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COLUMN: Make it personal!

Columnist Jim Taylor says you have to make it count before they listen

Everything is personal. Everything. Even whatever happened 13.8 billion years ago, is personal — if it weren’t personal you wouldn’t be here to read these words.

Or, to put it another way, there is no such thing as impersonal information. Abstract terms describing theoretical concepts — like civil rights, climate change, government corruption and foreign aid — take on meaning only in a personal context.

Civil rights, for example, are not just about changing laws. It affects individuals. Look at photos of marchers, 50 years ago, getting mauled by police dogs. You don’t think that’s personal?

Democracy is an utterly abstract concept. It barely existed until a few centuries ago. Few people today can define it. But that doesn’t make it impersonal. For sure Donald Trump took his defeat personally.

Don’t misunderstand me — I’m not advocating personal attacks on someone’s appearance or morals. Rather, recognize that whatever you say, the person you’re speaking to will take it personally.

Because if they don’t, they’re not listening.

Think about COVID-19 infection rates. They’re just figures. They don’t mean anything until someone you know is affected. A parent. A friend. A child. Hospitalized. Perhaps locked down in some impersonal institution, unable to see you, let alone touch you, shrivelling away from utter loneliness.

That’s personal.

The publishing company I helped to found, Wood Lake Books, sometimes had problems meeting deadlines. The management plan laid out exactly when editorial had to receive the manuscript, when to pass it on to design, to production, to marketing, etc.

From one abstract entity to another. Departments. Functions.

Deadlines kept getting broken.

And then one day a novice production manager made the schedule personal: Marilyn needs the manuscript Jan. 5. She has to get it to Mike by Jan 19, so Julie can start production….”

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, wrote, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

It’s much harder to let deadlines go “whoosh” when that creates difficulties for someone you’re having coffee with.

Which leads to an inherent contradiction. Don’t take it personally when things go wrong. Revenue Canada is not auditing you because it hates your guts.

But at the same time, treat everyone else personally. Even the Revenue Canada agent. She too has hopes and fears, joys and sorrows.

A century ago, German theologian Martin Buber urged us to think of the other not as “it” but as “you,” or “thou.” Not an object, whose sole function is to serve — or possibly impede — your needs. But a person, just like you.

In communications theory, Buber’s thesis translates into what writers call human interest stories.

Climate change as parts per billion of carbon dioxide goes over people’s heads — literally and figuratively. Climate change becomes real when people identify with an emaciated polar bear, or when melting permafrost sends a family’s home sliding into the Arctic Ocean.

My first full-time job was writing radio commercials. The first rule we learned was, “Who? Me?” Hearers needed to feel personally connected before they’d listen to the pitch.

The message must get through at a personal level before it can get through at all.

Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country: rewrite@shaw.ca