A small tribute

March 27, 2013 § 9 Comments

When I was sixteen, my mother died. It was sudden, it was unexpected. It was probably the most important day of my life.

And it’s something I’ve never been able to write about. I’ve tried, but I’ve never quite had the words.

Actually, that’s not strictly true. I wrote a poem the next year, called That Day. I sent it off to the Grahamstown Eisteddfod, and I remember it coming back with a comment from the adjudicator that read something like: “The poem doesn’t give the impression that you have experienced the loss that the poem’s narrator has experienced.”

So yes, perhaps I didn’t have the words.

Losing your mother at a young age has an interesting effect on the way you measure out your life. Everything happens either before your mom died, or after. This year I turn 44 and I’m reminded that I will be two years older than my mother was when she died. I spent 2011, the year I turned 42, convinced that it would be my last year on earth. I now count each birthday as a blessing.

For years after she died I had recurring dreams where I would bump into her, suddenly, and discover that she had not died. She’d just decided to start a new life, elsewhere. Yes, I know. Denial. Eventually, it passed.

And I was one of the lucky ones. My father remarried and my siblings and I were given the gift of a wonderful stepmother, who has now been in our lives for longer than our mother ever was, and who is a fantastic grandmother to my children.

But I still think about my mom sometimes. This morning, unexpectedly, I had a pang of missing her, just wondering what she’d think. Of me. Of her grandchildren. She never got to meet them, and I know she would have been a wonderful grandmother too.

I’m old enough to remember the things she said, and to hear her voice echoing in my head when I admonish my own children. She was a teacher by training, and she took no nonsense from anyone. She was small and feisty, and always saw the brighter side of things, despite a disability that made her tired from time to time. She taught me to love music and words, to sew, to enjoy the outdoors, to laugh in the face of adversity. Most of all, she was always there for us, and prepared to sacrifice anything so that we could have the opportunities she felt we should have.

And all she ever expected in return from her children was that we did our best at everything we turned our hand to. That was all. Just do your best – always. Be honest and hard-working, and always do your very best.

I realise that ethos has shaped me in all kinds of ways. I only knew her for sixteen years, but she made a huge impression on me.

So this is just my way – my small way – of saying, “I still miss you, Mom.” And thanks. Both your life and your death have made me who I am today. I hope you would have been proud.

Broken English

March 20, 2013 § 3 Comments

When I teach Business Writing, I try to teach people that every bit of communication that leaves a business impacts upon its brand. So you can pay millions to ad agencies and PR agencies and publicists, but all of that expense is undone by the misspelt, badly written emails that go out from your employees’ computers, or the presentations to clients that are riddled with grammar and spelling  mistakes.

I go so far as to say that even the sign on a cubicle door proclaiming that a toilet is out of order is business writing if your clients come into contact with it. And given how many times I’ve been in offices where the sign says “Out of Oder” (sic) I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch. And yes, that particular error amuses me far more than it should.

But it got me thinking about plain language again. Why are things so often “Out of Order”? Why aren’t they just broken? Does calling something out of order make it any less non-functional? It is really so offensive to call something broken? And why do we feel the need to sanitise (if you’ll pardon the pun) everything?

I have the same problem with the endless euphemisms for death. Whenever I hear someone say: “He lost his father yesterday,” it takes every ounce of my self-control not to remark, “Careless!”

Actually, his father died. He did not expire, pass on, pass away, go home, or shuffle off his mortal coil. (Only Shakespeare can get away with that last one.) His father died. Calling it any of those other things really doesn’t soften the blow at all. The person is still dead, and their loved ones are still grieving. And saying someone has gone home is particularly confusing.

I imagine by now you think I’m a raving lunatic, and quite possibly you’re right. I just think we have over-euphemised (yes, I know that’s not a word) the language we use so much that we hardly know what we’re talking about anymore. In our attempts to sound businesslike, professional, educated, or even “fancy”, we just make our communication more and more cloudy. And that, my friends, means that many of us communicate in broken English.

Plain language, dammit

March 14, 2013 § 9 Comments

I want to let you in on a little conversation I had on Friday evening on Twitter.

The conversation was, at first, between me and whoever does social media for M-Net Series. Later, Barrie Bramley joined in. (In case you want to look him up, Barrie is a keynote speaker on a number of topics, one of which is social media and its impact on how we communicate and engage with each other. You can view Barrie’s profile here: http://bit.ly/ZiiY33.)

Because I’m digitally inept and have no idea how to do screenshots, etc, I’ve retyped the whole conversation for you, and I’ve left in all the Twitter handles and hashtags so you can see who’s talking to whom, and exactly what it said. It went like this:

@MNetSeries: Please note due to #VampireDiariesSA being on hiatus in the US, the show will be pre-empted for two weeks.

@MandyCollins: Pre-empted? SMH @MNetSeries: Please note due to #VampireDiariesSA being on hiatus in the US, the show will be pre-empted for two weeks.

@MNetSeries: Hi Mandy this is only for two weeks.

@CollinsMandy: I don’t watch the show. It’s your choice of words that bothers me.

@BarrieBramley: @CollinsMandy @MNetSeries ‘pre-empted’ is Twitter speak for… ‘we gonna play old episodes for the next two weeks’. #140characterconstraints

@CollinsMandy: @BarrieBramley No, it’s meaningless corporate speak. There’s always a way to be simple and clear. @MNetSeries #140characterconstraints

@BarrieBramley: @CollinsMandy @MNetSeries you feel strongly about this 🙂

@CollinsMandy: @BarrieBramley I do. Assuming the point of having a presence on social media is to build your brand and talk to clients… @MNetSeries

@BarrieBramley: but it’s such a fancy big word. I’m not sure you fully appreciate how long they’ve wanted to use @MNetSeries

And then, two days later, on Monday:

@MNetSeries: Hi your concern is noted, however these are television terms most fans are familiar with. Thanks

Okay, so perhaps I was a little grumpy, and perhaps I shouldn’t have picked on this person. But I had spent the morning running a business writing course at a big company, a course that covers plain language and clear writing as well as using social media effectively, so this rankled somewhat.

Frankly? This kind of thing is a problem in all forms of business writing – people have forgotten how to use simple, everyday language, and seem to think that business writing must be peppered with big words, jargon, and technical terms. We utilise instead of using things, we talk about competency and skillsets and critical mass, and nobody honestly knows – least of all the writer themself – what the hell anyone is on about anymore.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider this tweet from one of my favourite Twitter editors, Patrick Neylan, on March 6 this year. His droll comments on writing often have me rolling in the aisles:

“@AngrySubEditor: I’ve just saved our readers from “hires evidencing illiquidity”. Think of it as reductive syntactic philanthropy.”

Meaningless phrases are everywhere; you really don’t have to try to hard to find examples. And in a world where we have less and less time to read the deluge of information that comes our way every day, simple, clear communication is a must.

But back to my little Twitter conversation. I’m sorry, @MNetSeries, but I honestly don’t believe that ‘pre-empted’ is a term that “most TV fans are familiar with”. I am a huge TV fan. I used to write about television for a living. I had never come across the term in this setting until you used it.

Besides, do you even know what ‘pre-empt’ means? It has a few meanings – to take action in order to prevent an anticipated event from happening, or to acquire or appropriate something in advance, for example. It does not mean ‘we will screen repeat episodes until such time as we have something new to show you’.

I’m convinced this is a classic example of industry jargon (and really meaningless jargon, at that) being communicated to entirely the wrong audience.

Imagine if your doctor told you with a grave face, that you had severe pharyngitis and he was sending you to the otorhinolaryngologist – how would you feel? But if he said: “It’s a bad throat infection, and I want you to see the ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT),” that’s an entirely different story.

I think there’s a lesson in there for companies and brands in the way they communicate with clients. They should always be aiming to use ordinary, everyday language, not the corporate language they use around the office. As I said in the tweets, surely the aim of brands or companies using social media, is to connect with clients, to engage with them – to get a conversation going? Using jargon and overly complicated language, as some do, has quite the opposite effect. It alienates, confuses and obscures rather than encouraging people to engage with you. And therefore, I think, it does your brand no favours.

And please don’t confuse using plain language with dumbing things down. They are not the same thing. You can use plain language simply and elegantly without having to resort to words of one syllable. All you have to do is say what you mean and mean what you say – it’s not complicated, really.

Get your story straight

March 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

The week is only two days old and we’ve seen two big stories about HIV/AIDS in the headlines this week – one seemingly good news, the other not so good. And both have left me fuming, but not for the reasons you might think. As a health journalist with a long-held interest in HIV/AIDS, I found the reporting around both of these stories difficult to stomach.

A “cure” for HIV/AIDS

Let’s start with the good news. The first story heralded the possibility that a cure might have been found for HIV/AIDS. Of course, if this were true, it would be wonderful news indeed, but closer inspection of the facts showed a different story altogether.

In fact, what had happened – and you can read the Mail & Guardian’s version of the story at http://bit.ly/ZggqBX  – was that a child in the US had been “functionally cured” of HIV/AIDS. These were the words of Dr Hannah Gay, who had cared for the child at the University of Mississippi’s medical centre.

Being functionally cured of HIV/AIDS means you still have the virus in your blood, but its levels are so low as to be undetectable via standard tests. This child was given post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) within 30 hours of birth, because no-one knew the mother was HIV-positive, so normal prophylactic measures couldn’t be administered during labour.

But, as a Twitter friend pointed out, that’s well within the window period for giving PEP to healthcare workers who get a needlestick injury, for example – so why are we all so surprised that it worked?

I’m not a scientist, so it’s possible I’m missing nuances in the research, and I stand to be corrected when the paper is published. But I am a journalist, and I baulk at the way health stories like this are reported.

First, this is a case study. A single patient, given an experimental treatment (in the sense that this is the first time a baby has been given this treatment shortly after birth). That makes it anecdotal evidence. It’s a once-off, people.

By yesterday evening, sense had prevailed, and local HIV/AIDS experts were calling for caution and stressing the need for further research. Because while, happily, this might have worked for this child, we cannot extrapolate and call it even a possible or seeming ‘cure’ for HIV/AIDS.

Besides, any health journalist worth their salt would know that if that child is considered ‘cured’ then there is also an enormous body of HIV-patients out there who are also ‘cured’ of their disease.

Because here’s the thing: if you take your ARVs as prescribed, every day, you can reduce your viral load to undetectable levels. Let me put that in simple English: take your ARVs and they will not be able to find HIV/AIDS in your blood. But you still have to take your ARVs to keep it that way.

Yes, this child had been off treatment for several months, but she’s two and a half, for crying out loud – who knows what her viral load will be in a year if she stays off treatment?

This is the HIV/AIDS  message that doesn’t seem to be getting out there – that HIV/AIDS is a chronic, manageable disease. In other words, just as you can live to a ripe old age with high cholesterol or diabetes, so long as you do as your doctors tell you, so you can live to a ripe old age with HIV/AIDS if you take your meds and do as you’re told.

And in the private health setting in particular, many doctors will tell you that HIV/AIDS is better managed than any of those chronic diseases of lifestyle.

However, bandying words like ‘cure’ about does no-one any favours. Because the quotes about ‘prevention still being the most important strategy’ down towards the end of the articles are lost in the frenzy about a possible cure. And we should all know by now that the prevention message has been one of the great failures of public health communication – no-one even hears it anymore.

African women found defective

And then to the second piece, which really got me fired up – a report from Reuters I saw this morning with this headline: “Anti-AIDS pill, vaginal gel unsuitable for Africa: study”. http://bit.ly/108aG29

It was the ‘unsuitable for Africa’ bit that made me see red – there’s so much Eurocentric, western interpretation in those three words, that I had to look into the original study for myself.

In essence, the authors of the VOICE study (Vaginal and Oral Interventions for Combating the Epidemic) attempted to find out if daily use of a vaginal gel or an oral tablet could prevent HIV in young, unmarried African women – a group at very high risk of HIV infection.

I have no quibble with their choice of demographic – those facts are incontrovertible. Women account for 60% of adults with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, and young women are especially vulnerable. We know this, and HIV/AIDS organisations have been saying this for years.

When I objected to the use of those words on Twitter, it was because my reading of the headline made it seem as if African women were defective in some way – inferior. I was personally affronted, to be honest, and said as much, but was prepared to concede that it might just be me.

Someone responded that the trial was based on other, similar trials, and that the rate of compliance was low; that women had not reported accurately on their compliance with the trial requirements, and so on.

Again, my beef is not with the study itself – they tried, they found compliance was low, and they are now investigating as to what those reasons for non-compliance might be. (And people lie about their compliance on studies all the time, it has to be said.) But my research uncovered some very interesting things arise, none of which are touched on in the Reuters report.

Firstly, the two previous studies were conducted in very different populations. The VOICE study had healthy, HIV-negative, young women, many of whom were young and single. The iPrEx study, in contrast, looked at 2 500 men who have sex with men, and the Partners PrEP Study involved 4 758 heterosexual couples in which one of the partners was HIV-positive.

Now, just looking at those population groups, I’d argue that the latter two are far more motivated to be compliant with an HIV-prevention programme. Although HIV-transmission in South Africa tends to be primarily heterosexual, gay men are one of the big risk groups for HIV – and they know it. My gut feeling is that prevention messages have had far greater reach in the gay community than they have within the heterosexual community, so I would expect compliance with a programme like this.

Similarly, if you’re married (or in a committed relationship), and you know your partner is HIV-positive, you too are far more motivated to comply with an HIV-prevention programme that could protect you from infection. Aren’t you?

To be honest, I’m not surprised at all that compliance was so low. Firstly, all of us who can remember what it felt like to be young, healthy and single remember that feeling of invincibility, that bad things happen to other people – I’m not sure that any young, single population group anywhere in the world would be compliant on this programme.

Also, HIV/AIDS still carries a huge stigma in South Africa. Taking a prophylactic ARV daily is still taking an ARV, which means that just being in an HIV/AIDS trial could have serious social repercussions.

We live in a country where women are brutalised on a daily basis, where women’s bodies are still not their own. The study authors themselves say: “Efforts to promote abstinence, monogamy and male condom use haven’t been enough to stop the HIV epidemic, nor are these methods feasible in most settings.” But you want women to apply a vaginal gel before and after intercourse, and take a daily preventive pill?

I’ve interviewed young women who were pregnant because their boyfriends threw away or otherwise sabotaged their birth control pills, whose partners refused to wear condoms and infected them with HIV, and we know that there are many who are never given the option of refusing sex, and you want them to do what? Are we really so surprised?

And what about the counselling and education given before the trial started? Are levels of education in all three groups the same? Levels of literacy? Were they in the respondents’ home languages? Were they culturally sensitive? Those are just some of the questions the failure of a study like this raises for me – hopefully the follow-up as to the whys and the wherefores will shed some light on what went wrong.

But here’s the kicker – that trial with the 4 758 married couples that showed 42% fewer HIV infections in those on the drug? The forerunning trial that was cited as a great success? It was run in Kenya and Uganda. The last time I checked, Reuters, they were both in Africa.

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