An Effort to Understand is available for immediate purchase—on Amazon, or anywhere you buy your books—in print, in Kindle and as an audiobook, narrated by me.
Communicators will love it, and speechwriters especially. It opens with an original narrative about the JFK speech in Indianapolis—the speech from which the book takes its title—and ends with the closing lines of that speech, with a ton of fun, closely observed communicators’ wisdom inside. What’s not to love?
But for radio interviews and book talks, I’m having to explain briefly to a general audience exactly what it is that writers like me and you have to teach non-writers, about communication.
What writers have, I’m beginning to tell these interviewers, is a habit of mind that involves taking temporary leave of one’s own attitude-packed head and putting oneself into the empty head of a random reader who is stumbling on this subject innocently. Or even better yet, into imagined head of a specific reader who greets our communication with a clear point of view of his or her own.
That’s what communicators do. That’s what everybody must learn to do.
My writer parents’ favorite story was one my dad would tell, and I tell it in my book:
One morning on vacation in Florida, my dad stood on the hotel balcony, gazing at the ocean.
He spotted a young boy, walking down the beach alone.
Below my dad on another balcony, another unseen boy called out to the boy on the beach.
The boy on the beach looked over briefly, but kept walking.
“Jake!” the boy below repeated.
But the boy kept walking.
“Jake! Jake! Jake!” the boy below cried.
Finally the boy on the beach stopped, turned squarely toward the hotel, reared back and yelled, “Can’t you see, I’m some other kid?!”
I’m some other kid! I can still hear my dad repeating the line at the top of his lungs, over my mother’s roaring laughter.
The kid was a pure communicator. His natural skill—to see the scene from the other kid’s point of view—that’s a skill every well-intentioned American citizen needs to cultivate, if only to understand others well enough to make ourselves understood, to them.
Alas, most of the professional communicators I’ve surrounded myself with over the years haven’t had the luxury of our young friend not named Jake, to be pure communicators in the middle of a beach. Their work is more thankless, and its results often far less clear.
I write in the Acknowledgments:
Finally, I have to thank the late Larry Ragan. My lucky writing apprenticeship came at his little publisher of trade newsletters for people in public relations. That may sound dreary. But the company was a menagerie of obscure but serious writers just like the founder who had collected them. These writers—and also many, many of their readers—wanted to do more than make a humble living hacking out readable words. They believed they could make a better society by exemplifying and promoting clear, candid, moral communication. … Three decades later—as head of the Professional Speechwriters Association, and publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day and ProRhetoric.com and as a daily blogger at Writing Boots—I am surrounded by such people, thousands of them—all doing the best they can, despite sometimes crushing bureaucratic resistance, to use communication to humanize the places where they work and live, and brighten the relationships with the people they work and live with. These communicators believe in me, which they have proved to me by pre-purchasing many copies of this book in advance and promoting it as if it were their own.
And that’s why this book is dedicated, “To the Communicators.”
This life, too.