Since 1918, "The Elements of Style," that classic by Strunk and White on English usage, grammar and composition, has been required reading for anyone who has taken a college-level English course. I am finding that just about everyone has heard of it — everyone, that is, except (until recently) me.
Though my lifetime has spanned numerous geologic eras (several involving legendary natural disasters like a little meteor collision, a prolonged period of glacial advances, and disco), I am ashamed to say I just "discovered" this charming writing guide.
(The purists among you will note that the structures of the preceding sentences stand as testament to this fact.)
One of my daughters — I’m not sure which — left the book on the coffee table when she flew the coop for her institute of higher learning.
I know this occurred sometime between the last 18 and 42 months because what I lack in formal literary training I make up for in basic math skills. It was shortly before the holidays that I finally got tired of dusting around it and decided to read the darn thing.
It seems I am not the only one who was unfamiliar with the grammar go-to. And as I recounted to my husband the high points of my trip down learning lane (this is the kind of lighthearted dialogue we have after 25 years of marriage), he came clean.
"Oh! ‘Elements of Style’ is about writing!" he said, apparently having been under the impression that I was suddenly intent on stepping up my fashion game.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. You see, if Mr. Strunk and Mr. White had indeed penned a book on that kind of style, I would be writing this wearing a coonskin cap and a feather boa.
Their rules still hold, mind you, but the context in which those rules are executed has changed a wee bit since Woodrow Wilson was enjoying his view of the Rose Garden. Many of their examples of "proper" usage are just plain goofy today.
I was thinking about this as I watched the ball drop in Times Square. (Note to readers: This, I now know, is incorrect. I was not in Times Square watching the ball drop. Rather I was watching television as the ball dropped, a ball that happened to drop in Times Square, Times Square being a place where I wasn’t. Whatever.)
We tend to see the new year as both a beginning and an ending. It is neither, of course, but our calendar-change tends to inspire in us all this sudden need to make changes. And while change can be good — at times, even long overdue — we so often approach this transitional time of year with an unhealthy sense of urgency.
The "Elements of Style" is comprised of two components: rules and execution. In our business, we might call these strategies and tactics. Both have to make sense if either the book — or our business — is to remain relevant, but it is in the latter, the actual usage, where the matter of style comes in.
"A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject." To this, I say, "Duh" (right after I say, "What is a participial phrase?"). Fine. That’s the rule.
But if I wish to successfully execute the rule today, I will not say, "A soldier of proved valor, he was entrusted with the defense of the city" — unless my client is a member of the royal family (more specifically, one of the dead ones). My audience will think I am either a raving lunatic or Alex Trebec.
This year, you might resolve to take the social media bull by the horns. That’s admirable. One of our rules is that we must engage the customer on their terms and in their language. In a tweet I saw recently, the agent failed to execute this rule, because he forgot the subject of his sentence.
"Goodbye 2011. After tomorrow you won’t be able to kick my ass anymore. I’m gonna get right on top of 2012, so this won’t happen again!" he said.
This declaration is fine if your purpose is to have a conversation with yourself or to put your potential clients on notice that you had a little trouble paying the old bills during the past 12 months.
Neither tends to instill confidence and respect. If, on the other hand, your intent was to capture new business (another of our rules), I suspect you will be disappointed by your return on investment.
Keeping our subjects and principal verbs close is good practice. Even so, proclaiming, "By treatment in a Bessemer converter, cast iron is changed into steel" is ludicrous today, unless you happen to be a museum tour guide.
"I don’t usually call out bad agents by name, but (John Smith’s) team stinks" is a well-constructed sentence, and it was delivered cloaked in a very-today Twitter update, but it’s still poor form.
It violated a couple of rules, not the least of which is the one found in our Realtor Code of Ethics. This is an example of keeping your subject and principal verb a little too close.
We must market ourselves. It’s a rule. Video is a very hip medium through which we can execute this rule and reach a wide audience. Maybe this year is the year you have resolved to promote your message on the small screen.
Make sure you can do it well. Because, if the result is a poorly produced, awkward mess that gets tagged under the keyword "comedy" or is more painful to watch than a San Diego Chargers game, you will have accomplished nothing.
And as you commit to employing new tactics to generate and promote your business this year, avoid violating the rule of differentiation. Resist the urge to do something just because others are — unless, of course, you can do it better. If you can’t compete on one channel, consider another better suited to your own unique market, resources or skills.
Mobile is hot right now. It’s hot because it represents the fastest-growing medium for delivering information to and connecting with your customers. But before you throw your checkbook at a mobile application, revisit the rule of differentiation.
Whether you are a broker or an agent, ask yourself whom you are targeting. More importantly, ask yourself why they might choose your platform over the thousands of others at their disposal.
It’s not enough to just follow the rules if no one gets your interpretation and delivery.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be bold enough to try new things. The old rules require a fresh approach. Amass friends and followers, blog, tweet, slap a QR code ("quick response" code, a type of bar code that can be accessed via smartphone) on your forehead, or produce and star in your own short film series. Or don’t.
What’s important is that whether you tackle one or many of these tactics, you do so with purpose — with style.
And sometimes that may mean breaking the rules, but first you must resolve to have a solid business foundation. Only then can you effectively introduce the elements of style. Think of it as rocking the basic black slacks before you try adding the coonskin cap and feather boa.
As the book teaches us, "It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing well, he will probably do best to follow the rules."
Every day, every moment, is both an ending and a beginning. The new year is no more or less so. Attack it with a head of steam. Strategize, learn and grow. Attend conferences and remain relevant.
But in doing so, be sure you have mastered the basics and understand the context in which you will be telling your story before attempting to rewrite the book, because true style can’t be delivered by rote.
Kris Berg is speaking at Real Estate Connect NYC 2012, which runs from Jan. 11-13. More info.