Distill Your Message for Maximum Strength

NINETEENTH-CENTURY CIVIL SERVICE EXAMINATIONS IN CHINA were so difficult that they played an indirect part in the death of more than twenty million people. Hong Xiuquan failed them repeatedly. Finally he had a breakdown, and instead of working for the Qing emperor, he lead the Taiping rebellion.

Among the requirements, candidates had to write poetry. One sardonic business writer saw an advantage to this: “It was known, finally, that it is virtually impossible to find an order of merit among people who have been examined in different subjects. Since it is impracticable to decide whether one man is better in geology than another man in physics, it is at least convenient to be able to rule them both out as useless.”

It occurs to me that the ability to write poetry may not have been such an odd qualification for a civil servant. If the poetry had to be flowery and verbose it wouldn’t help, but the skill of writing something like haiku could definitely be useful for communication, not just in government but in any organisation, and especially when talking to customers.

Less Is More
Being able to find words that evoke feelings is a talent that not everyone possesses. Another skill in short form poetry (which can be learned) is to throw out words that don’t add anything. Compare it to a distillery. At the beginning of the distillation process, there’s a lot of water in the mix. As it is removed, the whiskey gets stronger.

We get older and learn to handle “ten dollar” words. We know how to build long complicated sentences. We’re tempted to display our skill, but writing is like playing a musical instrument. Just because you can fill the air with notes doesn’t mean you should. What’s left out often makes the difference.

So it’s as simple as that? Was there really a story here? Well, if your writing doesn’t have the magic of poetry, perhaps it’s “anti-poetry”, unmusical and prosaic, repelling your readers instead of attracting them. If you don’t pay attention to your writing style, you could get into the habit of using jargon (as distinct from technical terms which have to be used in specialist fields). Jargon replaces ordinary words. It sounds more impressive – that’s the purpose – but doesn’t add meaning.

Words Beat Jargon
If you’re busy, do you really have to talk about “bandwidth”? Is there any need for the word “ideation” – do we get ideas nowadays in some new way that can’t be expressed in English? No – and yes, if you search other posts in this blog you may find that I’m guilty of jargon too – we all have to prune it back constantly. Jargon impresses naïve hearers or readers, but others will be annoyed. Some will wonder whether you’re covering up your insecurity. Why alienate part of your audience? Showing off with words is like showing off your money – it can be fun but it won’t make you real friends.

The more you distill your message the stronger it will be.

4 thoughts on “Distill Your Message for Maximum Strength”

    1. Didn’t know that – Presumably that historical approach continued through Nationalism/Mao periods? In which case I assume a lot of today’s Chinese/HK educational thinking must be rooted in the requirements of the exam


      1. the current GaoKao was created in 1952 and suspended from 1966-1977 – as it is effectively also a university entrance exam and the universities were closed during the cultural revolution.
        It is widely considered to be the highest pressure exams in the world. Effectively all subjects are examined in the same period, once per year.


      2. So presumably the reason why Chinese education is so different in style to British education is the influence of the civil service exam? No doubt the overseas Chinese in Singapore share something of that culture, but I imagine their exposure to the West is what caused the debate a few years ago about whether they were missing out on creativity.


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