Know your audience

by Colin Rae

Were you ever told that “there’s no such thing as bad language; there’s only improper use of good language”? I like this idea since it can be taken to mean that swearing is okay when used in the right context. I’m also a fan of the idea that each piece of the puzzle is out there: for each and every situation there exists the ideal combination of words of the right length, rhythm and tone.

Bad language

The words you choose can make the difference between getting your point across (assuming you have one) and driving your audience to distraction. I might choose to tell my two-year-old son to “desist in your artistic activity at once as it is leaving unsightly blemishes on the division between this room and the next”, but I don’t think it would stop him drawing on the walls. Similarly, calling my colleagues and saying “choo-choo broke” is probably not the most effective way of letting them know I’m going to be late. These are of course deliberately ridiculous examples, but it is amazing what some people think they can get away with.

The right guff

Every January for the past ten years, the Financial Times newspaper’s Lucy Kellaway has conferred awards on the best examples of “horrible use of language in business” to have reared their ugly heads over the previous twelve months. Categories include Nerbs and Vouns (nouns pretending to be verbs and vice versa), the Mixed Metaphor Award, and the crowning of the Chief Obfuscation Champion, given to the CEO guilty of spouting the most incomprehensible, jargon-ridden nonsense imaginable. My personal favourite in this last category was the 2013 winner, who shall remain nameless here: “As brands build out a world footprint, they look for the no-holds-barred global POV that’s always been part of our wheelhouse.” Guff.

Sadly, there is plenty of such guff around. And while some of the perpetrators are innocents (usually people making statements in language other than their own), there are plenty more who seem to be playing a game of buzzword bingo in which you get first prize if you make a soundbite without having actually made a point (and hope no one will notice). How many synergies have you leveraged today?

In her travels through corporate waffle, Kellaway takes great pleasure in highlighting new and increasingly baffling ways companies have found to try and mask the fact that they are laying people off. I for one would much rather be told straight out that I had lost my job if the alternative is being downsized, ventilated, or part of an orderly ramp-down (to name but a very few). Euphemisms have their place, but dressing up redundancy is really just adding insult to injury.

Context is king

Now before I start getting complaints about being out of touch with up-to-the-future trends in corporate actioning (sorry, couldn’t resist!), I’d like to return to what I said at the beginning of this piece. I think that a word is only as good or bad as the context in which it is used. Ask any good translator to translate a word or phrase and their immediate response is likely to be “what’s the context?”. I have no problem with harnessing something, being agile, getting traction or taking action, provided the context fits. I just feel that a whole lot of things are being actioned, integrated, implemented, deployed, created, lived, engineered and incubated regardless of whether or not this is advised or even possible.

If you’re writing about quantum mechanics, medical research or mechanical engineering, complex ideas and terminology are generally unavoidable. But what words you choose and how you explain these ideas will vary greatly depending on your readership. Just as language is versatile enough to make complicated ideas understandable without dumbing down, what should be simple messages don’t need to be dressed up in waffle. By all means use metaphors, idioms or even clichés, but use them sparingly, judiciously and above all correctly. Always use the right tool for the job. Don’t say you’re going to “cultivate an interface for 360-degree dialogue to harness lessons learned” when you mean “finding a way for all employees to offer feedback will allow us to learn from our successes and mistakes.” Know – and respect – your audience.

Play time

I’m going to conclude here by offering a game of buzzword bingo. I’ll leave it up to you how you want to play. You might like to play while reading memos and e-mails, or take it to your next staff meeting or team-building exercise. You may even use it to keep track of your own writing habits. Enjoy!

BINGO Matrix

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