Communication is a major key in life. Whether you’re writing an elaborate story for a large audience, or a simple note to your boss, communications plays a huge role. It certainly comes in handy when applying for a job or–even scarier–impressing a date. Without communications, life just loses its pizzazz. Barry Gordemer, a writer and producer for NPR, expressed his thoughts on the importance of communication. Gordemer has spent the last 25 years of his life learning the ins and outs of radio. Our conversation exposed just how crucial it is for students to learn how to write effectively and clearly.
CM: When and why did you start writing?
Barry Gordemer: I never planned to be in the news business, and then I first got into radio. I was more interested in audio and recorded music. Then, as I got more and more sucked into the journalism side as a necessity of my job, I had to start really learning how to write for the first time, because the writing I had done was the papers for my school.
CM: How has knowing how to write well helped you in your career today?
Gordemer: You can’t succeed if you can’t communicate clearly. You can’t be a manager if you can’t communicate clearly because people don’t understand what it is you are going for. You can’t be a journalist if you don’t communicate clearly. You can’t be a teacher if you can’t communicate clearly. You can’t be a good parent if you can’t communicate clearly. Communication is fundamental to being human.
CM: What’s the most frustrating part about writing a story or script?
Gordemer: Keeping [the story] short. A lot of times I’ll go through something and I’ll say, “Oh that’s clear, that makes sense,” but then it’s so long and I realize I have to cut this down. There’s no way anybody could read this. So how do you say it clearly but say it in a way that’s interesting. If you’re not interested in reading it, or listening to it, or watching it, then there’s no way your audience is going to be either. You have to write while thinking about who is going to be doing the reading. You’re not writing for yourself. You’re writing for an audience.
CM: What’s the most rewarding part of seeing positive feedback on a story you wrote?
Gordemer: The positive part is when somebody says, “I never thought of it that way,” or, “I finally understood it for the first time,” or, “Oh I’ve been hearing about this thing, this issue, this project, this moment in history for years and I’ve never understood it until now.”
CM: You have helped produce and direct coverage of several influential events, including the Persian Gulf Wars and 9/11, among others. What were some of the challenges and successes you faced in covering these events?
Gordemer: Whenever there are big news stories, information comes from a lot of different sources, so the first challenge is trying to sort through it all and figure out what’s the truth. And then once you got it accurate, then figure out the information and make it crystal clear.
CM: Why do you think communications degrees aren’t as popular these days?
Gordemer: I don’t know that they were really ever popular. The reality, in my industry, if you look at NPR in particular, there’s very few communications majors that work at the company; it’s probably less than 10%. We have a lot of former lawyers, teachers and political scientists, but very few communications majors, because I think that people don’t know exactly what that is. You can’t do any real serious job without those communications skills. Communications, I think, for a lot of people is not a goal–it’s just a tool that they have to have.
CM: In your opinion, what makes someone a good writer or communicator?
Gordemer: Somebody that communicates to you in the same way that they would if they were just talking. People seem to think that there are two English languages–one for speaking and one for writing. People, when they write, use words that they would never use in conversation. They use words to try to make them sound smart. For example, if you look at somebody’s Facebook page, you know exactly what they’re talking about and people enjoy reading people’s Facebook posts. But, then if you were to look at something they have written for school or something they’ve written for their job, that same person comes up with something…you can’t read it. They are using all of these words that people think they are supposed to use to sound important. Schools do a real disservice when they teach them how to write using these big words and usually these big words are just hiding behind really poor ideas or really poorly thought out explanations.
Nobody would have ever read Harry Potter if it was written the way a teacher writes or written the way a business public relations person writes. Nobody would have read 50 Shades of Grey if it was written the way teachers and public relations people and scientists write. Those books are popular because the language is clear and understandable and relateable and fun. There’s so many people, particularly students, who miss the notion that your writing should be fun to read or enjoyable to read.
One of the great compliments [we can say to] authors is, “Hey, I started reading your book and I couldn’t put it down,” and that’s because they are using language that sucks you in rather than language that tries to make you feel like an idiot because they are using “lofty, intelligent” words. Snores.
CM: What tips would you offer young kids today who are looking to become writers, journalists or radio hosts?
Gordemer: Read what you write out loud. A lot of people don’t want to do this or they’re embarrassed to do this, but it is really essential to learning how to communicate clearly. Write down a sentence and then read it back to yourself out loud. If it comes off the tongue funny, then you need to go back and re-write. It will help you discover when your sentences are too long, when your words are awkwardly arranged or when you have redundancies. Reading out loud is a powerful tool. If when you are reading it back and it sounds like you are giving a speech, you need to go back and think about what you are writing. It should just sound like you are talking, without the “ums” and the “uhs” and the “you knows.”