Inside jargon, outside voice

During a recent sermon, American televangelist and presidential adviser Paula White prayed: “We command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.”

Wait, what?

Social media went crazy. Isn’t she pro-life? Who is satanic and pregnant? Those Christians really are nuts.

Later, White tweeted:

“I don’t normally respond but clearly this has been taken out of context. I was praying Eph 6:12 that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. Anything that has been conceived by demonic plans, for it to be cancelled and not prevail in your life, that is- any plans to hurt people.”

“Satanic pregnancies” is not a term I had ever heard, and I have no interest in Paula White and her brand of prosperity theology. But, this was yet another example of a Christian invoking outrage and ridicule through a careless choice of words.

The problem was, she used extreme insider jargon with her outside voice. When we communicate online, the whole world can hear us.

Another term for this type of insider jargon is Christianese — terms, puns and catchphrases only comprehensible within particular Christian denominations or sects. Outside of that context, they may sound weird, creepy or even dangerous.

Here’s a short, alphabetical list of common Christianese. If you’re writing or speaking within reach of any audience outside of your church walls, it’s a good idea to avoid these.

Be intentional

It means to have a plan, as opposed to wandering into the street each morning with no idea where you’re going, I guess. Sure, a Christian may be intentional, but so is a bank robber.

Believer

Synonymous with “Christian,” but only the right kind of Christian. The term has become so familiar we don’t even think about it, but to an outsider, it can sound a little cultish. Or like a Monkees song.

The Bible clearly says …

Used most often in political discussions where the Bible really doesn’t clearly say. This leaves no room for further discussion.

Blessed

When life is good and we want people to know it. Popular hashtag when posting pictures of vacations, grandkids or food. Also popular in hashtags, Hobby Lobby decor or as the closing email sentiment: “Have a blessed day.”

Brother, Sister

Used to indicate that someone is a fellow Christian. Causes confusion because some may believe it means a blood relative. Also sounds a little cultish in some contexts.

Even more unfortunate: Bro, Sis

Clap offering

Applause for God. Continue reading

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Writing for a global audience

Imagine you are talking with a friend. Then write that way.

That was one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received in college. It has served me well through almost four decades now, because it helps me remember that writing is a relationship with the reader. We write to be clearly understood. We and our local audience share not just a heart language, but also a heart dialect and common experiences.

Perhaps the nicest compliment I ever received as a writer came from a friend who read one of my feature stories in the newspaper. He said, “I knew it was you even before I saw the byline.”

The “write it for a friend” rule still works if I am writing strictly for an American audience — or for any English-speaking audience familiar with American speech patterns and vocabulary. The rule works for anyone writing to a similar audience in their own cultural context.

But what about writing for an international, multicultural audience? Must we follow the plentiful advice out there that says keep it absolutely simple, clear and … blandly generic?

I believe we can find an acceptable compromise. Here are a few guidelines to make cross-cultural writing understandable but still keep your voice:

Use simple words

This is a good rule regardless of the audience. Writers who read a lot of one author, or genre, begin to write like that. This can be a problem for a writer who reads a lot of technical material. For instance, academic writing is common in the Bible translation world. Academic writing uses little-known terms and long sentences, because it aims at a highly educated audience that will quickly understand these. A general audience — especially a cross-cultural audience — may not.

In the preceding paragraph, I originally wrote: “Academic writing uses esoteric terms.” Esoteric is a great word, but is not commonly used. So I changed it to little-known.

English contains more than a million words, with about 170,000 in current use. The average English speaker uses 20,000 to 30,000 words. But, a person is considered conversational if they use 1,000 to 3,000 words, and fluent if they use 10,000. We should aim multicultural English writing at someone who is conversational.

Voice of America produced a list of 1,510 simple English words. This is a useful reference in deciding whether a word is simple enough to use.

Use active voice

Subect, verb, object. This keeps sentences simpler and on point. Verbs need to appear early in sentences because they convey action and keep the reader interested.

Yes: Jacob threw the ball.

No: The ball was thrown by Jacob.

This S-V-O advice applies to any writing, even to a local audience. For a multicultural audience, translation of passive sentences can be difficult. Some languages do not even have a passive form.

Also, do not begin a sentence with the ambiguous subject “It.” Be specific.

No: It’s going to rain today.

Yes: Rain is expected today. / We expect rain today.

One caution: Some Asian cultures prefer passive voice if the sentence says something negative. The reasoning is, it feels more polite and less accusatory. So instead of She broke the vase, you might say, The vase was broken by her.

Use short sentences

Journalism students learn that the first sentence of a story (the “lede”) should never be more than 25 words. Why? Because reader comprehension declines dramatically when sentences are longer than that. For a typical American audience, if a sentence is more than 40 words, reader comprehension drops to less than 10 percent. Now imagine how difficult the same sentence would be for an international audience.

Sentence lengths should vary, to avoid monotony. But a good average is between 15 and 25 words.

No contractions

This has been the biggest adjustment for me. I speak with contractions, as do most people. I write with contractions, because they sound natural and contribute to a comfortable relationship with readers. I disagree strongly with those who say contractions have no place in formal writing.

Yet, I wrote this entire blog post without contractions. (To be honest, I used many contractions and then had to go back and replace them.) The problem for multicultural writing is this: Contractions introduce a potential obstacle to understanding and translation. Not every language uses contractions. Not even all English speakers use them.

No idioms

An idiom is a group of words that has a figurative meaning, often limited to a particular language or culture. Examples:

    This dinner will cost me an arm and a leg.
    That was the last straw.
    We will cross that bridge when we come to it.

To begin paragraph six of this post, I originally I wrote: “I believe we can find middle ground.” Not every culture knows what that idiom means. So I changed it to: “I believe we can find an acceptable compromise.” Those are still simple words that I would use in conversation, but now we have removed a potential obstacle.

No slang

In conversation, I almost never use the world children. I say kids to mean anyone from babies to my own sons and daughter, who are close to 30 years old. Literally, a kid is a baby goat. A local audience will understand that is not what I mean. For a cross-cultural audience, I need to be specific but still use simple words: an infant, a child, a teen, a young adult.

The corporate world has its own slang, and some of it has invaded the ministry world. Here is a fun list. Most is worthy of ridicule. But it is also good to recognize it so that we can avoid it in all writing, especially cross-cultural writing.

Does that nail it for you? Oops. I mean, does this help you understand?

Check yourself

One useful tool to check your writing for simplicity is an app called Hemingway. Simply copy and paste your writing onto this website and it gives instant analysis, including the grade level. Anything more than eighth grade is too complex. This does not mean we assume our readers have an eighth grade intelligence level. It just means we are writing to be quickly understood, not to make readers work hard.

In this post, I tried to follow all of the mentioned rules and yet retain my own voice as a writer. Hemingway scored it at a sixth grade level, which is the level I want. But I also had areas to improve. Some of my word choices could have been simpler. Five sentences were “very hard to read.” I went back and fixed a few things.

As mentioned, not all of the suggestions in this post apply to all writing. But the great thing is: As I think hard about every word, my writing for any audience improves.

I even get better at talking with friends.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , ,

Interviewing for video

Even though I had worked for decades as a print journalist, I had to relearn how to interview people for video stories.

A good interview is a conversation, not an interrogation. In a two-way conversation, both people talk a lot. Sometimes in sentence fragments. Sometimes with a one-word response. When I interview someone for a written story, this mix works just fine. I record the interview, transcribe it and then sift through the transcript for the best quotes. Material that is more complicated, or less compelling, can be paraphrased. If the person stumbles through a sentence but I know what they meant, I can just paraphrase that part.

A video story relies much more heavily on the person’s uninterrupted, unedited responses. Remember, television is not our model. TV news and interview shows tend to focus as much on the interviewer as the subject. By contrast, in a short video story the interviewer should disappear. Usually, your voice will not be heard and you will not be seen in the final video. Your job is to help a person tell their story well. Ask good questions, listen actively and ask good follow-up questions rather than simply working from a list. Then stay out of the way.

Editing video can take far more time than the interview itself. But with a few organizational techniques during the interview, you can minimize editing time. Most good stories contain a few simple elements: characters, complication (or conflict), a key moment or event, and resolution. Quite often, those elements occur in that order. If you arrange an interview in the same linear order — a story with a beginning, middle and end — you can minimize the amount of cutting and rearranging of pieces. Here’s a simple framework you can build from:

Character(s): Ask the person to state their name, where they are from and what they do.

Complication / conflict: What was your life like before?

Key moment / event: What happened? What changed for you?

Resolution: What does your life look like now as a result of ____?

 

Before you start

  • Let them practice before the camera is on. Start with an easy question — even as simple as, “What did you have for breakfast today?” Get them comfortable talking.
  • Tell them the types of questions you will ask. No surprises or ambushes.
  • Tell them what the interview goal is. Be a team. You are working together to clearly tell the story.
  • Remind them to speak in complete sentences. Your voice will not be part of the video, so their responses need to make it clear what the question was.
  • Don’t make them feel like they’re in a TV studio. Use minimal lighting and audio equipment. Minimize the number of other people in the room. It should feel like a normal conversation, not a performance. Put them at ease.
  • Minimize or get away from background noise: fans, heating and cooling vents, music, traffic, birds and insects. Noises that are hardly noticeable when you’re doing the interview can ruin the recorded result.
  • If you can control the room temperature, keep it normal to cool. Don’t make someone sweat.
  • When setting up the camera, pay attention to visual elements. Does the light fall pleasantly on the person’s face? (From the side is ideal.) Is the background free of distractions? If the person wears eyeglasses, can you arrange things to eliminate glare or distracting reflection?
  • Tell the person to look at you, not at the camera. It’s not a hostage video.
  • Remind them: “This is not live TV. If you mess up, or if I mess up, we can just pause and then start the sentence again.”

During the interview

  • Ask open-ended questions. How or why rather than yes or no. You want the person to tell you a story rather than just give a quick answer.
  • Never interrupt. Ask a question, then stay silent — even if the person pauses momentarily.
  • Think about pacing. Leave short pauses between when the person stops talking and when you start. This reduces editing time by making the cuts easier.
  • Be aware of changing audio background and pause if necessary. (I once learned this the hard way when conducting an interview at twilight in Staten Island, N.Y. A swarm of locusts flew by, and the sound of their buzzing wings obliterated the voice of the person I was interviewing. The video was visually beautiful, but unintelligible.)

Working with a translator

In an international context, the language barrier introduces another challenge to the goal of having a natural conversation and getting accurate quotes. Much relies on your translator. Tell him or her that you are looking for word-for-word translation, not a paraphrased summary. Later, if the interview is transcribed by someone who understands the interviewee’s language, you can sharpen the quotes even further.

Finally …

A great way to end any interview is to ask: “What else should I have asked you?” Often the answer will be “nothing.” But sometimes you may discover an aspect to the story that you otherwise would have missed. It’s also a way to honor the person you are interviewing by giving them control of when the conversation ends.

Posted in interviewing, Videography | Tagged ,

How to tell a dangerous story

Here’s another guest post from our friend and fellow missions journalist, Heather Pubols. You can learn more about Heather’s work at: www.lemotif.org

“I know how you can tell this story,” I said to a colleague with a smile. “Someone did something that made a positive change among some group of people in some country, and it’s so amazing everyone needs to know about it!”

We were talking about how to tell stories from “sensitive” or high-risk contexts, and I said this jokingly as we considered what could and could not be said in stories. We had a good laugh and proceeded to find a solution.

While I said this in jest, this is a basic formula for telling impact stories. Of course, usually when applied, it includes real information—not just “something” or “someone.” Yet, what do you do if putting these key details into your story threatens the project you want to write about or risks the lives of your subjects? Should these stories be left untold?

In 2015 the refugee crisis in Europe exploded. I was living in Germany and began research for potential articles that would link the work of several organizations to that topic.  I learned about a man working for one of these organizations who came to Europe as a refugee more than a decade before the crisis. Fearing for his life, he fled from his home country in West Asia and entered Europe illegally.

His story echoed current refugees’ experiences. On top of that, his refugee journey included a significant encounter with one of these organizations. It changed the direction of his life and engaged him in work that connected him with current refugees. It was a perfect story!  However, even though now he was a legal German resident, the kind of work he did carried risk. We could say he was in Germany, but his identity and country of origin needed to be concealed.

So what could we do to tell this story and mitigate the risk? Was it even possible? YES! I use a principle I call framing to work through sensitivities like this.  Here’s how it works: Start with what you can’t say or show and then keep zooming in or out until you find an acceptable frame to tell and show the story.

With personal names, start with using a part of a personal name, like a first name rather than their full name.  If that’s not enough to maintain security, zoom out a little more and try a pseudonym from their ethnic community or home region.  If that’s not enough, zoom out again and try a more generic name as a pseudonym. With places, if a country can’t be mentioned, zoom out to a geographic region. If that’s not enough, zoom out to the continent.

This is probably farther than you’ll need to zoom out.

With photographs, follow a similar process. When photographing a person, start with making sure their face and any identifying markers (like tattoos or noticeable scars) are not revealed. Often photos from behind, above or closeups of hands work well. If that still presents a problem, then talk with the subject about showing them from a distance. Neutral clothing also helps. Another method is to use photographs of a representative person (be sure to include a note indicating this).

For visuals of the landscape, it’s important to ensure that no landmarks which identify the place you are trying to keep concealed are in view. Sometimes showing images from neighboring countries or from other places which have a similar look can offer a visual feel for the location you can’t show. Finally, photos of illustrative objects that don’t give away key details can provide visual elements that can add to your story without causing problems.

In videos, you may consider using actors. In audio formats, if you can’t use a person’s voice, a voice actor may be sufficient. Or, think about telling the story through a narrator. Again, always indicate if the voice you use isn’t the real person in the story.

Back to our European refugee profile story. By applying the principle of framing we found an acceptable way to give important storytelling details that enhance the narrative without compromising security. Read the story here.

A few stories still may be too risky to tell. However, using framing, I think you’ll find there are many more stories that can be told than not.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, sensitivity, Story | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

2019: Year of the Shed

I’m building a backyard shed this year. Several months ago, I would have told you I’m building a backyard shed this weekend. We needed more storage space and this seemed like a good idea at the time. That was before I learned that I’m actually building a small house … something a reasonably intelligent person doesn’t attempt without knowing what he’s in for.

Today, this is no longer a weekend project. It’s a quest.

Wikipedia amplifies this thought: “The object of a quest requires great exertion on the part of the hero, who must overcome many obstacles, typically including much travel to Home Depot.”

OK, I added those last three words. But ShedQuest 2019™ otherwise fits the bill. Great exertion? To dig foundation postholes, I rented a power auger. This is basically a giant corkscrew with a lawn mower engine on top, designed to separate the user’s shoulder from his torso. After starting one posthole, I realized if I tried to go any deeper I would be spending the summer in a body cast. This machine is meant to be used by burly men who operate jackhammers … not by 55-year-old writers. Six weeks later, I can almost lift my arms above my head again.

Many obstacles? How about a 3-foot wide tree stump that required the use of several saws, an ax and a medieval battle implement called a pick mattock? How about rain or the threat of rain every day for two months? How about a general lack of carpentry knowledge, supplemented by a steady diet of YouTube videos?

As days turned to weeks, I worried that the shed would become a distraction from work. As I think through tonight’s task of shingling the roof, it’s the writing and editing that have become the distraction.

For a short season, that’s not all bad.

When most of my work involves sitting in front of a screen and operating software, operating power saws and swinging a hammer feel pretty good. Building a functional (I hope) shed from thousands of pounds of 2x4s and plywood requires forethought, the right tools, occasional help and, above all, patience. The process goes: foundation, floor, walls, rafters, roof, siding … oh, and a door, which I forgot about when first building the walls. Each step takes time. Ultimately, everything fits together, but it doesn’t happen quickly or easily.

Our culture is in short supply of patience. Author and teacher Jonathan Rogers writes: “I don’t have to satisfy every curiosity that flits across my mind just because I happen to have a supercomputer in my pocket.” (I’ll admit to uttering: “Alexa, who played Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island?”) When boredom equates to not having checked our phones for 10 minutes, ShedQuest 2019™ has been a welcome change of pace and focus.

What does all of this have to do with reporting better stories? First: Working creatively (even if imperfectly) with our hands makes our brains work better. It’s actually more intellectually engaging than desk work. A short season as a part-time shed builder feels incredibly refreshing and ultimately makes me a better and more energetic writer and reporter.

Second and more deeply: When we take a break from the routine … when we choose uncertainty over predictability … when we take on a task bigger than we’re qualified for … we live a better story. We live the kind of story we look for in others. And then we recognize those stories more quickly and tell them better, because they’re already kind of familiar.

That’s way more than I bargained for from a pile of boards and nails.

Alexa, what do I do for a sore back?

Posted in Creativity, Story | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Simplicity gone astray

Help a Norwegian today.

Today we welcome this guest post by our friend, Heather Pubols. Heather has traveled the world getting stories for mission organizations. You can learn more about her work at: www.lemotif.org

In 2012 I took a media team to a country in central Africa to get stories about Bible translation projects in the country. We stayed in a guesthouse at an educational institution, and nearby was a school for the students’ children.

“Put away your cameras!” a man shouted to one of the photographers traveling with me. “We don’t want you showing our children as poor and hungry on the internet.”

We had obtained advanced permission to photograph on the campus, but we took this parent’s concerns seriously. The cameras went away, and the matter was discussed with the parent and the educational institution president. We came to a mutual understanding of our purpose and received permission once more to take photos.

This parent expressed a widely held view in many parts of Africa: Western nonprofit organizations want to show people across Africa in the worst light in order to raise money. People feel exploited.

What we saw was a reaction to what Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The Danger of a Single Story.” In her 2009 TED Talk, she said single stories develop when we “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

She traced Africa’s single story back to the writings of Western explorers in the 16th century who referred to black African people as “beasts.” In modern media, the single story persists. The continent is often portrayed as a place of violence, war, poverty and famine.

Well-intentioned nonprofits have participated. In the mid-1980s I remember seeing starving, fly-covered Ethiopian children in famine-relief television advertisements. In my household, the messages from those ads informed my brother’s teasing: “You’re so skinny, you look like an Ethiopian!” The single story had left its mark, even serving as a source for new childish insults. While the desired goal of the advertising was noble, it was overshadowed by the simplistic, negative stereotypes it reinforced.

Stereotypes about a region of the world can represent a portion of reality, but they do not comprise the entire narrative of every country or every person from that region.

Beathe Ogard, president of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics International Assistance Fund, launched an initiative to called “Radi-Aide” with the goal “to change the way fundraising campaigns communicate and to break down dominating stereotypes.” Her team created several satirical videos to flip these stereotypes on their heads by displacing their context. Watch one.

Beathe says that the most effective communication from non-profit organizations shows context and portrays individuals with agency, dignity and respect. It inspires and doesn’t provoke guilt.

As I led media teams to global locations to gather stories for nonprofits, I would tell people to think about the following:

  • Put yourself in the shoes of your subject. How would you want to be portrayed?
  • This is the internet age, so assume your work will be seen by your subjects. How would your subjects feel if they saw how you represented them in your photo, story, video, etc?
  • What stereotype can you challenge through what you produce?
  • How can you show a more complex and nuanced narrative?

It is good practice to ask people from the area where you are going or who are very familiar with the local context to talk with you about guidelines, permissions and expectations. And, don’t expect to do it perfectly. Being willing to listen to concerns, learn and change your plans accordingly also goes a long way.

To learn more, explore the Radi-Aide website.

 

Posted in Culture, Ethics, Photography, Reporting, sensitivity, Videography | Tagged , , ,

Prayer in its proper place

Image | Posted on by | Tagged ,