"Make it clear." This fundamental assumption of communication would seem to be an attainable goal. Objectify the audience, understand their desires—appeal to their interests, eliminate the extraneous and presto "effective communication."
Well, maybe not.
Some months ago I came upon a book by Leo Steinberg called the Incessant Last Supper, based on what may be the greatest single work of western painting, Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper. I've always loved the painting and have been looking at it for over a half-century beginning with a penny print I bought in kindergarten. In 1951, not many years after World War II, I visited it for the first time. It was in terrible shape, covered with mold and dirt and darkened by centuries of wear and bad restoration – Nevertheless the genius that Leonardo had invested in the work showed through and could not be denied. I had occasion to visit Milan frequently because I was doing a lot of work for Olivetti, at that time one of the most progressive of all European industrial concerns. In the eighties they initiated a complete restoration of the painting. Sadly, Olivetti is no longer an extraordinary example of how a corporation could be a good citizen as well as a profitable business, in fact it no longer exists. On one of my visits to Italy, they arranged for me to visit the painting in the process of being restored.
An attractive middle aged matron in a brown business suit was concentrating her attention on the face of Christ, high above the floor on a scaffold that had been constructed next to the painting. I say painting instead of fresco because, as many of you know, the Last Supper was an experiment in using untested pigments and binders that Leonardo was interested in. This is one of the reasons the work has fared so badly since it was first created. Dr. Pinin Brambilla Barcillon, who had the incredible responsibility of restoring the work single handedly, motioned me up the scaffold alongside her, inches away from the head of Christ, the centerpiece of the painting towards which all forms converged – I cannot describe my emotions as I realized the privilege of seeing Leonardo's work from a vantage point that few will ever have.
The head was a pointillist composition of tiny dots and fragments of color that dissolved into an abstraction as you got closer. Dr. Brambilla sat behind an optical instrument that illuminated one square inch of the painting's surface at a time (a day's work) as she looked through a magnifying lens – Her primary tools were a scalpel, a cotton swab, soap and water. Layer by layer she was cleaning away the dirt, waxes, varnish and over-painting of centuries. I tried to imagine what might be going through her mind, considering that if she took one extra swipe with her swab, the world's most precious patch of paint could be irreversibly gone. As it was, only half the original pigment of Christ's face existed once the various retouchings had been carefully removed. After revealing the real Leonardo fragment Dr. Brambilla would float in a thin neutral film of watercolor around it to unify the image.
As I looked at it, I realized that re-creating the image in the mind, out of the bits and pieces that remain, makes the work even more evocative than it might have been originally, a point I want to get to a bit later. I've returned to re-visit the sublime masterpiece at ground level many time since then and I urge all of you to do the same since the painting and the space it defines are unreproducible. The first thing you'll observe is that your preconceptions about Leonardo's style are challenged—it is not dark and defined by dramatic chiaroscuro: on the contrary it is more like an impressionist painting full of fragmented cerulean blue, white and pink. Despite all of this I never understood why the work was so compelling until I read Leo Steinberg's remarkable book.
At this point some of you must be asking "Am I at the right keynote? What does this have to do with marketing or communication?" Bear with me.
The painting is a demonstration of how the brain works and a revelation of how belief conditions our senses of reality. It is not an attempt to illustrate one moment in time. That apparently was too simple for Leonardo. If you approach the work with the idea that it illustrates the words ‘one of you shall betray me' all the figures in the painting assume poses that clearly respond to those words with shock honor and revulsion. One of the principles of Renaissance communication was that the position of a figure revealed character and emotion.
On the other hand if you shift the message you hold in your mind to the institution of the Eucharist, "Take this and eat: this is my body," the meaning of the apostles' gestures change before your eyes in response to this first call to communion. Think of it, two completely separate ideas in two different moments in time being simultaneously conveyed.
The mural is filled with irreconcilable contradictions. The table is too large for the space its in, yet too small to accommodate the apostles. Christ is enlarged (astonishingly this is almost never observed) so that seated he is as tall as Matthew and Bartholomew who are standing. Because Leonardo is interested in saying two different things at the same time, the painting can be read left to right where the apostles on our left have only heard the announcement of betrayal and those on the right are responding to the theme of the Eucharist. On the other hand, Christ is also speaking directly to us with his dual nature expressed in his two hands, his nervous right simultaneously referring to the treason dish and a glass of wine, his left offering redemptive self-sacrifice. It's important to understand that the apostles are not aware of the entire gesture. They, after all, can only see Christ in profile. Only we can see how all the forms in the painting converge on the triangular form of Jesus to represent his divinity.
Of course for us the question is why would the most lucid mind in human history introduce so much ambiguity in a work that intends to affect its viewers? Ambiguity incidentally is a military term that means to be attacked from two sides at once. The answer may have to do with the way we process information. The human brain is a problem-solving organ, a characteristic that probably is at the center of our dominance over other species. The brain frequently remains inert until a problem is presented to it. In the case of The Last Supper, the profound ambiguity it contains alerts and stimulates the brain into action. DaVinci clearly believed that ambiguity was a way of arriving at the truth. As a result, the painting moves us in a deeper and more profound way than any direct statement.
I suggest that all of us involved in communicating ideas to others can learn a lot from Leonardo. Of course, the truth of the Last Supper has been unfolding for centuries and our work usually has to be understood in seconds. Five hundred years later another genius, Pablo Picasso, spent many years depicting subjects from several different points of view at once, understanding that any single point of view was a misrepresentation. Before I go any further, let me apologize to Leo Steinberg for reducing his brilliant observations to a simple-minded proposition.
In our practice we frequently use a less elevated version of the ambiguity principle to create a puzzle that the audience can solve within a short length of time. Clearly, the period of time between seeing something and understanding it is critical, too short and the viewer is not engaged, too long and you lose his attention and frequently generate confusion and resentment.
Since ambiguity seems often to be a central and powerful tool of communication, the next question might be what is its relationship to telling the truth. Of course the truth has never been easy to determine and one could say that at this moment the truth has become more elusive than ever. Yet we must begin with the presumption that telling the truth is essential for human survival.
Several years ago on a flight from Las Vegas to Dallas a hostess entered the aisle with a vigorously steaming tray of hot towels. As she approached me, I observed that the steam was actually coming from a wineglass next to the towels—"What is that?" I asked the hostess, who I later found out was a former kindergarten teacher and grandmother. "Dry ice and water," she replied, "Is that for the drama?" I asked. "Yes," she replied. For whatever the reason that brief conversation continues to haunt me.
What can it mean when a freezing glass of dry ice is used to simulate a steaming towel on a plane trip? Can this modest deception benefit either the airline or its passengers? Where was the decision made to do it? In the boardroom? In the advertising agency? On the flight itself? Does the airline believe that the drama of the steaming towels will suggest a policy of concerned service? What happens to the customer in the last row of the plane when he is handed a cold towel while the tray above his head is steaming madly? Does he doubt his own nervous system? Does he believe he has had a stroke? What makes me uncomfortable with all of this? Why do I believe that harm is being done?
I once created a test called The Road to Hell. I had just finished illustrating a section of Dante's Divine Comedy for an Italian publisher. When I first got the assignment I was unhappy that I had been given Purgatory as a subject as opposed to Inferno. As an illustrator, Hell had always seemed more interesting to me. Frankly, I never quite understood the difference between Hell and Purgatory. As you may know, the difference is simply that those in Hell are not aware of what put them in Hell and are doomed to be there forever. Those in Purgatory are aware of their sins and consequently have the possibility of getting out by moving to a higher plane. This fact immediately made Purgatory more relevant to me, in part, because Purgatory is where most of us are right now. In any event, awareness of what we actually do in life seems worth thinking about.
Let me read you The Road to Hell, a series of questions that become more difficulty the deeper you go. The first couple are easy, would you—
1. Design a package to look larger on the shelf?
2. Do an ad for a slow-moving, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy?
3. Design a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it's been in business for a long time?
4. Design a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent?
5. Design an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring?
6. Design a package for a cereal aimed at children, which has low nutritional value and high sugar content?
7. Design a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer who employs child labor?
8. Design a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn't work?
9. Design an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public?
10. Design a brochure piece for an SUV that turned over more frequently than average in emergency conditions and caused the death of 150 people?
11. Design an ad for a product whose continued use might cause the user's death?
When I gave this test to students between the ages of 21 to 28, I discovered that in a group of 20, 3 or 4 of them were willing to go all the way—That is, participate in advertising a product whose use might cause the user's death. These were generally idealistic young people as yet seemingly uncorrupted by money or professional life. However, they drew the line at harming their family, friends or neighbors.
The other day in the country, I thought I'd make a Greek salad for lunch. Tomatoes are not quite in season but I had some good onions, peppers, cucumbers as well as a small square of feta and some excellent olives, olive oil and Greek oregano. As I was adding the feta to the salad I checked the nutritional label; it read 70 calories per serving. "Not bad" I thought, and crumbled the cheese into the bowl. Something made me examine the label again. Under "number of servings" it said 7. I had just added 490 calories to a diet-conscious lunch for my wife and myself…I wondered how did a thimbleful of feta become a serving? You all know the answer.
After lunch I turned on the TV to watch the ball game. A commercial for a nasty-looking green salve to treat arthritis was on, showing a smiling young woman testifying to the efficacy of the medication. "I was barely able to move my fingers" she said, "and now I can type for hours without any pain." At the bottom of the screen in 6 point, barely visible type, were the words "results may not be typical". Could I have picked any more trivial examples to indicate the lies we experience in daily life? Perhaps not, but the truth is we are subjected to a thousand of such misrepresentations every day of our lives. So pervasive is the culture of small distortions that we can no longer recognize them as lies. To quote Mc Luhan, "The fish in water doesn't know it's in water"—nevertheless the assault has changed our brains and our view of reality and truth.
Most of us here today are in the transmission business. While we don't often originate the content of what we transmit, we are an essential part of communicating ideas to a public that is affected by what we say. Should telling the truth be a fundamental requirement of this role? Is there a difference between lying to your wife and friends and lying to people you don't know? Certainly one thing that makes lying easier is thinking of the audience not as citizens but as consumers—the consumer is another species, and in professional life they are often thought of as the "other". To quote Elaine Pagels in her book, The Origins of Satan, "The social and cultural practice of defining certain people as ‘others' in relationship to one's own group may be, of course as old as humanity itself." While marketing is obsessed with the way groups behave it doesn't generally conceive of those groups as being our fathers, mothers, sisters or friends, this would make the job far too complex. Rather, these groups are thought of as ‘markets' with generalized characteristics that make manipulating them seem ethically acceptable. One thing seems consistent, the greater the psychic distance the easier it is to persuade people to act against their own self-interest.
The issue seems more significant than ever. Today, given the aggressive distortion of truth and reality that pervades our civic and business life. It is not a coincidence that Karl Rove, a brilliant marketing man is, next to the President himself, the most important man in Washington and perhaps the world.
What is truly frightening is the degree to which lying has become acceptable in our public life. I'm not sure when the word "spin" replaced "lie" but it is characteristic of how our language has become a way of deflecting or distorting reality. We seem to be awash in lies from business, the government, and almost every institution we have traditionally looked to as a source of belief. Our government has embarked on an investigation to determine whether the atrocities performed at Abu Ghraib were aberrational or systemic. What would be equally important is an examination of whether lying has become systemic in our nation and the way our government speaks to us. The relative lack of public outrage as government and business lies are revealed is troubling, and may indicate how the American sense of what truth is has been profoundly shaped by our most pervasive educational medium, advertising.
Actually it works two ways, advertising influences our relationship to government and government influences our view of advertising. A recent somewhat homophobic ad by Anheuser-Busch (no relation), in addition to characterizing Miller as a "sissy" beer, "outed" the Miller Beer Corporation as being owned by a South African company, paralleling the outing, by unknown government insiders, of CIA Agent Valerie Plame. As you all know, that event was triggered because her husband told the truth about whether or not nuclear materials were being shipped from Niger. In my memory this is the first time that the patriotism of a competitor has been questioned in order to promote beer sales. Marketing can be shameless.
Politicians and businessmen have re-discovered the power of Lenin's old idea that a lie repeated often enough, becomes the truth. This dark assumption throws a pall over America as well as the entire world and endangers democracy itself. When people believe that their government systemically lies to them they become cynical. Cynicism breeds apathy and a sense of powerlessness that causes people to withdraw from public life. It is not coincidental that less than half our population votes. If only 44% of our country vote and we are equally divided ideologically, it means that 20% of the electorate control the fate of our nation—this has become a profound threat to the future of our republic and democracy itself. We can only call this a systemic scandal and observe that those in power have done very little to change the condition. Which raises one last question. From our government's point of view, have we become the "other"?
Top 10 Tips for College Admissions Essays
In the admissions process, US colleges and universities generally use three criteria for determining which students to accept and which to reject:
- Previous coursework – your college preparatory work and grade point average (GPA)
- Standardized test scores – SAT and ACT are the two most respected.
- Admission/Entrance essays
Of the three criteria, the college entrance essay provides you with the greatest opportunity to distinguish yourself from your competition and show off the person behind the statistics. This article will help in writing a college essay and help you boost your chances of being accepted by an American university or college
Section 1: Planning Your Essay
Tip #1: Understand the Admissions Board Psychology
When you have compiled all the pieces of your application and sent it to the college/university of your dreams, all of your hard work gets placed in a pile with hundreds of other applications. Then a small group of admissions officers will review each application, looking over the scores and coursework and reading the college application essays.
The key to convincing the admissions officers is in understanding what they are looking for. They want students who will:
- Succeed once they are admitted;
- Contribute to the educational experience of other students; and,
- Bring honor and prestige to the university once they graduate.
In your college admissions essay, you want to portray yourself as a student who will meet those needs. Of course, the specifics of what qualifies as “succeed” or “bring honor” will depend a bit on the particular university, but all admissions officers share these three goals.
Before you write your college admissions essay, take a few minutes and jot down some answers to the following questions:
- How can I reassure the admissions board that I will succeed in their school?
- How will I show that I am determined and ambitious; that I will not get poor grades or drop out?
- How can I contribute positively to the educational experience of other students?
- How might I bring honor and prestige to the university?
- What are my long-term goals? Might I win an award someday, or start a business, or improve a scientific process?
Your answer to these questions will help you frame the content of your essay.
Tip #2: Determine Your Essay Goals
Along with the three questions above, you should contemplate how you want the admissions officers to perceive you. After reading your college admissions essay, what should they think of your personality and activities?
Most students want the college admissions board to view them as responsible, dependable, and academically ambitious. These are excellent essay goals, but you should also consider the essay in relation to your classwork. If your classwork already shows that you are studious and determined (because you have taken a wide variety of advanced classes), then you may want to highlight another feature of your personality.
Along with developing an image of your character, writing the college admissions essay allows you to feature other aspects of your life that are not reflected in your pre-college coursework. Some aspects to consider:
- Have I worked at an interesting or relevant job?
- Do I belong to any clubs or organizations?
- Have I demonstrated leadership or teamwork?
- Have I demonstrated compassion or community-responsibility?
Tip #3: Distinguish Yourself from the Other Applicants
This bit of strategic thinking should be fairly easy. As an international student, you by definition are different from the bulk of American citizens who apply to American universities. However, it is not enough to simply say, “Well, I’m not from around here.” Instead, you need to reference the strengths of your home culture. You don’t need to elaborate at length; a sentence or two should be enough to ensure that the admissions board pays attention to you.
Remember that you are more than just an international student from an interesting background; you are a complete person with a lifetime of experiences. You should take some time to think about what else makes you different from most the other hundreds of students writing college admissions essays. Add those features (plays piano, excellent at football, speak five languages) to your growing list of essay goals.
Tip #4: Contribute to the University
Remember that one of the goals of the admissions board when reading college admissions essays is to find students who will enhance the educational experience of other students. In other words, how can you contribute to other students’ learning? As with tip #3, you already have an edge by being an international student.
One of the general goals of education is to broaden people’s experiences, so that they come to realize the limits of their own intellect, and then grow beyond those limits. As an international student, you offer other students an opportunity for cultural diversity. As with Tip #3, it is not enough to assume the college admissions board will recognize this benefit. You need to highlight it in your essay. Again, a sentence or two should be enough to accomplish this goal.
Again, remember that you are more than just an international student. You have so much more to contribute to the campus social and learning environment than just your home culture. Take a few moments to consider what else you may contribute.
- Maybe you are excellent at study groups or other forms of collaborative work.
- Maybe you will join a student organization or athletic team.
- Maybe you will write for a student newsletter or blog.
Whatever you feel you can contribute, add that to your list of essay goals.
Tip #5: Understand and Answer the Essay Prompt
At this point, you’ve come up with more ideas than you can possibly fit into one essay. Now you need to focus your goals to only three or four ideas – the ones that will make you the most attractive to the college admissions board. No matter what the prompt asks, you want to ensure you include those three or four ideas in your college admissions essay.
The concept is to present a few ideas very well, rather than list all your ideas poorly. A narrowly focused essay will be much more effective than a general, vague one.
Reading and answering the prompt may seem a bit obvious, but it’s often the obvious that people ignore. You should take the time to read and re-read the essay prompt, so you can answer it fully. Don’t be intimidated; unlike some college exams, the college application essay prompt is not designed to trick you. However, you must demonstrate that you can read and follow directions. Think of that great pile of applications. The admissions officers are looking for a reason to disregard candidates. Don’t let them reject you because you hastily overlooked a sentence in the essay prompt.
On the other hand, the prompt is designed to give you some freedom for creativity, which will allow you to work in those three or four key ideas that you have developed through tips 1 through 4. You are encouraged to find novel ways of answering the prompt, so long as you do indeed answer the questions provided.
If you need more help choosing a topic, you can find some tips on our Choosing a Topic for Your College Essay page.
Section 2: Writing Your Essay
At this stage in the college admissions essay writing process, you have considered the goals and psychology of the college admissions board. You have produced a list of ideas/attributes/details about yourself that colleges will find appealing. You have narrowed that list to the three or four most important ideas – the ones that will get you into your preferred college/university. Now it is time to actually write the essay.
Tip #6: Write with Specific Details
The key to excellent and memorable writing is to write in fine detail. The more specific your essay, the stronger an impression it will make on the admissions board. If you are trying to show that you are a dedicated scholar, don’t write: “I never missed an assignment deadline, no matter how poorly I was feeling the night before.” Instead you write: “In my junior year, I came down with a terrible case of pneumonia. Despite having a 103 degree fever and being required to stay in bed, I still completed my draft speech on the possible impacts of global warming on agriculture.” The latter will make a stronger impression; and people vote for the people they remember.
As you are writing your essay, ask yourself:
- Is there a specific instance or example that shows this?
- Can I add imagery (colors, shapes) to make it more interesting?
- Can I replace general nouns (“class” or “car”) with something specific (“Honors Geometry” or “Honda Civic”)?
You may be thinking, “I don’t really like to boast about my personality; I prefer to let my record speak for itself.” While you should try to avoid sounding too arrogant, the college application essay is not the time for modesty. The admissions officers are expecting you to celebrate yourself, to underline your strengths and personality, so they can make a quick, accurate judgment about you.
Tip #7: Demonstrate College-Level Diction
Diction (word choice) is the fundamental structure of writing. Your word choice reveals a great deal about your personality, education and intellect. Furthermore, as an international student, you want to reassure the college admissions board that you have an excellent command of the English language (remember: they want you to succeed; they need to know that you can actively participate in English-only instruction).
With this in mind, you should replace lower-level words (bad, sad, thing, nice, chance) with higher-level words (appalling, despondent, phenomena, comforting, opportunity). You might consider looking up SAT/ACT vocabulary words and working a handful of those into your essay.
You should also remove any slang or casual diction; the university is not interested in casual language in their admissions essays.
Tip #8: Demonstrate College-level Style
An American proverb states, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” In other words, you want to present yourself as being ready for the next job. In this instance, you want to show that you already have college-level writing skills. So, in writing your college application essays, you should write with the following features in mind:
- Write primarily in complex sentences, rather than simple or compound sentences;
- Include figurative language such as a metaphor, a simile, personification; and
- Include a trope or scheme, such as chiasmus, oxymoron or anaphora.
As with tip #7, this serves two functions: 1) it distinguishes your essay from those that are poorly written; and 2) it reassures the admissions board of your excellent command of written English.
Tip #9: Have Someone Proofread Your Essay
This is one of the most important tips on this list. Everyone who writes knows that the words in your head don’t always make it onto the page the way they should. Because you know what it should say, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking the essay says something that it doesn’t. For this reason, you should ask a friend or a relative (or an English teacher) to look over your essay and check your:
- Grammar: did you write in complete sentences? Do all your subjects and verbs agree?
- Diction: are all the words used properly for an American audience?
- Organization: have you grouped sentences together coherently?
Tip #10: Pay Attention to Deadlines
College admissions essays require a tremendous amount of work. As you work and rework the essay, pay attention to the admission deadlines and requirements. Every school has their own system for how and when to file your application. Do not assume that, because one school uses e-mails and PDFs, that another school does as well.
The best way to stay organized through the college admissions process (and at the university when courses begin) is to rigorously maintain a calendar that includes:
- Final deadlines
- Reminders of upcoming deadlines
- Process deadlines (breaking larger tasks into smaller steps)
Bonus Tip: Post, but Don't Panic
At some point, you will file your college admissions application. After you post it, please don’t panic. With these tips, and your determined intellect, you have an excellent chance of being accepted to an American university.
Take a look at our college essay samples to get an idea of what colleges are looking for in your essay.