What ARE you talking about, Willis?
As a kid in the 80s, I grew up watching Different Strokes. This is a brief story about the communications lesson embedded in Arnold Jackson's ubiquitous catchphrase and a surreal Gary Coleman sighting.
Whenever I read or hear a message that has no clear point, a little voice in the back of my mind quips, "What 'you talking 'bout, Willis?" I'll often re-read a text or ask someone to repeat what they were saying, just to make sure I haven't missed a crucial part of the message. This applies to both professional and personal experiences, and it happens a lot. We may have become sophisticated with our technology, but often the very point we are trying to convey is hidden or gets lost.
Sometimes, the message is embedded within a broader narrative and is hard to discern (usually the case with requests for money). Sometimes, you are in a situation where you have no choice but to hear the message (like an annoying ad in a movie theater maybe). Sometimes, you actually want to hear the message, but it's painfully slow and/or jumbled (family members can be prime offenders of this type).
The least a messenger can do is deliver a clear and concise message. Most stories answer the following immediate questions: Who? What? Why? Where? When? And, how?
The 'why' of a story is often its very essence. It's what explains motive and can even be punch line. How many times have you heard someone tell a joke, only for it to fall flat because they left out a key component? Why did the chicken cross the road? Wait. Was it a rabbit? No, it was a chicken, but it was running across the road. The joke sure sounded better when Stephen Colbert told it. You had to be there....
Whether you're telling a joke, writing a murder mystery, giving a TV interview, or having a conversation with your significant other, always make sure you get to the point and deliver a relevant message. You should always try to put yourself in the other person's shoes and answer the questions you think they might have. Why is the story or message important for other people to hear and why should it matter to them?
Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it got tired of hearing chicken jokes.
What's my point? In this particular instance, I'm illustrating my point about making a point, while using a humorous example to help you connect to this article on an emotional level. I also used a funny image to help you visualize the chicken crossing the road. I'm trying to make it easy for you as a reader.
Now, I don't want to lose your attention, so it's time to tell the Gary Coleman story I teased you with in the very beginning of this article. I used his photo and catchphrase to draw you into the story, so I now need to deliver on my promise. We'll take a brief detour before wrapping up this topic.
In 2005, I started working in Century City, a business neighborhood on the west side of Los Angeles, near Beverly Hills. Our office building was home to high-powered lawyers who often represented celebrity clients. Michael Jackson's attorney worked there, as did Gray Davis, the California Governor who was recalled in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In my second or third week on the job, I walked into the building's vast glass lobby and stopped in my tracks. A few feet away from me stood Gary Coleman in a full-length, black leather trench coat and a black leather stetson hat. Bear in mind that he only stood 4'8". Somewhat ironically--given his unfortunate choice of clothing in relation to his diminutive stature--he looked very self-conscious and irritated by the attention he was drawing.
I imagine a unicorn sighting in the wild might produce much the same response in people: don't breathe, lest it panic and flee. I held my breath and tried to reconcile this long-lost fragment of my childhood with the sanitized reality of a Century City office lobby. At that point in his life, Coleman was clearly an adult and long past his Different Strokes days. He was plagued by health issues, tabloid rumors and I assume he was visiting his attorney, which might explain why he looked so unhappy. He passed away just a few years later.
At this point, I can hear you wonder whether I haven't lost the plot of my own narrative and forgotten to make my point. In fact, I'm trying to build a mental image of Gary Coleman in a long, black coat and cowboy hat, with his arms crossed, glaring at you and saying "What 'you talking 'bout?"
My parting advice is to keep your message on track, relevant, and effective. In other words, make it easy to follow and make it stick. You may forget about this article, but, the next time you're writing a proposal or telling a story, you too might hear that little voice piping up. What exactly are you talking about and why does it matter? Are you getting to the point?
Chicken jokes and Gary Coleman sightings are welcome in the Comments section.