted to smiles, so smile, don’t give me that ‘treated equal’ stuff. If you want Equal, it comes in little packages at Starbucks.”

With my somewhat leftist and definitely feminist leanings, I could easily pile on and condemn this poor sap for going on record with such a backward message to young girls. But I think others have already done that quite adequately (here’s an example from Rabble.com). I would like to instead analyze his messaging from a more objective standpoint.

One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a plain language writer is that the message you think you’re sending and the one people actually get can be on polar opposite ends of the scale. I.e., the proverbial road to hell paved with good intentions.

Saying things plainly can get you into even more hot water. I’ve had lots of clients who, once they saw what their message ‘translated’ into in plain language, decided to delete the message altogether. And then there are those other times where what you do not say is just as telling as what you do say.

In Elniski’s case, what he says he was attempting to do was a take-off on a routine by a comedian which, in its own context, was likely taken with tongue planted firmly in cheek by its audience. So maybe he was trying to make some kind of connection by being all hip and plugged-in.

As my husband will tell all who’ll listen, when I’m walking around unsmiling in his proximity, it’s usually means he is in trouble. And with men and their fabled ‘need to fix things’ attitude (a la Mars and Venus theorist John Gray), he right away feels he must do something to fix my mood.

So okay, I kind of get what he means. And, in and of itself, the statement “Men are attracted to smiles” is in fact accurate though in this context, it begs the question of what we women are attracted to.

But his problem is that he took a message from one context and plunked it into a graduation address for grade nine boys and girls, many of whom likely didn’t get the comedic reference at all. And worseperhaps again attempting to display his with-it ness – he posted the same message on his blog (which of course has since been taken down in the wake of the controversy).

Granted, the fact that he used this message singling out girls is inherently patronizing and sexist – I don’t disagree with that. But I think he meant well in how he tried to package what he said to make it relatable for young people. But he instead he lived out the lesson a wise person once told me: “When you’re in the hole, stop digging!”

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