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Opinion: Between the lines

Four ways to use specificity in your communication

By: Tiffany Markman | 25 Nov 2011 12:49
My grandmother was a remarkable woman. Outspoken. Opinionated.
She did yoga years before it was chic. She grew bean sprouts in jars under the sink before they were considered health food. When my grandpa proposed, she asked for a fridge instead of a diamond ring. She was English-speaking but she taught me Afrikaans. And to read. When I was three.

She was deeply practical. And she was known for a passionate attachment to nuance. To detail. Nothing drove her more crazy than inaccuracy.

She had a tracksuit. (And she wasn't a tracksuit person. She was a patterned-dress-with-matching-belt person. She wore cardigans. And sensible shoes.) The tracksuit was blue. But every time you suggested she wear her blue tracksuit, she'd say, "It's not blue. It's turquoise, dammit!" She was right.
  1. If there's a more accurate way to say something, say it

    Don't tell your audience you're a blogger. Tell them you're a travel blogger, a food blogger, a fashion blogger. Don't say you're in the financial sector; say you're an investment banker. Don't write about your year-end function. Write about the company's summer picnic. Its gala banquet. Its Arabian night.

    I've always believed that the best communication is the kind that happens via detail. People buy into ideas, concepts, brands and messages much more quickly when they are (or seem) real and intricate. Or genuine and random.

  2. Don't give your reader an 'either-or'. Just give one option.

    If you're honest with yourself, it's a waste of words to write things such as:
    • "It's either right or it's wrong."
    • "Use short sentences, not long sentences."
    • "Would you like to proceed, or not?"
    Give a single option. The positive one. And let people assume the alternative.

  3. Don't say things that are the opposite of what you mean

    "Where are my car keys? I'm sure I left them on the entrance hall table."

    But I'm not sure. In fact, I'm completely unsure. We do this a lot. We say, "I'm a bit hungry," when we mean, "I'm bleedin' ravenous." We write, "It was literally freezing." But guess what? It wasn't. It was just a bit overcast. At most.

    Get into the habit of using words that accurately reflect your meaning and the extent to which what you are saying is true. So if you're completely uncertain about the location of your keys, say, "I have no idea where my keys are."

    This technique of taking ownership of, and responsibility for, your meaning injects your writing and speaking with a lot of credibility and a lot of gravity.

  4. Wherever possible, draw the reader or listener a picture

    If I tell you about a "big tree", can you imagine the tree I mean? Is it spiky or feathery? Leafy or stark? Straight or crooked? You don't really know.

    But if I say "Jacaranda", you see a picture in your head. It's probably purple. And in a few seconds, we're both seeing the same thing. We're connected.
Remember that when you use accurate and specific nouns, and proper nouns (names) wherever possible, your readers or listeners can create pictures in their minds. And then they know exactly what you mean. Message: received.

So, it's not a tiny puppy; it's a Yorkshire terrier. It's not a fancy car; it's a Bentley. It's not a delicious meal; it's a mezze platter. Got it? Thanks. Enjoy.

About Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman is a highly opinionated freelance copywriter, copy editor and writing trainer who has worked for over 180 clients in South Africa and across the world. She is an EMPOWERDEX-certified EME who hates misplaced apostrophes and dangling modifiers but loves pizza and pina coladas. Read more at, reach her anytime on , follow @tiffanymarkman on Twitter and sign up for her newsletter.
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Tiffany Markman
My mother-in-law, a grammarian, had this comment about my article (I liked it so much I'm posting it for her...):

"'I am sure' uses modality to express a high degree of certainty, as in 'I am certain that I left the keys on the table': A statement that expresses high certainty is different from categorical statements that express truth. For this you need tense - the keys are on the table or I left the keys on the table. And you are right: 'I'm sure' does mean that I am not sure. But it doesn't mean that 'I haven't got a clue.'" - Prof Hilary Janks, AELS, Wits
Posted on 28 Nov 2011 16:45
Donald Pillai
You are magnificent!
Posted on 28 Nov 2011 16:29
Tiffany Markman
Ah, I'm blushing!
Posted on 28 Nov 2011 16:42