After Overwhelming Tragedy, the Power of Simple Words

As professional communicators, we often spend more time than we’d care to admit agonizing over the best way to convey a message, a feeling, or an idea.  Especially when our work requires us to pare down complicated concepts in a way that not only informs, but also persuades an audience to take action. The pressure to get the message exactly right can sometimes feel overwhelming.

In the aftermath of the horrifying Paris terror attacks, the world, it seems, is also searching for the right words. The right words to convey the extreme emotions that such horror evokes – shock, grief, anger, confusion, fear. The right words to answer that all-encompassing question our political leaders are now grappling with: “How do we respond?” The right words to comfort our loved ones – especially young children, for whom words must be chosen carefully when discussing a tragedy of such magnitude.

And yet, amid all this agonizing over how to say it exactly right, and how much to say at all, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that simplicity speaks powerfully. And in recent days, we saw two strong examples of this:

The popular news site Mashable received plaudits from Harvard’s NeimanLab for creating En mémoire (@ParisVictims), a Twitter feed devoted exclusively to commemorating the victims of the Paris attacks. Capturing the essence of a person’s history on this earth – while staying within the confines of Twitter’s 140-character limit – proved a powerful way to convey the essence of a life cut off far too soon.

You may also have seen or heard the beautiful – yet simple – line shared by a French father to his son during a live interview by Le Petit Journal that was captured in this now-viral video. “They may have guns, but we have flowers,” said the father, in deftly yet simply explaining to his young son that he need not be afraid.

After a tragedy, we always search for the right words, sometimes feeling so overwhelmed that we say very little. There is something important to remember in the power of such simplicity – especially at a time when there are no good answers.

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