The legal aspects of buying Vital Speeches and the Professional Speechwriters Association have astonished me in two ways:
- That words in contracts actually hold up, even against money interests. I always assumed that contracts weren't worth the paper they're printed on, and that their drawing-up was largely a game that lawyers made us play in order to get paid. No. If a contract is written well, it's worth a lot—and it can be worth everything.
- That I've made my whole living as a writer, and yet had so little faith in the power of words, even italicized ones, to actually achieve anything. Or maybe I have such little faith because I have made a living as a writer, and after writing a few million of the most convincing words I could come up with, I'm still waiting to see the resulting global transformation.
After decades of hearing lawyers derided as cautious communication killers, I've been forced to admire the analytical mind and communication power of a good lawyer (one of which I've been very lucky to have)—and, of the usefulness of legal language.*
Of course I still hate to read contracts and don't understand them myself any better than I ever did; but I don't dismiss out of hand the wisdom of a statement like this, sent to me by a snorting English teacher as an example of absurd legalese:
This news release includes forward-looking statements and projections, which are statements that do not relate strictly to historical or current facts. These statements frequently use the following words, variations thereon or comparable terminology: "anticipate," "believe," "consider," "continue," "could," "estimate," "expect," "explore," "evaluate," "forecast," "intend," "may," "opportunity," "plan," "position," "projection," "should," "strategy," "target," "will" and similar words. Although the Partnership believes that such forward-looking statements are reasonable based on currently available information, such statements involve risks, uncertainties and assumptions and are not guarantees of performance.
With my new respect for people who can make words actually work, I look at statements like that for the wisdom I can extract to make my own words work better. And the wisdom I take from the above is that, like flaccid adjectives, such uncertain words should—no, must—be struck as much as possible from my prose, because they promise more than I can guarantee to deliver. And the more you emptily promise in your language as a writer—or as a human being, for that matter—the less you will be listened to.
And for good reason.
* One side benefit of my newfound appreciation for attorneys is that I've taken to telling them at cocktail parties about this transformation in my mind. "Really! Before this, I think I believed that all you did in law school was memorize statutes and learn how to use databases in search of precedents! But I have come to realize, you learned a certain way of thinking that I will never …" At this moment, the the lawyer will get an urgent text from a client, and rush off.