I enjoy reading people’s nominations to the Oxymoron Hall of Fame: restless sleep, popular culture, reality television, common sense, uninvited guest. But my personal favorite is communications committee.
Having spent many years working on media projects in the corporate, charity, and church worlds, I have come to the conclusion that the clarity and quality of a message is inversely proportional to the number of people who have a hand in it.
If too many cooks can spoil the broth, then too many editors can lose the plot.
I’m not suggesting we act as “go-it-aloners” who ignore everyone else. It’s always good to get some feedback and input from other people. We all have blind spots and need a second pair of eyes: this blog is edited by friend and fellow writer Ken Walker, for whom I return the favor. But, at the end of the day, someone needs to be in charge of the message. Typically, you can’t communicate well by committee.
If Abraham Lincoln had peer-reviewed his thoughts about the events of July 1-3, 1863, instead of the 272-word Gettysburg Address, we would probably be studying the 272-page Gettsyburg Addendum.
Or, more to the point, paying it no attention whatsoever.
Committees have their place. For the most part, though, when it comes to communicating, I think they have never been better defined than as “dark alleys down which good ideas are lured and quietly strangled.” In other words, they rarely cast a vision or capture attention.
Joshua learned that from his mentor. The first time the people of Israel were on the edge of the Promised Land, Moses sent a 12-strong committee to check things out. You’ll remember that the members came back with a split vote, and that the majority delivered a “bad report” that had far-reaching consequences.
Forty years later, when Joshua had assumed the leadership role and the Israelites were once again ready to enter the place God had promised them, he sent out another exploratory group—of two. They returned to report, “Truly the Lord has delivered all the land into our hands, for indeed all the inhabitants of the country are fainthearted because of us” (Joshua 2:25).
It’s interesting to note that their message overturned the earlier committee’s version. When the 10 spies had reported back about the situation in the Promised Land, their account “made the heart of the [Israelite] people melt” (Joshua 14:8).
On that occasion, only Joshua and Caleb had returned with a positive message. In Joshua 24:7, Caleb tells how he (and presumably Joshua) “brought back a report according to my convictions.” They were not swayed by the majority. Unfortunately their minority voice got drowned out by the naysayers.
This makes me think of another oxymoron: focus group. Too many times such committees serve to engage in fuzzy thinking that stifles creativity. Why do you think there are so many “Director’s Cut” editions of movies (meaning, “This is the film I wanted to make before I was given all the ‘notes’ from studio execs who had seen an early version and had suggestions.”)?
I had to wrestle with this sometimes when working with loosely-structured organizations, where various senior figures would make “comments” on writing drafts. These were really instructions in disguise. By the time you had included them all from several different people, your proposed horse had been turned, in the best committee tradition, into a camel.
Well, at least a camel is useful for wandering around in the desert for a few decades.