July 24, 2006

Specific, Concrete, Winnable

During the final hour of the final day at the residency portion of my Americans for the Arts research fellowship my supervisor gave me some interesting feedback. We were reviewing my draft report and she said that I write my arguments like how I talk. She explained that once she read it in my voice she could understand what I was getting at. What I do is back into a point. Each sentence is a setup with a point at the end.

Intersting observation. I reflected on her observation and realized that it is true. Arguments begin with a long setup and then the actual statement, as though I am creating a pillow on which it can land. For the type of writing we are doing on this research my points need to be direct, sharp and immediate. The readers, who are staff and potentially funders, have to get an understanding clearly and quickly.

Now I’m not sure if it is because the research is new and the conclusions I’m drawing are still raw and therefore the points are still a bit amorphous. Or, if I need the setup to protect me from potentially looking stupid in making a point that has no backup. Perhaps it is that I am afraid to make a direct statement, bold and powerful and therefore I dance around it. Another factor may be my extroverted brainstorming approach to new ideas. I’ve found inspiration in Senator Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father. He too had to find his voice. At first Barack doesn’t know what he wants to say and then when he finds inspiration he has to learn to say it. A boss tells him, “Issues have to be made concrete, specific and winnable.”

As a young activist, Barack’s work is fuelled by frustration and anger. I too felt the same way when I began this research on midcareer leadership. Things had to change. But as I’ve worked through the interviews and research, creating my situation analysis and then making recommendations for change, I have a deeper and more mature understanding of the issue.

My supervisor said, “every time you get to a comma in your writing, see if you can make it a period instead. Get to the point.