The ability to communicate – be it face-to-face or in written form – is withering away. And I mourn its imminent demise keenly.
Discarded by the wayside by the ever-expanding information revolution, we have an oversupply of electronic means by which to stay informed. But as we wade through a plethora of pixels and mountains of gigabytes, there is something tangible, something intensely real, missing. In its place, live things as remote from each other as they are impersonal.
Like many a sad love song, we don’t talk anymore. Gone is the very real intimacy of face-to-face communication and with it, the warmth of reaching out.
Even telephone calls have been kicked kerbside by poorly written text messages that are more often than not misconstrued. Instead of revelling in meaningful conversation around the dinner table, people disengage from each other and communicate instead with faceless devices.
While there is still a debate around the demise of print media, newspapers are haemorrhaging at the seams. Tiso Blackstar recently announced that it will be shutting down the print edition of The Times. Consequently, newspapers are focussing on their electronic counterparts to disseminate news timeously.
And more is the pity.
When I first started my career as a bright-eyed and oh so wet-behind-the-ears mainstream news reporter in 1984, the tools of our trade were the countless pens we either stole or borrowed and didn’t return, and dog-eared reporters’ notepads that stood us in good stead if we were ever held to account before the Press Council for a story that had been published under our name.
These hastily scribbled notes would then be transcribed into something vaguely passing for a story by typewriter – only for the paper to be viciously yanked out in fury by a vexed editor, demanding that it be rewritten. For the fourth time.
I remember when computers made their grand entrance into the nicotine-laced newsrooms of old. These gargantuan squares of ugly machinery took up the already cramped space of almost a whole desk, but we learnt – eventually – how to craft stories on these cabled monstrosities.
Before heading out on a story, it was a dismissible offence for a reporter not to venture into the newspaper libraries of old to do some basic research into a particular issue. Making friends with the Chief Librarian was your ticket to be first in the queue, wading through efficiently filed newspaper clippings until your fingers were black from newspaper ink.
What a delicious rite of passage this was!
The foot-in-the-door interviews with your sources centred more about what wasn’t being said. We had been trained by the best in the news business to look out for non-verbal cues: hands clenched in a lap, a furrowing of the brow, a dying plant in the corner of the lounge, or a tarnished trophy still occupying pride of place on the mantelpiece.
Spell checks?? Perish the thought. We had dictionaries and were expected to use them. This was how we learned our craft, and how we experienced the sheer humiliation of having a story ‘spiked’ – never to be published – or felt the heady triumph of making it to the front page.
Technology may have revolutionised the way we conduct business. We can now perform faster and better than ever before, but we have lost out on so much that makes us human.
These days, I make a living as a Media and Communications Consultant. All it often comes down to is teaching people how to communicate again. It’s sadly becoming a lost art form.
So accustomed are my clients to interfacing with a variety of devices, that they are rendered almost speechless when having to face an audience. They stand on a podium, their pulse beating visibly in their neck, only to realise that words don’t come easy. It’s stage fright at its most debilitating.
Even the beauty of real penmanship, one of the oldest forms of long-distance communication, has declined at a frightening rate. In the writing workshops I’ve facilitated over the last few years, it has become evident that delegates are struggling to think creatively.
It’s not uncommon for me to hear one of them saying: “But I’ve forgotten how to write!” In fact, only last week during a Creative Writing programme for corporate journalists, a participant said that she needed to get what she described as her ‘learner’s licence’ in writing again. The course, she said, had made her want to go for many ‘driving lessons’ so she could eventually earn her ‘driver’s licence’ to write.
There is substantial research documenting how our generation’s technology habits have resulted in a decline in communication and writing skills. And while we can easily list how these changes adversely affect our daily lives, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the advantages.
However, the fact is that creativity requires time. This is something that has become a scarce resource – especially when we consider the fact that an individual’s attention span is less than that of a solitary goldfish.
We are now able to communicate at the speed of light – but effective communication skills remain imperative to succeed.
While my generation relied on body language to support verbal communication, this generation of techno-savvy individuals rely heavily on their ability to effectively communicate, delegate and motivate through mostly written communication. One could then argue that they should be even more adept at written communication.
In this global online village, there is simply no margin for error. Think about it: What does that grammatical error or poorly constructed message say about your business?
It is time that we fight back against the digital revolution’s influence on our writing. Let this not be the generation that kills penmanship and the real art of communication.