When I emerged as a fresh-faced young graduate of Edinburgh Napier University’s journalism school in the late 1970s, my ambition was to brighten the newspaper world with the brilliance of my reporting.
My pen (or typewriter in those days) burned with indignation; my writing embellished with 'big words' gleaned from the Thesaurus that sat by my desk.
With weary patience, the Editor of the local newspaper I worked for explained that journalism was about communication and that our readers appreciated information and facts more than purple prose and opinion.
He was right, of course.
And I can still hear his advice: "Listen, son. Mrs. McGlumshy in Dovecot Road doesn't need a lecture in English literature. She wants facts, information – NEWS!"
And so he sent me to courts, council meetings, road-traffic accidents; to report on the events, the gossip, the daily triumphs and the tragedies of our local community.
He died recently after a long illness and his words came back to me as I reflected both upon his life and upon the changes in the world of communication over the 30 years since he first took me under his wing – from a world of shorthand notebooks, upright typewriters and linotype printing, to one of iPads, mobile apps and instant online news.
Today's social media have transformed the way we interact with one another and understand the world – but it should not alter how we communicate. The principles my editor drummed into me – of simplicity, brevity, common sense – are more relevant in a world full of Big Data, not less. And they apply to oral as well as written communication.
It also occurs to me that if 90% of all of the world's data really was created in the last two years, how much of it was relevant or intelligible?
I'm often amused, sometimes irritated, by the irrelevance of messages posted on Twitter or Facebook. Here are my two recent favourites: "It's raining in Edinburgh" – an announcement from a Twitter follower with amazing perspicacity – and "We're not at our desks at the moment due to a fire alarm" from an organisation that clearly believes in keeping us fully informed, whether we want to be or not!
The message, not the medium, is what’s important. An awful lot of nonsense is talked about social media and its transformative powers. True, it is a remarkably creative and empowering space – but it's no coincidence that the most successful blogs and newsfeeds are the ones that inform and entertain us with simplicity, brevity and common sense.
Graham Birse is the Director of the Edinburgh Institute of Leadership and Management Practice at Edinburgh Napier University. The Edinburgh Institute (EI) is dedicated to improving leadership and management through practice-based learning.
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