Thursday, November 25, 2010

Review of The Gettysburg Approach to Writing and Speaking Like a Professional by Philip A. Yaffe

To speak and write well are difficult tasks. Most of us can communicate, but we just muddle through with bloated lines and fuzzy logical connections. Philip A. Yaffe distills his years of writing and instructional experience into easy to grasp principles to help communicators improve their written and oratory skills.
The book is divided into two parts of essentially equal length. Part 1 explains Yaffe’s principles and techniques for improving writing and speaking. In part 2, readers are provided a variety of editing exercises coupled with explanatory-analysis to show how Yaffe’s writing principles are applied. 

As a college professor who struggled, and continues to struggle, with writing, I welcome books designed to assist communicators in improving their craft. Yaffe demonstrates his teaching experience by ensuring his recommendations are both understandable and portioned in short and understandable chunks. This approach reduces the chances of students feeling overwhelmed by a mountain of abstract concepts and data. I am pleased that the author avoided tedious discussions on grammar and punctuation. He was wise to focus on larger structural problems that confront writers. 

The book clearly draws upon journalistic principles such as the inverted pyramid and writing a strong lead. I think these techniques are quite useful and recommend that business and newsletter communicators consider adopting them. I am less sanguine regarding how well those principles will be received by college professors. Academics are a traditional and at times an arrogant lot. They teach students to organize papers by a. defining the problem, followed by an analysis of the evidence, and ended with a strong conclusion. I wonder how professors would respond to a paper written following the inverted pyramid recommendations given by Yaffe. Aside from the organizational issue, students should carefully follow Yaffe’s suggestions regarding clarity and conciseness. 

Readers will find the chapter on oral presentations just as succinct and principle driven as the one on writing. I strongly recommend the information on using PowerPoint slides. I would just add that speakers should NEVER have a slide with only text. PowerPoint slides are a visual medium. Images and iconography should be used to a. help you reduce the amount of text and b. to provide a visual symbol to reinforce the concepts of your text. 

In sum, Yaffe has collected some useful principles to help writers and speakers communicate briefly and clearly. Despite its business and journalism focus, it is still useful for students in academic settings. 

Stephen M. Vantassel is a tutor at King’s Evangelical Divinity School. His latest book is Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations. (Wipf and Stock, 2009). 

Have a book you would like reviewed? Contact Stephen M. Vantassel at

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