All of us are speakers and writers. Speaking and writing is an integral part of our lives, at work, at home, online, in our communities and social encounters — practically in every aspect of our lives. Writing and public speaking is a subject I’ve always been passionate about, and in fact, I was a writing tutor in college and participated in oratory competitions as a high school student (as my older son does today).
Speaking and writing clearly is an indispensable skill that all of us can hone. I talk about the importance of writing clearly with Benjamin Dreyer, the Random House copy chief who is my guest on tomorrow’s episode of Stay Tuned. Perhaps somewhat nerdy, it is one of my favorite conversations I’ve had for the podcast, full of tips on the craft of writing.
When I speak to graduating students, especially law students, I urge them to unlearn legalese, the foreign language they spent three years mastering. For example, I tell them, when questioning a witness on the stand, instead of asking, “How are you employed?” ask: “What do you do for a living?” or “What’s your job?”
The point I stress is: speak and write like a human being.
What does it mean to speak and write like a human? For starters: speak to inform, and to persuade, not just to impress. Flowery language and flourishes may sound nice, but often serve to cloud the message.
Want to impress people? Speak and write simply. It communicates authenticity, clarity of thought, and respect for your audience. Simplicity always wins.
That doesn’t mean one should speak so simply as “case closed” or “no collusion, no obstruction, no nothing.” Such utterances don’t communicate much; they’re simply imbecilic. The point is to express complex thoughts and ideas in an understandable way.
A corollary to speaking simply? Don’t speak at all. Sometimes it’s best to shut up. People, and especially lawyers, should more often exercise their right to remain silent. The great biographer Bob Caro, a recent guest on Stay Tuned, writes “S.U.” in his notes, to remind himself to “shut up” when conducting interviews. Listening is, all too often, more important than speaking. And we should all be listening for not just for what is said, but also what remains unsaidbecause that can speak volumes too.
All of this is more than just advice about communication; it is also about leadership. Speaking simply and listening intently are hallmarks of great leaders. It will win you respect and it will win you followers.
As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
GOOD BEFORE GREAT
Commencement season is drawing to a close with prominent figures having imparted timeless advice and wisdom on graduating students at colleges across the country.
In 2014, Preet spoke to Harvard Law School’s graduating class, and said this to students about the path to professional success:
You should have high aspirations. You should want to be monumentally successful, but you’ve got to do it one pitch at a time. It sounds cliché, but you’ve got to do it one pitch a time. Pitch, after pitch, after pitch, that’s what develops into a perfect game, or by analogy, an outstanding career…No one who ever pitched a perfect game in baseball went to the mound that day expecting to do so. Because not only is that unrealistic, it is the height of arrogance. And yet I see people all the time make that very mistake, they want to be great before they learn how to be good…they want to generals before they have been good soldiers.
Interested in what some of this year’s commencement speakers had to say? There was no shortage of inspiring speeches.
Former Georgia House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams delivered the commencement address at the American University School of Public Affairs, where she noted how partisan attitudes can prevent the development of one’s own ideologies:
Beyond the easy labels of party and ideology are the deeply held convictions that shape those labels. But too often, adherence to conservative or progressive, to liberal or moderate, to Democrat or Republican or Independent, to being pro-this or anti-that becomes an excuse for lazy thinking. It becomes an excuse for hostile action. And for today, at least, I urge you to set aside your labels and explore what your principles say about the world you wish to serve. Because beliefs are our anchors.
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered Tulane University’s commencement speech, urging students to take on big challenges:
Don’t waste time on problems that have been solved. Don’t get hung up on what other people say is practical. Instead, steer your ship into the choppy seas. Look for the rough spots, the problems that seem too big, the complexities that other people are content to work around. It’s in those places that you will find your purpose. It’s there that you can make your greatest contribution.
What would you advise today’s graduates? Share your suggestions with us by replying to this email or writing to us at [email protected].
Takeaways from episode 27 of CAFE Insider:
Does Attorney General Bill Barr have a point when he says Bob Mueller could have made a call on whether President Trump obstructed justice without indicting him?
Nothing in the law or the special counsel regulations seems to have stood in the way of Mueller reaching a decision on the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. Mueller deemed it potentially “unfair” to accuse Trump of committing a crime when “there can be no court resolution of the actual charge,” given the Justice Department’s policy against indicting a sitting president. Had Mueller clearly said that the President obstructed justice, it’s very likely that Barr would have overruled him, using the legal argument that a president can’t obstruct justice if he’s exercising his constitutional executive authority, like firing the FBI director, for example. That, however, would change the political ramifications of Mueller’s report.
Accusations of “treason” have been flowing around from both sides of the political aisle – did the top ranks at the FBI or the President commit treason?
The short answer is no, neither the actions of the FBI leadership nor the president meet the legal threshold for treason. Article III Section 3 of the Constitution declares that “[t]reason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” The term “enemy” refers to a country or an entity that has declared war or is in a state of open war against our country, and “aid and comfort” denotes material action—like providing an enemy with weapons—and not merely voicing words of encouragement.
The Department of Commerce is pushing to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. What is the risk of doing so?
The Supreme Court is set to rule in a case where the Department of Commerce argues that adding a citizenship question will help to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which aims to protect racial minorities from discrimination. However, adding the question would likely discourage millions of people from participating in the Census and result in inaccurate population counts.
New information surfaced last week in files contained on a hard drive that belonged to deceased redistricting specialist Thomas Hofeller. The files suggest that he played a key role in the administration’s decision to add the citizenship question to the Census. An unpublished 2015 study by Hofeller concluded that adding the citizenship question “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” This potential “smoking gun” exposes the administration’s real intent in adding the question and its attempt to influence how U.S. House seats will be reapportioned in 2021 (i.e., gerrymandering).
If you haven’t already, listen to “Treason Season”
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THIS WEEK ON STAY TUNED
Benjamin Dreyer is this week’s guest on Stay Tuned. He’s the vice president, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House. He is also the author of the New York Times best seller Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. In this sneak peek at the interview, Dreyer distills the essence of clear writing
“I think that good writing gets into a reader’s brain so that you can follow all of the thoughts. You may or may not be conscious of the writing that’s going on—surrounding or encompassing the communication—but good writing leads the information from the writer’s hand into the reader’s brain in a clear way.”
Don’t forget to listen to this week’s episode. It drops this Thursday, June 6th.
Want to stay apprised of the types of cases U.S. Attorneys are working on in 94 federal districts? Interested in learning a legal fact or two? Follow @USAttorneys, the official account of the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices.
That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.
— The CAFE Team
Tamara Sepper, Carla Pierini, Julia Doyle, Calvin Lord, and Vinay Basti