Easily a dozen times over the years I’ve been writing these weekly tips I’ve addressed pairs of words we often confuse and provided an explanation of the difference between the two.
But there’s one pair I’ve shied away from: strategy and tactic. Today’s the day, however.
I’m writing this post two days after the first U.S. presidential debate, after a week of political hijinks in which John McCain’s behavior was analyzed ad nauseum in the media – was his traipsing to and from Washington, promising not to debate unless certain conditions were met and then debating despite those conditions remaining unmet, and insisting one thing was true about the economy one day (the fundamentals are strong) and insisting its opposite was true the next (the sky is falling) all a part of a brilliant, grand strategy (even if that strategy is to merely confuse voters and distract the media) or a bunch of disjointed tactics meant to “win” the battle but not the war? Listen here to vice presidential candidate Joe Biden on CNN explain the difference between tactics and strategy – he gets it exactly right.
As anyone who’s worked on new business proposals or industry award nominations can attest, being able to write cogently about the difference between the two is imperative to success in our industry.
First, of course, you’ve got to have a vision (call it what you want: a dream, a goal).
From that you derive a strategy, a “framework for action” that will lead to your fulfilling your vision. The tactics, then, are the actions themselves – the “purposeful procedures,” as I recently read tactics referred to, that help you achieve your desired outcome. They don’t exist on their own – they’re part of a bigger picture. They’re the battle, not the war. "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory,” said Chinese General Sun Tzu in 500 B.C. “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
So go ahead and mix up "who" and "whom" and "effect" and "affect" if you must, but know the difference between a strategy and a tactic or you'll lose every time.
Note: When I was a journalist an editor once told me to assume that a person who took the time to write a letter to the editor represented many more people’s feelings than just his or her own. So I take responses to my weekly blog posting seriously. This morning I heard from a few readers offended by the examples I used to illustrate the difference between a strategy and a tactic in today's post. I assume they are not alone in their reaction. Since I write a blog about writing and not about politics I wouldn’t want what appeared to them and others as political commentary, however unintentional, to blur the point I was trying to make about strategy and tactics and the necessity of understanding the difference between the two. I hope my blog persuades you to work hard to become a better writer; when it comes to politics, I will leave the art of persuasion to others. Sincere apologies to anyone who took offense after reading the tip.