Why Johnny Candidate can’t read

Two words! That’s all you get, according to a story on web writing recently appearing on Boing Boing. Books, newspapers and letters get read… but websites and blogs only get looked at. It turns out that you really only have the space of the first two words to grab most readers’ attention on the web, perhaps even in e-mail. Therefore, according to “usability guru” Jakob Nielsen, you’re allowed to break certain writing rules on the web, such as using the passive voice in headlines, or switching words around in slightly manipulative order.

As my job now involves putting stuff on the web, this method feels intuitive. However, I first discovered this principle years ago — fumblingly — at the dawn of the Internet age. I had just graduated from college at a time when everyone started to get their own e-mail addresses. It was a time when my friends and family suddenly scattered physically to the four winds, and using e-mail to have important conversations appeared to be a great and affordable idea, particularly for me. Writing down my thoughts had always come naturally.

But no matter how carefully I crafted my words, how much I thought before sending, or strove for clarity and even brevity, a few of the people I was writing to just did not respond well. Conversations I wanted to have would either not develop, or worse, would get derailed. I gradually realized that some of my readers (people who I thought I knew well) were picking out certain words and phrases, and focusing on them – “hot-words” that for whatever reason had some strong effect on them. I thought I was being very straightforward, informative and responsive to them, but it occurred to me finally that some people only saw blah blah blah HOT-WORD! blah blah blah. The hot-words would either excite them, or make them angry and defensive.

It wasn’t until much later I comprehended that the human dynamics of Internet reading could have been a part of the problem, and that it wasn’t all just me, or just them. No doubt these dynamics affected my comprehension as well. Also, people read and write, but perhaps some do it to get along, and maybe don’t delight in reading and writing as much as I do. It’s just individual inclination — and that’s okay.

I did learn a lot about people by noticing (after much time!) what words and phrases set them off, either positively or negatively. It occurred to me that if I was so inclined, I could use this knowledge to communicate better with them, through more judicious use or avoidance of their hot-words. But this felt like a terribly manipulative concept as a whole (although avoiding negative hot-words is a good idea) so it’s an experiment I’ve never felt inclined to try with friends and family (I just pick up the phone instead).

Politicians, on the other hand… seem like fairer game.

There’s so much about the people running for office that we don’t know. Political platforms are somewhat useful in determining a candidate’s general values. But how much do we know about candidates’ reading and listening styles? I was further inspired to ask this question by reading the response thread to Sean Kirst’s Friday column on the county executive race — specifically, one commenter’s observation about how both Joanie Mahoney and Bill Magnarelli claimed to have read Team of Rivals, the book about Lincoln’s cabinet. (Not to skip over Sean’s actual column, which posed an important question at the end which I fear none of the candidates will ever hear.)

While knowing our candidates’ values and intentions are important, having a real sense of how and what they see, read and hear, is equally important. And how do we take advantage of such knowledge in order to better craft our own attempts at getting through to them about the things that really matter? This is basic survival knowledge for us as citizens (not just as voters). After all, we’re not just electing these guys — we’ve got to live with them for two or four years.

I don’t really know why Johnny Candidate can’t read… just that he’s not reading us. And that realization hurts. Year after year, citizens cede the communication battlefield to the political machine. In Lincoln’s time, debates were hours-long exercises where not only were politicians forced to reveal their positions in great detail, but the audience had a chance to evaluate the politicians’ listening styles. Today, political discourse is ever briefer and ever more controlled by interests that want to kill actual conversation — such as “town hall meetings” that provide the flimsiest illusion of real communication. (Simon reports at Living in Dryden on a local Meet the Candidates session where there was a failure to communicate.)

In personal relations, approaching communication as a “battlefield” is not wise. When it comes to politics, though, I think citizens have to develop an edge on those who would represent them. There’s no reason why politicians and their speechwriters and image-makers should have all the advantage, knowing our hot-words. We have to know more about their “hot-words” — not just the negative, but the positive… the words that make them excited with inspiration and get them in touch with the values that got them into politics in the first place. Their values may not be precisely in line with ours — but without their actions resting firmly on those values, nothing can move forward on civic ground.

What can communicators (not just writers) do about this? I think it would be helpful if people don’t treat their messages to politicians as a fait accompli. You have to check to see if the message has been received, and be willing to re-craft the message — restate the question or the demand. I think most of us can agree, the messages to local politicians are not being received, but why not? Can we learn more?

Strictly speaking, the headline of this post should have been “Why can’t Johnny Candidate read?” But if it got anyone to read this far, maybe Jakob Nielsen is right. To any friends and family reading, I apologize for the technique. To any politicians reading… no apology is offered!