How to X!
Now I don't really know who else has been dying to know about X-ing. But it may be one of the greatest and most useful secrets of communication. And it is one that has been hidden in my favourite hiding place - right in front of our noses.
Let me explain.
Almost all the conventional wisdom I have received about communication has urged me to original, to be unique. And to avoid those expressions which are variously called hackneyed, trite and overused. Yet I have often created the most dramatic responses when I used such expressions. Usually it occurred by accident (because I considered it not quite acceptable!)
I remember once getting into a lift at a university with a lot of learned and sophisticated people when someone who often used a catch-phrase from a TV show got in. He had so annoyed me by using it so often (and it was a very cheap show) that I got him back by saying it to him.
Suddenly the lift came alive. All these dull academics brightened up. 'I don't watch it regularly, they said, 'but it is amusing isn't it.'
I grinned and said, 'Yes'. (I don't think I'd seem a full episode in my life). And we all had a merry chat.
Now according to theory, if I wanted to create that sort of effect I should have tried to be original. Trying to be original is the best way to become speechless! Yet on many occasions, I and others who are concerned with effective communication, have realised that the trite and the commonplace are often the most effective forms of expression. Contrary to what academia teaches us.
There is the joke about the schoolboy who said that Shakespeare was full of hackneyed expressions. The teacher says, of course, that they are only hackneyed expressions because Shakespeare is so successful that his original works became so well known.
But, isn't it possible that Shakespeare used the language of the people - expressions that we and they have always found most effective?
So what has this got to do with X-ing?
I don't know how it got to be called X-ing, but it is using an existing expression or even a piece of text and putting your words in place of the original writer's significant words. That is you replace the particular nouns, etc which refer to the writer's particular communication and you use his word-skeleton to present your own message. So, if the following conversation occurred:
You are drunk, Winston.
Yes, madam, I am drunk and you are ugly. Tomorrow I'll be sober...
and it amused us. In similar circumstances we might want to use it ourselves. We might use:
You are a failure, a complete bum.
Yes, I am a failure, a complete bum, and you are stupid. Later I may be successful...
So this is the idea of X-ing. However, there is much much more to it.
I'll mention this later. First I want to give a few more examples.
Nowadays we use X-ing to teach a foreign language. The student learns the basic expression and then uses it several times using his own words. Foreign students who learn English seem to speak it much better than the average native. They have learned ACTUAL words and expressions to suit different situations.
Sometimes teachers recommend we read a good newspaper because some of the style will 'rub' off on us and we will learn some of the writers' tricks. For the same reason they recommend we read the classics. (Perhaps reading the gutter press too, would make our communications more direct and poignant!)
Yet we might learn faster and better if we actually studied clever constructions and paragraphs and X-ed them so they communicated what we wanted. This might seem a bit like being hackneyed, though. Or plagiaristic!
I did tell you that X-ing may be the greatest communication secret. We may learn principles and techniques, but in the end we have to use certain words, and it is these words that will make our message effective. When someone has invented the best way to say something, we have little choice but to follow suit and copy his or her expression. Or use an inferior one.
Now suppose you read a best selling novel? What if you changed the words around and made your own novel. You might say this is plagiarism. But I would ask, 'Where have you been recently?'
'What have you read?'
'Haven't you noticed how some books are almost copies of others?'
If you are well read you will notice this. And have you studied the work of a genius and discovered that it doesn't really seem much more than common sense or what was generally being talked about at the time?
So is this greatest secret being kept from us for some reason? (This rhetorical question is indirectly answered later.)
X-ing isn't the whole answer. Sometimes it isn't so much the words and expressions that are the secret. It is a more abstract understanding of how the writer manipulates our thinking processes. Yet in the end when we communicate we use words and expressions and the vast majority of effective expressions have been written or said before. We can rearrange them, but most of what we say is a rehash of what others have said. Or rather, the way we say it is a rehash.
I don't mean to disparage it by calling it a rehash. Much of the best and greatest communications are an artful rehash of something that went before.
So the secret is to pay lip service to the English teacher's call for originality and use what has been proved effective in the past. And if you create a best-seller by X-ing, make it just different enough so no one notices. And don't do all your X-ing from the same book! (That's what the rest of them do!)
Have a happy X-ing week!