Extreme Clearness – Simple and Clear Communication Advice from The Earl of Chesterfield (from Shannon Camberlain)

(a couple of posts about communication issues today. Here’s the second).

So, this one’s a little shorter. I read this terrific article from The Atlantic: How to Write a Business Letter: Advice From the 18th Century – You too can sound like a rich, proper, old English gentleman with guidance from their charming correspondence manuals by Shannon Chamberlain. The whole article is terrific – be sure to read it! But, here’s a key excerpt:

The Earl of Chesterfield, the 18th-century British statesman and patron of the arts, had a number of concerns about his illegitimate son Philip, but one he revisited often in his posthumously published letters to the boy is about Philip’s correspondence. This species of worry ranged from handwriting (“shamefully bad and illiberal; it is neither the hand of a man of business, nor of a gentleman, but of a truant school boy”) to the boy’s prose style (“one principal topic of our conversation will be, not only the purity but the elegance of the English language; in both which you are very deficient”).

The latter became a particular concern after Chesterfield went to the trouble of setting the boy up in the world. In December 1751, he offered Philip some delightfully modern-sounding advice on his business correspondence:

The first thing necessary in writing letters of business, is extreme clearness and perspicuity; every paragraph should be so clear and unambiguous, that the dullest fellow in the world may not be able to mistake it, nor obliged to read it twice in order to understand it. This necessary clearness implies a correctness, without excluding an elegance of style. Tropes, figures, antitheses, epigrams, etc., would be as misplaced and as impertinent in letters of business, as they are sometimes (if judiciously used) proper and pleasing in familiar letters, upon common and trite subjects. In business, an elegant simplicity, the result of care, not of labor, is required.

An elegant simplicity. Clearness. Able to be fully understood – at the first (and thus, only) reading.

Artists can be obscure, symbolic, mysterious – their purpose is different.

But most communication is for the purpose of direct communication. “Understand this; do this.” The “this” has to be crystal clear.

So – clear! Simple! To the point! Very good advice indeed.


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