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“How Can I Help You?”

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Hungry for Power Vs. Repairing the World

This question is an invitation—a beautiful invitation.

If you ask me how you can help, I have an immediate gut response: “Yes! Wait. What do I need right now?” Your question makes me an active participant in my life. The question reminds me I have choices to make about my needs. Do I need someone to hold a door or a wrench or a flashlight? Do I need a kick in the butt or a power nap?

What I need right now depends on what I am trying to do at this moment. But longer term, what does an employee need from a boss to do her job? What does a student need from an instructor to apply these writing lessons to his life? You can see the question initiates a call and response—like most everything with communication. A question that needs an answer. A draft followed by a revision.

From Christian theology, I might call the question an artifact of kenosis, that notion of self-giving that is so hard for us power-hungry humans to live out. Then again, maybe it is less an artifact and more an aspiration. Maybe the question is a statement about the person I hope to become: caring and thoughtful and using my time and attention to help you reach your goal. But still aspirational, because I have a feeling you may actually tell me what you need. And then I have to put down my book or turn off the TV or be late to work to help you.

No matter how you look at it, the question asks you to know something about yourself and about your journey through life. What do you need to move forward in your journey right now? Back to theology for a moment: The psalmists who wrote the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134 in the Christian Bible) knew to query the creator and to articulate their need, whether for food or stability or growth or to beat up enemies. These authors (and generations of people who pray) had the sense that the Holy One was waiting in the wings with lovingkindness (“chesed”). They (the authors along with the many who pray) made a career of depending on that offer of help.

Maybe our use of the “How can I help you?” depends on the psalmist’s impulse. We thwart our own power-hungry instincts when we ask it of those who have no chance of moving us forward. But we ask it because of the kind of people we want to be and because we believe there is a deep well of chesed out there.

Maybe we ask “How can I help you?” because we are weary of constant rage and yearn for a vocation of repairing the world.

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Image credits: Kirk Livingston

Business Writing Can Be Better

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Let’s Worm Backwards to Walk Forward

Our goal is to say or write our idea more clearly.

Along the way we’ve picked up this notion that there might be more to communication than us just delivering thin slices of thought from head to mouth (or pen/keyboard)to our boss’s brainpan. We’re starting to think the process of communication does a bit of turbocharging to the idea and to the people on either end of the idea.

Reopen your own Thoughtfulness Shop to communicate well.

Take It From a Copywriter

That turbocharging is exactly what James Webb Young counted on. Young was an advertising copywriter who lived and wrote in the last century. His goal was to express ideas for money—he marketed products. So old ideas, cliched ideas, worn-out words and weary images—none of that would do. All that dated content was the same as saying, “Let your eyeballs slide past—you’ve seen this before and it doesn’t matter.”

Young held a particular fascination for two phases of pre-writing: preparation and organizing. His love of revision may not have been far behind. He thought new ideas were just recombinations of old ideas, so he did his best to fill his brain with all he could find out about a new product or new project or new assignment. Part of the copywriter’s role in the world is to ask the most elementary questions, because forcing experts to simplify can reveal profound truths. He wanted to know everything, much like British copywriter Tony Brignull.

Asking questions, getting information, and then stripping ideas and combining and recombining ideas and then joining ideas that are impossible to join and then splitting ideas that are fused—all this until exhaustion sets in. And then the walk-away and then, if all goes well, the “Eureka!” Read more in Young’s book A Technique for Producing Ideas.

Why Business Writing Sucks

It’s because writing is not our job. We’re engineers. Or scientists. Or physicians. Or managers. Our job is that noun or verb in our title, not writing. We’re doers, dammit! But we’re also humans, and humans learn by telling and by listening. It’s our time-honored way of becoming less stupid.

But because our work-time is focused on the important stuff of our job, we miss the important stuff of being human together. So we pick words and images from the last decade to express our new idea and then slap them on paper or PowerPoint as quickly as possible to stop the pain of writing. And then we wonder why no one cares and why the boss with the budget won’t listen.

Good communication means digging deep into why something matters. Often that involves self-revelation which also might call forth emotion. These are things humans use to communicate.

Worm Your Way Back into Your Process

To communicate in powerful ways, we must prepare ourselves and our message.

If we expect it to just happen, if we expect to throw-together some presentation, we doom ourselves to ready-made clichés and images, which are guaranteed to be ignored.

Powerful communication means going back to gather information, to ask what we want to accomplish, to think about our audience, to combine old ideas to get new ideas, to worry these ideas on paper until a fresh, revealing communication portal opens.

Along the way, expect a turbocharge that changes the idea, that changes the thinker (you), and might possibly change your relationship with the person at the other end of the conversation.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

The Path

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