New insights into the Style Guide™

 

Last week Steve, CEO at the ecentre http://www.ecentre.org.nz/contactus.cfm encouraged me to test the Style Guide™ on ESL (English as a Second Language) users.

We have friends who are Fijian Indian and who speak English when they need to at work and to people like us and then Hindi whenever they are with family and Indian friends.

I am amazed by people who can jump out of one language and into another within a breath and just a little bit envious. I am learning Maori and as soon as I get flustered or put on the spot the first thing that goes is my ability to communicate in the language I want to speak fluently. As I relax it starts coming back. This must be how it was when my friends were learning English. The stories, ideas and concepts that lie behind a language colour its inflexions. A newcomer misses those. Whenever we use language the words we use come with a history derived from previous use. A newcomer has to learn the cultural nuances associated with each word they use.

I hoped the Style Guide™ might help make this process easier. Writers across all sectors are expressing an interest in the Style Guide™. This includes second language speakers. The Style Guide™ is set up so that the inflexions of a language match what writers intend – friendly for friends, formal for business and so on.

So how did the Fijian Indian family respond to the Style Guide™?

In short they loved it. Two of the four live in New Zealand and have jobs here. Roneel immediately saw how he could use it to write operational manuals for his staff who are engineers. Shristi found it helped her to understand the way words worked.

The other two are based in Fiji and visiting. They found it helped them to understand how to write so that the reader understood what they were trying to say. This was all about identifying their audience and then crafting words that resonated with them. 

The other point they all made was that if you write a business letter and it lands in the part of the quadrant that indicates a friendly note to someone then that will give the wrong impression.

The workshop was exciting as I saw them understand how the Style Guide™ could make their communications more effective. There was one moment when I took a piece of writing by Roneel’s mother. She had written about what it meant to belong to the Hare Krishna religion. Her account landed in the place where reports and fact based writing landed. The characteristics of this writing are: precise, unemotional and informative. It was the kind of writing we associate with business reports. She was disappointed by this as she wanted the reader to share her deep belief in her religion.

So I took over the computer and asked her to describe what being a Hare Krishna devotee meant, how it changed her life and what she did each day to rededicate her life to this belief. As she spoke I typed. She used words and phrases like; uplifted, at peace, dedicated, surrendering, joyous and many more. I created sentences out of those words and explained that if a writer wants to tell someone about something close to their heart then phrases like ‘daily practice’, ‘follow the rules and ‘service to others’ will only strike a chord with someone if they are researching the religion in an academic way.

However, if she wanted to share the experience of what being a member of Hare Krishna and to move someone emotionally then she needed to use words that reflected that feeling. We added several new sentences and submitted the entire piece to the Style Guide™.

They were  amazed. Her piece had moved to the right side of the grid which was where she wanted it to be. It was now in the place where persuasive, friendly writing usually lands.

While I do not aspire to these religious beliefs everyone has a right to express their religions their way. Adherents are often keen to share their beliefs in the hope that they will inspire others to join them. Christians do it all the time. I am not making judgements about the religion and hope no-one reading this interprets these words as an attempt to convert them.

However, the way these followers used words to describe their faith was really interesting and a great test of the Style Guide™ capacity to guide a writer on how to use language for a specific purposes.