The power of words

Col. Anthony J. Mastalir, 50th Space Wing vice commander

Col. Anthony J. Mastalir, 50th Space Wing vice commander


At the last Schriever Update, Chaplain (Maj.) Martin Adamson, 50th Space Wing Chapel office, shared an inspirational Presidents’ Day tribute. Indeed, several former U.S. Presidents have delivered powerful speeches with memorable lines that have endured the test of time.  Consider these classics: - “Fourscore and seven years ago…” - “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – “Ask not what your country can do for you…” - “Tear down this wall!” I suspect most of you recognize these lines and know when and who delivered them. 

However, you don’t have to live in the White House to harness the power of words. Effective communication skills may be the single, most important determinant of success, regardless of profession. This is certainly true in our Profession of Arms.  Consider all the varied ways we transmit information. We’ve developed a tactical lexicon for quick, concise communication on the battlefield. We’ve implemented an appraisal system to document individual work performance. Our awards and decorations process captures our most significant accomplishments. Strategic plans identify our organization’s mission, vision and priorities. We train public affairs specialists to shape our messages to the local community. Service leaders develop engagement strategies to communicate to Congress our most pressing needs. Across our enterprise, all ranks share the responsibility to master the art of the written and spoken word.  Here are a few tips to practice.

Get to the point, quickly. When I served on the Joint Staff, I routinely sent updates to the Chairman on a number of complex initiatives using no more than two or three sentences per topic—the Chairman doesn’t have the bandwidth for lengthy summaries. This is particularly challenging if you are the subject matter expert, when you believe the details are important. A good technique is to express the bottom line up front and then edit your writing like a ruthless killer. Your goal is to make every word count.

Best advice: be precise. Mark Twain famously said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” The English language includes more than 170,000 distinct words currently in use, and choosing the right word is critical. Consider your audience and be prepared to adjust your word choice accordingly. Avoid hyperbole—it diminishes your credibility and makes your ideas an easy target.

Avoid ambiguity. Good writers strive to be understood. Great writers ensure they are not misunderstood. I’m often reminded of that classic Saturday Night Live skit with Ed Asner as the retiring manager of a nuclear reactor. His parting words of wisdom were, "You can't put too much water in a nuclear reactor.” Then after he was gone and the reactor went critical, the staff debated if he meant don't put too much water in, or put lots of water in because no amount is too much.  Double negatives can create doubt in the reader’s mind, so avoid them if possible.

Be active. While perfectly acceptable in many cases, the use of passive voice is generally more difficult to interpret. I often receive situation reports written exclusively in passive voice: “At 1233z the satellite was commanded to safe mode.” I immediately wonder, “Who commanded the satellite? The on-duty crew? A nefarious adversary? An automated software subroutine?” I can usually decipher the answer as I continue reading, but I have to search for it. Do your readers a favor and identify the actor (or subject) at the beginning of the sentence. Active voice is easier to read, more interesting and generally more informative to the reader.

Whether you’re tasked to draft the next inaugural address or provide a simple project update to your boss, improving your communication skills should be at the forefront of your professional development plan. Your subject matter expertise is only useful to the extent you can clearly communicate your recommendations to your superiors. Take some time to polish your skills; it’s a valuable endeavor for any professional.