Carefully chosen words can change the world. Phyllis Mindell taught me this lesson when I was 15 years old and she sits on my shoulder as I write columns for the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, New York.
As a columnist, I aim to inform, inspire and persuade. My work matters most when done on behalf of the powerless — lead-poisoned toddlers, children languishing in dysfunctional schools, mentally ill people who are mistreated by the criminal justice system.
In such cases, powerful language is critical. If I ever wrote a sentence like this, “I think we should make landlords clean up lead hazards to protect children,” a little Phyllis would show up on my shoulder, frowning. She wouldn’t leave until the unnecessary “I think” had been removed. She would sit there till the sentence read more like this, “Justice demands that your tax dollars don’t enrich landlords whose shoddy properties poison children.”
My father introduced me to Phyllis. He was an engineer for Xerox at the time and the corporation required him to take one of her communications courses. Most corporate trainings were a waste of energy, he said, but this lady’s class was different. He insisted that I meet her.
Phyllis was looking for a course assistant and I applied for the job. It was difficult for me to maintain eye contact during my interview because I couldn’t stop looking at the hundreds of books that stretched floor to ceiling in her office. She overlooked my faux pas, and took me on as her assistant.
I made copies and helped with seminar logistics at the Memorial Art Gallery. I was also allowed to take Phyllis’ courses on powerful and effective communication. The lessons were created for professionals, but even as a teenager I could see the value of powerful language, clear presentation and the importance of preparation. I could see how passive voice, weak “I” statements and disorganization hurt your chances of conveying information or convincing anyone of anything.
One of my duties was passing out 15-pound Webster’s unabridged dictionaries to seminar participants. She gave me one to keep and I lugged it along with me to Boston University, where I studied English and French Literature. I used it as a young journalist and today, it is held together with tape, and still frequently opened.
During my career, I have written thousands of articles and columns. My work has received awards from the New York Associated Press Association and the New York Association of News Publishers. I have appeared on NPR and CNN and delivered speeches at a variety of local colleges, schools and organizations. Long ago Phyllis told me that readers and audiences “deserve your best words.” I have tried to deliver.
Even in this sped-up age of information overload, carefully chosen words can still elevate. Thoughtful phrases are needed. Communication — true communication — matters more than ever.