Tag Archives: William Safire

Communication Basics; I Mean, Really, The Absolute Basics – How To Write Sentences

This really is the basic starting point — clear sentences.

In my speech class, I tell my students this:

I will not teach these steps, because I assume that you already know these:
• How to choose a word
• How to write a sentence
• How to write a paragraph
• How to write a sentence that logically, naturally takes you from one paragraph to another
• How to write, and put in the best order (how to organize) a series of paragraphs

I may be wrong to assume that they already know how to do all of these.  In fact, I may be wrong to assume that I know how to do these well.

All of this may help explain the best-seller popularity of a new book, which I have in my “read one of these days” stacks.  The book is How To Write A Sentence: And How To Read One, by New York Times columnist and college professor Stanley Fish.  (The New York Times champions good writing — remember William Safire and his “On Writing” columns?)

Here’s a sentence from this NPR Talk of the Nation interview with Stanley Fish:

“a sentence is a structure of logical relationships.”

Here’s a little more from the interview and article:

In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student,
“Do you think I could be a writer?”
‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’”

(Fish describes this from a student):
One student began her essay with this sentence: “I was already on the second floor when I heard about the box.”

What is noteworthy about this sentence is its ability to draw readers in and make them want more. It is a question of what we know and don’t know.

This blog is primarily about business subjects, business books…  It is a major business advantage to be able to communicate clearly.  It is a major disadvantage to communicate unclearly, incompletely, or simply poorly.  And writing good sentences, and speaking in clear, easy-to-understand sentences, is kind of ground-zero for clear, effective communication.

Cynicism – It Saps Our Inventiveness; It Withers Our Souls

We are very weary right now.  The news is bad, depressing…  The problems immense, the solutions seem elusive.

I think we need inspiration.  We definitely need robust souls, and a hefty dose of inventiveness.  And I think that we need to fight cynicism as though it were our deadliest enemy.

An oft-quoted criticism against cynics is that they only point out problems without offering solutions.  I think it goes deeper, and is more problematic than that:  they point out problems, and wallow in problems, and believe that no one can find solutions.

If America is anything it is a place where we have always believed that we can – we will – find solutions.

I have posted often about the great collection of speeches in Willaim Safire’s Lend Me Your Ears.  Today, I was re-reading Al Gore’s 1994 Harvard Commencement Address from that volume.  (Safire was a conservative, but his collection is very balanced).  Throughout the volume, Safire writes what he likes about the speeches that he selected for this volume.  Safire said about this speech:

On June 9, 1994, Gore made the most profound speech of his vice-presidency, examining the loss of trust in government that has afflicted his generation.

Here are brief excerpts from Gore’s speech.

History is a precarious source of lessons. Nevertheless, I am reminded that similar serious economic problems prevailed in Athens in the 4th century B.C., when the philosophical school we now know as Cynicism was born. The Cynics were fed up with their society and its social conventions and wanted everybody to know it. The root of the word “cynic” is the same as the Greek word for “dog,”and some scholars say the Cynics got their name because they barked at society.

Cynicism is deadly. It bites everything it can reach — like a dog with a foot caught in a trap. And then it devours itself. It drains us of the will to improve; it diminishes our public spirit; it saps our inventiveness; it withers our souls.

I think this is a theme for this time.  Our country, (our world), our companies and organizations, are in great need of leaders who believe that a brighter tomorrow is in fact possible, and attainable.

We know of all the CEO’s who slash and burn with cutbacks and layoffs – all understandable, but at the same time “demoralizing” (literally, sapping the morale out of countless people).  We need the opposite of demoralizing leaders.  We need to label cynicism as the enemy, and elevate and follow leaders who say that it is still possible.

At least, that’s what I am looking for.


You can read Gore’s speech here.  — And Amazon has used copies of this great Safire compilation for under $5.00, including shipping.  It is a great collection — a book to read slowly.

A Message from Vaclev Havel — We Need A Workplace Built for Human Beings

We lead by being human. We do not lead by being corporate, professional, or institutional. (Paul G. Hawken, founder, Smith and Hawken)
(quoted in Encouraging the Heart:  A Leaders Guide to Rewarding and Encouraging Others by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Pozner.


One of the great struggles in this or any era is this struggle – how do we maintain our common humanity?

Vaclev Havel

I was reading the brilliant speech given by Vaclev Havel when he assumed the presidency of his country  – still Czechoslovakia at the time — delivered in Prague, January 1, 1990.  (It’s available here).  He begins it with some withering honesty.

My dear fellow citizens, 
For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.
I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

But it is this paragraph that grabbed me most strongly.  It is not a new accusation, but he stated it so very clearly.

The previous regime – armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology – reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production. In this it attacked both their very substance and their mutual relationship. It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to the nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy and stinking machine, whose real meaning was not clear to anyone. It could not do more than slowly but inexorably wear out itself and all its nuts and bolts.

As I have written often, the question of jobs – where will the jobs be? – is, I believe, the great question of this era.  But in the pursuit of answers to that question, we also have to answer this:  how shall we view the people who do these jobs?  The answer has to be this:  as human beings.


(Yes, this speech is in the excellent volume/compilation Lend Me Your Ears, edited by William Safire – which I am reading, and re-reading, very slowly).

A Quote for the Day from William Safire — about our shrinking attention span

This is from William Safire’s commencement address at Syracuse University, May, 1978.  (One of the speeches included in his excellent volume Lend Me Your Ears).  It is about our fading attention span.  (Maybe we like Twitter because we don’t have the attention span to read books, even serious essays or even articles, anymore).  Here are the excerpts:

The attention span of most Americans on serious matters is about twenty seconds, the length of a television clip.
…people don’t want to read articles as they once did; today, if you cannot get your message in a paragraph, forget it…
We’re becoming a short-take society.  Our presidency, which Theodore Roosevelt called a “bully pulpit,” has become a forum for twenty-second spots.  Our food for thought has become junk food.
…we are thinking more superficially.

Peter Drucker; Warren Bennis; Tom Peters; Jim Collins; Malcolm Gladwell – Makers of the Business Universe

My blogging colleague, Bob Morris, is more able to tackle this post than I am — but here’s my try.

I was reading a couple of the speeches in the great William Safire compilation, Lend Me Your Ears.  (I blogged about this before here and  here, and Bob reviewed the compilation here).  I read this toast: George Bernard Shaw:  George Bernard Shaw Salutes His Friend Albert Einstein.  It is a remarkable piece.  Here is a key excerpt from the beginning of his toast:

Napoleon and other great men were makers of empires, but these eight men whom I am about to mention were makers of universes…  I go back twenty-five hundred years, and how many can I count in that period?  I can count them on the fingers of my two hands.
Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Kepler, Copernicus, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein – and I still have two fingers left vacant…
Newton made a universe which lasted for three hundred years.  Einstein has made a universe, which I suppose you want me to say will never stop, but I don’t know how long it will last.

George Bernard Shaw


It was the phrase “makers of universes” that grabbed my imagination.  I really don’t think that we can put the business luminaries listed above in the same category.  (Well, maybe Drucker).  But in a lesser sense, and certainly in a narrower arena, I think we can say that these business thinker/business book giants have created at least some small universes.

Here’s what I mean.  When you think of “leadership,” you think of Bennis.  When you think of studying successful companies, extracting their secrets, you think of Peters and Collins.  Collins “hedgehog principle” has become part of our vocabulary.  And Gladwell is the true master at introducing phrases that become part of our understanding and vital parts of our vocabularies, (even if he borrows the ideas from others):  “tipping point,” “outliers,” the “10,000 hour rule.”

And, if you had only one you could read, you could make the case that Drucker is the one you would choose.  Many have observed that in communication, Aristotle said it first, and everyone else simply provides commentary and updates illustrations.  Well, in business, Drucker said it first, and everything else builds, in one way or another, on his work.

As I said earlier, Bob Morris is far more qualified to choose the names that could be called the “makers of the business universe.”  But I like the quest – who are the voices, the minds, that have most shaped our usable understanding of business effort and success?  Who has created our business universe?

On the Death of William Safire – “Never Retire”

William Safire, 1929-2009

William Safire, 1929-2009

William Safire’s death has just been announced.  He died today of cancer.

Recently, Bob Morris and I both wrote blog posts about his terrific compilation of speeches which included his own introductions, “Lend Me Your Ears:  Great Speeches in History.” A Pulitzer Prize winner (he later served as a member of the board that awards the Pulitzer Prizes), he became the unofficial language expert to a nation, and continued his “On Language” column up until the month of his death.

His last op-ed column for the New York Times was entitled “Never Retire.” Written in January, 2005, Mr. Safire spoke of his work then beginning with the “Dana Foundation.” Here are his last two paragraphs of his last op-ed:

Medical and genetic science will surely stretch our life spans. Neuroscience will just as certainly make possible the mental agility of the aging. Nobody should fail to capitalize on the physical and mental gifts to come.
When you’re through changing, learning, working to stay involved – only then are you through. “Never retire.”

Many years ago, I read many of the books of the Quaker author Elton Trueblood.  Dr. Trueblood died in 1994.  His first book, which I read in a reprint edition, was The Essence of Spiritual Religion.  Dr. Trueblood wrote a new introduction to the reprint edition, and he bemoaned the current generation’s fixation on the “new.”  (The book is buried in storage, so this quote is from memory, and certainly not precise).  He stated that just because a book is old(er), this does not mean that it has no value.  He encouraged readers to look for wisdom in all that we read, new or old(er).  At a lunch meeting, I heard Dr. Trueblood speak just as he announced that he was through writing books.  He was asked what he would do now that he was retiring.  He thundered his reply:  “Retire?!  I’m not retiring.  I’m just through writing books.  You can never retire from a commitment.”

William Safire never retired, and encouraged us all to never retire.  And his work, early and later, will be treasured and remembered.


(personal note;  I did not agree with Mr. Safire on most political issues.  But I recognize good writing when I see it).