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We have all heard the saying, “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” I never doubted that statement until recently. I got to thinking about what you could do with 1,000 words and I discovered that with far less than 1,000 words one could write the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, the Hippocratic Oath, a sonnet by Shakespeare, the preamble to the Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Boy Scout oath. I submit to you that those 1,000 words are worth more than any picture on this earth. Words are important, and it’s important to keep them clear and concise.
When I was a student at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, I heard a story that had a profound influence on my speaking and writing. I do not remember the man, but he was an outstanding speaker and writer. He talked about how he finished seminary and was sent to a church as its preacher. He worked long and hard on his sermon. He wanted to impress the people with his education. He wanted them to know that he knew the meaning of scholarship.
On Saturday morning someone knocked at his door. There he met a woman who was elderly and plainly dressed. She told him she was a member of his church, but she lived alone and was poor and couldn’t contribute any money to the church. She told him she made a living by cleaning clothes for other people. Because she wanted to contribute something, and because he wasn’t married, she offered to pick up his clothes and wash them for him.
He noticed that her back was stooped, her hands were rough and he knew that she was acquainted with hard work. But he also saw in her a beautiful spirit of love and of giving. He realized that she would not understand the sermon that he was prepared for the next morning. He worked all day rewriting the sermon with that woman in mind. He felt that nobody in church was more important. He told us from then on, he never wrote a sermon she wouldn’t understand.
That story has a lot to do with shaping my writing and speaking. I work hard never to use a word that I don’t feel every person would understand. It isn’t difficult for someone to learn new big words to put in a talk or column. They may even impress some people that they’re knowledgeable, but that’s not really the purpose of good communication.
I don’t expect everybody to agree with everything I say. But it is my business to be sure that people understand what I say and write.
I’ll probably never write an article or make a presentation that I am completely satisfied with. But I keep working at it in the spirit of the artist who was asked, “What is your greatest painting?” He replied, “My next one.” I feel that my greatest article or talk is somewhere out in front of me and I’ll keep working toward the end of keeping my words clear and concise.
Bob Mueller is the vice president of development at Hosparus. The views expressed in this column are those of the writer.