Lexicon Late Night: 3 Lessons in Effective Communication from George Orwell

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David: Hello, welcome to Episode 2 of Lexicon Late Night. I’m your host, David Norcross here at our video production agency in Bangkok as always with my colleague Justin … St-Denis. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of my favorite authors of all time, and another master storyteller, Eric Blair.

Justin: Otherwise known as …

David: George Orwell.

David: So George Orwell, obviously the author of “1984” and “Animal Farm”, which everybody knows him for. But today, we’re going to talk about a little bit more around those books. Like, what made him a master storyteller. That’s what our lessons for today will be about.

Justin: Yeah, and the previous episode was all about lessons for business leaders, how to market yourself, how to operate. This time, we’ll be focusing more on how to communicate. So just how to get your message out there. And then how to write but also speak clearly, and with integrity, and in a way that resonates with the audience.

David: Absolutely. I think one of the things that people get caught up in when it comes to communication is that the technology changes all the time, you know, from papyrus through to the telegram, through to the radio, through to magazines, newspapers, internet,

Justin: TikTok.

David: Those things are always changing, and they will continue to change. But good communication is timeless.

Justin: 100%

David: The same rules that worked, you know, 100 years ago, they work just as well now. So let’s get into the first one of those rules, which comes from George Orwell’s seminal essay, politics and English language.

Justin: Yeah, absolutely brilliant, brilliant essay. Really the genesis for “1984”. He wrote it in 1946. “1984” came out in 1949. And he talks about in this essay, how people – powerful people – can manipulate language in order to mask the truth. Little things like using the passive voice instead of the active voice. Politicians do this all the time, they’ll say, “Oh well, mistakes were made” instead of using the active voice, like, “I made a mistake”, therefore showing that you were the one responsible, so you can mask your responsibility. There’s a lot going on in this essay. But in particular, what we’re going to focus on for the purposes of this discussion are: Orwell’s six rules for writing. Yep. So let’s put them up on the screen.

2:22 David: Alright. So there we go, they are the six rules. So the first one is: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print.

Justin: Okay, so this is pretty low hanging fruit. This will be a piece of cake. We’re just going to have to circle the wagons here and figure this one out. I just broke Orwell’s first rule.

David: Indeed. So why is that breaking the rules? I understand those words. I know what they mean. Why is that a problem?

Justin: So the problem with using metaphors that are overused – metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech – is that they become clichés. And when you use a cliché, it loses all of its actual impact, because you’re just resorting to thinking that somebody else did a long time ago. And then people have repeated that. And so now we’ve … it becomes devoid of any substance. So when you do that, you just sound unoriginal, you sound derivative. And this is, you know, one of the points that we try to make consistently on this show, and at our social media agency in Bangkok in general, if you want to stand out from the competition, you have to be unique. If you want to grab people’s attention, you need to earn it. And if you’re just using the same figures of speech that other people are using, people are just going to tune you out. People are smart, and they’ll instinctively just be like, “This guy’s not worth listening to”.

David: Exactly. So this applies to any part of writing, but especially to captions. So if you’re writing a caption, you have to catch attention, you have to catch it quickly. And something that’s unusual, generally is going to catch attention better.

Justin: Right. The whole point of metaphors is that they’re supposed to illustrate what you’re thinking in a way that nobody else has ever thought of before, but it immediately clarifies things. So if you do use an unusual metaphor, as an opening sentence in a caption, immediately people will be like, “Whoa, what is this?”

David: You’re gonna stop and try and figure out what’s going on?

Justin: Yeah, so rule number one, what’s rule number two?

David: So rule number two is: Never use a long word where a short word will do.

Justin: Yes. Okay, so utilize, well I’m not gonna be as good as the first one.

Justin: But yeah, people try to make themselves sound more intelligent than they are by using big words. Yes, indubitably. Yeah indubitably and, you know, ‘leverage’, ‘utilize’, just say ‘use’.  Now, we’re getting into my own pet peeve here, but okay, when you’re communicating to a wide audience, it’s important – especially here in Thailand, some of them, English might not be their first language – you have to communicate, you have to be empathetic towards your audience, and so to show that communicate clearly, don’t use big words when a short one will do. Because you’re like you’re just being a discourteous writer, if you’re making things … Like, clear writing – and this is something that Orwell gets into in the essay – clear writing, good writing is when you take a complex thought and make it easy to understand. If you take something that’s easy to understand and make it complicated, you’re just a jerk. What a jerk.

David: Back to Norm.

Justin: Back to Norm. But you’re just being a bad writer, even if you think that makes you sound smart. And what happens is one of two things: 1. They’re not going to understand you and they’re going to be frustrated, and then they’re not gonna listen to you. Or 2. They will understand you, but they’re going to see right through you because they go like, “Well, this guy’s just, he’s a pedant. He’s being condescending.” Or he’s being, you know, like, I can see through it. And so they’re going to dismiss you.

David: Absolutely. And again, this comes back to, you know, Orwell obviously wrote this about authors writing long-form – books – but it’s so true when it comes to short-form content. Like, if you’re writing a caption on Facebook, LinkedIn, or wherever it might be, the more complicated it is, the less chance people are going to stop and read it because they won’t understand it. They’ll just skip it. If it looks like it’s not made for me, why should I look at it? So? Yeah, it’s pretentious to show off.

Justin: So yeah, speak in everyday language, speak in a language that people, they speak in, and then they’ll relate to it. But yeah, don’t be pretentious,  which is kind of a long word.

David: Yeah. And it’s pretentious to show off. I think I’m breaking rule one and two. So onto rule three: If it’s possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.

Justin: Yeah, sure. I think this one, we don’t need to go too far into it. It’s pretty self explanatory. An example of this would be ‘in order’, ‘in order to’, you can usually just say ‘to’.

David: Yep, keep it simple. Don’t over egg the pudding.

Justin: There you go. That’s … is that an overused metaphor? I don’t think it is. See there you go. An uncommon metaphor. Don’t over egg the pudding. Now I understand what you’re saying more clearly, which is good.

David: Are you sure?

Justin: Yeah, yeah. That’s very British.

David: Yeah it is. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Justin: Yeah, I mean, I mentioned this off the top like, okay, first of all, it should be active voice, you know, ‘the dog bit the man’, as opposed to ‘the man was bitten by a dog’. It’s just clearer. And it’s a more efficient form of communication. But like I mentioned earlier, when you use the passive voice, you can hide the actor. So you can say things like ‘mistakes were made’ or ‘casualties were incurred’ or, you know, other kinds of political-type language where you’re trying to hide who was at fault or who was responsible.

David: Justin was listened to.

Justin: Yeah.

David: Alright, yes.

Justin: By, at least some people online.

David: At least a million people surely.

Justin: Oh yeah.

David:  Absolutely. Passive voice is bad writing, because it just makes it harder to figure out who’s doing what.

Justin: Yeah, exactly.

David: Keep it simple. You don’t deserve people to have to work hard to figure out what you’re trying to say.

Justin: There are exceptions, which we’ll get into later. But, you know, ‘the man was hit by a train’. It’s a very passive thing. The train isn’t really an actor. So in that case, you could probably use a passive voice.

David: Yeah.

Justin: I’m muddying the waters now. Alright.

David: Alright. Number 5: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word, if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. So, just use the word, the language of the common man.

8:37 Justin: Yeah. Yeah. English. I’m trying to think, there’s so many examples of this in the corporate world.

David: Oh, yeah.

Justin: Especially,

David: For sure.

Justin: Especially future-proof.

David: Yeah. And in terms of jargon, all the acronyms and all kinds of things I think we can get brief earlier today, which was full of such language.

Justin: Yeah, exactly. So just keep in mind that not everybody knows your insider terminology. And it might be a little bit more work to think, “Okay well, how do I say this in everyday speech?” but it’s worth it because more people are going to understand you. And that’s the whole point of communicating: People understanding you.

David: Absolutely. And it’s back to the same rules again. Like if you’re using complicated words, you’re definitely going to lose some of your audience and the purpose of writing is to try and catch the attention of your audience. So don’t risk them not understanding what you’re trying to say because then you’re failing in your core objective. Don’t use a complicated scientific word, keep it simple. And it’s a pet peeve of mine, you’re bilingual, so it’s different for you, but people throwing in French words or Italian words into an article, like I don’t know what that means. Like, like this is an English language newspaper, The Guardian.

Justin: Right, but, not like common things like ‘déjà vu’ or like ‘raison d’être’. I always feel weird whenever these French terms come up in English, because I can speak French. But I don’t want to say it with a French accent because then I sound pretentious. Like, I’m just trying to show off like, “Oh, well that’s my whole ‘raison d’être’.

10:10 David: I like it though. I’m sure ladies like it too.

Justin: I’m sure they do. Nothing sexier than a French Canadian accent.

David: Rule six is: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Justin: See this, this is funny because he’s breaking his own rule on purpose here by using the term ‘barbarous’. Indeed. So he’s … you know, case in point. But like we’ve kind of mentioned before these rules are guidelines. There’s no firm you have to say this, you can’t ever use a foreign word, you can’t ever use the passive voice, you can’t ever say ‘in order to’ instead of just ‘to’. Sometimes it just feels better and sounds better to throw in these things. So like, you know, stick to the rules as much as you can. But occasionally there’s room for flourish and creativity and storytelling and all the rest of it. So, you know, don’t stifle yourself, but keep in mind who you’re speaking to.

David: And as we’re going to see later on, he broke all those rules for “1984”, created his own words, made his own university, made his own language. So this is the basis for quality writing. But what we’re going to look at next is where Orwell got his ideas from to some degree or where he did his background. So lesson one: clear communication. Keep it simple. Don’t be pretentious, and try to engage – especially when you’re writing captions, the first sentence of your caption, keep it very short, very simple. Provocate. Get people to pay attention and get them to read more. That’s the key point of any marketing.

Justin: Yeah. Provocate though?

David: Provoke, provoke.

Justin: Wow, this is gonna turn in … we’re going to be trying to out-Orwell each other.

David: Yes, indeed.

Justin: This is a recipe for an interesting show. But we’ve got other things to discuss here other than writing tips, right?

David: We do.

Justin: So this does create the foundation for his approach to writing, his approach to storytelling. But what are we going to talk about next here?

David: So one of the brilliant things about Orwell … Orwell stands alone as, as the best author of the 20th century – from the UK at least.

Justin: Yeah, best English-language author, you know, everything’s debatable. But he was a titan not just as a writer, but just as a human being. The guy had principles that were just unshakable and he stuck to them. And he was really just like an intellectually honest individual and an extremely courageous individual. I don’t know if we have time for this little tangent. But this is a quote from Christopher Hitchens, another fantastic English author, talking about Orwell saying that he got all three of the major questions of the 20th century correctly. Number one: colonialism and imperialism, which he wrote about extensively, speaking out against it. Second: fascism. He didn’t even write about that. He just picked up a gun, and went and fought in the Spanish Civil War, fighting the fascists. And then number three: communism, which we’ll get into later.

David: in “Animal farm”, of course.

Justin: Yeah, and 1984.

David: Yes. So, second lesson is about expertise. So if you want to succeed, especially when it comes to thought leadership, or executive positioning, or any of those things, you can’t really fake it. You have to do the work. You have to really understand your topic. You have to be an expert. And I don’t know of any person who did it as well as Orwell.

Justin: Yeah. So “Down and Out in Paris and London”, and “Road to Wigan Pier” as two examples.

David: And “Homage to Catalonia”.

Justin: So he actually went and lived as a tramp?

David: Yes, yes. So during the Great Depression, he went to live in France.

Justin: Is tramp okay to say?

David: I think it is.

Justin: It’s an English word.

David: Yeah, it’s an English word, yeah.

David: So he went to work in Paris as a teacher and when the Great Depression hit, he ended up working in a restaurant in a big expensive hotel, but just in the basement. It was horrible, working long hours, low pay, and it sucked. He was down and out in the sense that he was living on the breadline. It was terrible. He came back to London and then he – some degree by choice because he was an Etonion and he was from a wealthy family – but he decided not to take charity and lived as a homeless guy for a period of time. 

Justin: That’s wild. In the 30s?

David: In the 30s yeah.

Justin: Yeah, that’s yeah, it was actually, there were a lot of homeless people at that time.

David: England’s bloody cold. I wouldn’t want to be living on the streets. Very different from working at a video production agency in Bangkok, Thailand!

Justin: Imagine being in Canada as a homeless guy.

David: Yeah. So he wrote this, you know, seminal book, which is not one of his most famous books, but it’s a really fascinating insight into his character, like he wanted to understand the struggle of the poor.

Justin: So are we saying here that business leaders should experience some time as homeless people?

15:03 David: Yes, that is the lesson for today. No. But he lived as a homeless guy. He went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, as you mentioned. He wrote a book called “Homage to Catalonia”. He got to see close up communism and fascism and truly understand it not just from an academic perspective. And he broke, kind of, the rules of the well-to-do southerners. He was a posh boy who went to Eton. He was a rich kid. But he went to live with coal miners in Wigan also in the 1930s, and experienced their lives. And he didn’t airbrush it. He was like, you know, he wrote about how terrible it was, how they died of the black lung, how they were stupid, and they were smelly, potentially.

Justin: But that’s an interesting point that I think we should linger on is that oftentimes socialists are of the intellectual class. And so they’re elites. And so they see the working class through kind of romantic, rose colored lenses, and they think, well these people are going to save us. Meanwhile, none of them have spent any time with the working class. And if they did, maybe wouldn’t like them. And the working class probably wouldn’t like these effete intellectuals either.

David: Absolutely. So he was incredibly honest of Orwell to kind of acknowledge. Yeah, exactly, as you said, they don’t like us. And we don’t really like them very much. Like, how are we going to build this class alliance of the bourgeoisie to overtake the ruling class with the proles, essentially, if we don’t like them. And he made that point very clearly. So he was really an iconoclast, and I’m breaking one of his rules there, I’m sure. But he was very much against the system, but he was against all forms of what you’re supposed to do. He was just an honest man.

Justin: Yeah, I think that’s the key point there is just intellectual honesty and courage, really. But I think I think the larger point you’re making here is that to be a good, credible communicator, you need to be an expert in your subject matter.

David: Absolutely. You’ve got to do the research, you’ve got to do the hours, and then you’ve got to actually know what you’re talking about. And thought leadership by definition is a display of your subject knowledge. You’re literally leading conversation, and you can’t really fake that. So if you’re a business leader, you need to either be displaying the knowledge and wisdom that you have, or at least you need to be having an expert, outsourced storytelling agency supporting you with that.

Justin: Yeah, that’s uh … you know, well put. Sure.

David: You know any of those?

Justin: Yeah. There’s plenty of good social media agencies in Bangkok.

David: How many of them have late night shows though?

17:45 Justin: Only one as far as I’m aware of. No, but seriously, the point, the point you’re making is a good one. I mean, it is a little funny how hard you kind of sold our social media agency in Bangkok on that. I don’t know how Orwell would feel. But no, if you want to be seen as … you’ve got to show your expertise. And if you don’t actually have that expertise, you need to provide value to the audience. And so obviously, business leaders are super busy. They’ve got other things to do. They’ve got to focus on the big picture, company culture, leading the organization, all of this very important stuff. But you still need to be communicating to your audience. And you need to be really showing your in-depth expertise, showing that you really know what you’re talking about. So if you don’t have time for that, you’ve got to hire people that will do the work. And now I’m doing the same thing.

David: So the key lesson is: Nobody deserves an audience. Like just because you write a blog or you make a video, you don’t deserve an audience, you have to earn it. So, you’ve got to communicate well. You’ve got to know your subject. That’s it.

Justin: Yeah. That’s it. Show your expertise. And if you … somebody within your organization will have expertise.

David: I hope.

Justin: I certainly hope so.

David: Now we’ve got the technical skills. We’ve got the research. Now we see Orwell, truly coming into his own.

Justin: Right.

David: He spent all of these years dedicating himself to his craft, both technically and anthropologically.

Justin: Sure.

David: Doing the ethnography.

Justin: Yeah, there you go. 

David; And now he’s ready to put out his best work. So first of all, “Animal Farm”. So the lesson here is going to be a great storyteller, leader of your field, like he was the best. And because of these other things that he did, he was able to really display storytelling magnificence and shine.

Justin: “Animal Farm” is an interesting one. Like, I think I read it in high school. And it’s just an allegory. And it’s kind of funny because people like animals. You think it’s gonna be kind of a pleasant tale, and it really is not. It’s an absolutely tragic tale. But it wasn’t popular at the time. It wasn’t well received. People weren’t even … he struggled – if I’m not mistaken – struggled to find publishers for this book, right?

David: I think we’re going to end up with the same lesson that we always end up with here, to be honest. We’re going to end up with the lesson of “Don’t pander”.

Justin: Yeah, yeah.

David: He was just a brilliant person. Like, he went and fought in the Spanish Civil War, so he’d seen communism close up, where most people who were communists in the 1930s, or whatever, they hadn’t really experienced Russian communism yet. They just thought ‘capitalism bad, therefore communism is good’. They didn’t have the insight that he did. So he’d heard about the realities of communism and the lies of equality and the lies of Stalin, Stalinism. So he was able to tell an allegory that was basically a true story. But yeah, in the form of animals.

Justin: Right, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. Iconic line, very funny. But also tragic, and really, really encapsulates the problem of, you know, Soviet-style communism.

21:06 David: Exactly. So he wrote the book during the peak of the Second World War when Russia and the UK and the US were allies, so his publisher wouldn’t publish it.

Justin: Kind of understandable because it’s wartime and okay, one enemy at a time here.

David: Yeah, but it’s a book about pigs though.

Justin: Yeah, yeah. But hey, we got to watch out for these pigs, especially that Snowball.

David: Indeed, indeed. He was a bad dude.

Justin: Yeah, but I mean, it’s brilliant. It just shows, okay, you overthrow a system, and then whoever ends up in charge of that system if you don’t have certain fundamental principles in place, you’re just going to become just as bad as the previous master, if not far worse.

David: So he was absolutely true to himself. He went against his publisher who was a communist, he went against the government who was very much friends with Russia at that time, but he knew what was true and he published it. And eventually, when it came out, after the alliance was over, it did become popular. It was his most successful book, by far at that time, because communism of Russia was now an enemy. You know, the Cold War started pretty much as soon as the Second World War ended.

Justin: Yeah. And that actually. So “Animal Farm” is the precursor. Yes. “Animal Farm” is pretty short. And the precursor to, obviously, his most famous book “1984”.

David: Yes, he took all of these lessons of everything he’d learned. Just the clear communication, the powerful metaphors, the understanding of communism and capitalism and fascism and society, and just all of that life of iconoclasm and wisdom and experience, and he turned it all into this brilliant book.

Justin: Yeah, maybe my favorite book of all time. I mean, it’s very stark, and it’s harsh, and it’s certainly not a happy ending. But it’s just gripping, super compelling writing. I remember, I was actually going … I was about 19 when I read it for the first time, and I was on my way to Northern Ontario to work as a tree planter. We don’t really need to get into details, but I was on the bus for … it’s a 12 hour bus ride from Ottawa to Sudbury, Ontario. And I was with my buddy Tyler, and we were going tree planting together. And he was really excited. And I’m normally a very talkative guy.

Justin: But I was reading, I just started reading “1984”. And the entire bus ride, I didn’t say a word to him, because I was just like glued to the pages of the book. It’s just so so compelling, like even the first line – probably going to screw it up a little bit – but ‘It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13’. Immediately you’re like, ‘Okay, this is not the world that I know. There’s something crazy going on here.’ And I immediately identified with Winston Smith. You know, I was 19 at the time, now I’m a lot more like him: in his 30s going bald and I’ve got all these like physical ailments and stuff. I don’t have a varicose ulcer but yeah, I immediately just identified with this guy and what he was going through in this society where you don’t get to, you have no privacy and no freedom. I’m kind of just rambling here. 

David: But it’s a different lesson from Norm, though right? When we did the Norm episode, it was three distinct lessons. These are all kind of cumulative, they build on each other to get to this conclusion that if you put in the work he did, the technical knowledge of your industry that he had, you can produce masterpieces. Or you can outsource to an agency.

Justin: Right, right, sure.

Justin: We’ll write “1984” for you. It’ll be double plus good.

David: I’m sure Steve would probably write “1984”.

Justin: I mean, I don’t know about that. But okay sure. Yeah, we’ve got this talent in house.

David: Yes, indeed. Indeed. Alright, so summing up Orwell, then what are the core lessons that businesses can take from George?

25:03 Justin: Okay, well, number one: Write or speak, communicate clearly. You don’t have to follow his rules exactly. But his rules are really a good guideline, especially as David was saying earlier, for writing social media captions. They’ve got to be punchy, they’ve got to be thought provoking, they’ve got to grab your attention. And you know, use the active voice, don’t use jargon, don’t use weird metaphors. Write clearly, and be courteous to your audience. That’s a bit convoluted, but that’s number one, communicate clearly.

Justin: Number two: Know your stuff. And if you don’t, do your research. And if you don’t, hire somebody who will do it for you. And then number three is just use the summation of all of your skills that you’ve collected throughout your life and use that to produce something brilliant, so sort of really just storytelling.

David: Is this our “1984” Justin?

Justin: I don’t think so. This is more like one of his essays in the Guardian or something. It’s not bad. But, it’s not a masterpiece.

David: I’m sure in 100 years, people will be thinking of these 3 lessons.

Justin: Yeah, of course, there’s gonna be some kid on a bus who’s watching this instead of talking to his buddy.

David: Indeed. All right. So thank you for tuning in to Episode 2. Episode 3 is coming very soon, which is going to feature another one of the greatest storytellers of all time. Stay tuned, and we’ll be back very soon with more from our video production agency in Bangkok.


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