When I developed my business and legal writing lecture, Your Writing Is Your Brand, I used one of the play’s famous lines as an example of clear writing and, consequently, as a warning of what would happen if Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet were attorneys.
Juliet’s command of “Deny thy father, refuse thy name” becomes:
“Whereas we are in love and notwithstanding the possibility of retaliation by your family banishing you from its real estate, cancelling your inheritance, and/or communicating negative statements that will impact your reputation, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to abdicate your name, family, and all of the benefits pertaining thereto. If abdication is fully and completely accomplished, we can enjoy our lives freely and without interference from members of either the Capulet or Montague families or their duly authorized representatives.”
My scenario always got a laugh. But it also got nods because lawyers and business professionals know that this problem is not merely occasional. This type of writing is…what’s the word that I’m looking for? Ubiquitous? Omnipresent? All-pervading? Rather than a fifty-cent word, let’s go with a five-cent word. Frequent.
To remedy the disease of wordiness, lawyers might want to study one of the great communication scholars. Not Cicero. Not Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Benjamin Kubelsky of Waukegan, Illinois. Oh, you never heard of Benjamin Kubelsky of Waukegan, Illinois? Perhaps his stage name will be more familiar. Jack Benny.
Jack Benny was a comedy icon of the 20th century. He started in vaudeville, playing the violin and telling jokes. He graduated to radio, film, and television with a persona honed like a Stradivarius.
On his eponymous radio show, Jack Benny played himself, a comedian with a radio show. When Benny moved to television, the paradigm remained, as did Benny’s hallmarks for his fictional alter ego.
He constantly claimed an age of 39.
He lived in Beverly Hills with a polar bear named Carmichael in the basement.
He drove a 1920s Maxwell that was, indeed, a loud lemon of a car.
And he was cheap, the kind of cheap that inspired him to ask his valet, Rochester, to go to the train tracks with a nearly empty toothpaste tube, place the tube on the tracks, and retrieve the remaining toothpaste that a locomotive forced from the bottom of the tube.
I often think about Jack Benny, not only because I’m a nostalgia buff, but also because he serves as a symbol for writers – Be cheap with words.
The key to good communication, after all, is brevity.