Thursday, January 6, 2011

When a committee edits your work

When members of the Continental Congress – 1776 – picked away at Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson received kindly advice from the veteran writer Benjamin Franklin. Franklin told Jefferson that it's always frustrating to have others edit your work. He backed up his advice with this example:
"I have made a rule, whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, 'John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,' with a figure of a hat subjoined. But thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments.

The first he showed it to thought the word 'Hatter' tautologous, because followed by the words 'makes hats,' which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word 'makes' might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy them, by whomsoever made. He struck it out.

A third said he thought the words 'for ready money' were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, 'John Thompson sells hats.' 'Sells hats!' says the next friend. 'Why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?' It was stricken out, and 'hats' followed it, the rather as there was one painted on the board.

So the inscription was reduced ultimately to 'John Thompson,' with the figure of a hat subjoined."
Lesson for present-day communicators? Whoever you are – John Thompson the young hat maker or Tom Jefferson the proclaimer of national independence – you can always, always expect other people to change your words.



Jerry said...

This is great example of effective naming.

I encounter many clients that are intent of saying far too much in their name. Brevity is probably the most important criteria for a name.

Oddly, the hatter benefited from the public commentary yet Ben concluded:

"I have made a rule, whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body."

Perhaps if he was still around, he would add "Instead, trust your brand identity consultant."

brandsinger said...

Very witty - Thanks, Jerry.


Larry Ackerman said...

Brief may be fine when it comes to names and taglines, but it can be disastrous when it comes to drafting hard-hitting, memorable, behavior-changing brand promises.

I recently submitted a brand promise statement to a health care company for management review. It was an unusually visceral, gutsy promise about what it means to be committed to members.

Some execs were truly blown away and loved it. Some were wary but OK, and some felt it was over the top and "not them."

The meeting produced a variety of proposed edits, which if taken as a group, would de-fang the promise to the point where it would simply be yet another example of corporate speak - safe and ball-less.

Luckily, this isn't likely to happen, given the nature of the senior executive in charge. But if it gets to that point, I'm callin' Ben in to make a special appearance at the next board meeting.

brandsinger said...

Thanks for the real-world example, Larry. I agree that a too-brief, overly general and de-fanged statement is worthless guidance for a brand. On the other hand, I've seen wonderfully written, literary masterpieces that can't offer specific guidance either.

Let's all agree that brief with fangs is best (but not briefs with fangs -- those would be painful).


Anonymous said...

But you can always expect good writers to change their own words, too. Jefferson once famously asked a letter recipient to forgive him the length of the letter because he was so busy, and "If I had more time, it would be shorter."

brandsinger said...

Yes, Anonymous, this certainly applies to the Franklin anecdote. As they mulled it over and questioned every word, the darn thing got shorter and shorter.

If I spent too much time editing, I'd probably wind up throwing most of my stuff away. Nothing is as short as it gets.

Anonymous said...

Having seen this hat sign story in a book on clear software programming style (Code Complete, I think), I use the idea in order to try to keep my object naming from getting out of control. I found your page today while googling for the story to show another developer, while we did the thinking work to create the perfect function call name. Our first proposal? GetMirrorPrimaryDataSource(). Our final answer? ActiveServer().