Why wouldn’t you want to be clear?

The obvious answer is – if you want to mislead. A fascinating study published in the US Journal of Language and Social Psychology suggests that when scientists’ research turns out to be fraudulent, the language is often a giveaway.

Two researchers at Stanford University, California, studied more than 250 scientific papers that had been found to be using fraudulent data. They then compared the style of writing with that used in the same number of papers that were sound. They found that:

"fraudulent papers were written with significantly higher levels of linguistic obfuscation, including lower readability and higher rates of jargon."

In business, unclear writing is also revealing. It suggests a lack of confidence. Studies of the language used in annual reports, including one we at Clarity carried out some years ago, show that companies that are successful tend to write annual reports that are shorter and clearer than those not doing so well.

Of course, a lot of unclear writing is not meant to mislead or cover up. It’s just that the writer hasn’t put in the work needed to make it clear. And it is hard work. But if you don’t do it, there may be a price to pay: your reputation may suffer. Readers may lose confidence in you and your organisation.

There’s more on this in an article called Research shows connection between content clarity and business credibility at Precision Content.

When your audience doesn’t understand

We often hear people say: “That’s not jargon; everyone knows what it means.” But do they really?

One of our clients was giving a presentation recently when he noticed that several of his audience appeared to be distracted by their mobiles. Eventually he caught the eye of one as he looked up from his phone. The person concerned sheepishly confessed that he had been looking up the meaning of one of the terms the presenter had been using.

The presenter subsequently discovered that other members of his audience had been doing exactly the same thing. Everything turned out fine, and he was relieved in one sense, but disconcerted to realise that he hadn’t been getting his message across as clearly as he might have.

Our client was lucky to have a fully engaged audience sufficiently motivated to do their own on-the-spot research. And it prompted me to wonder how often such presentations are given to less committed audiences who simply lose interest as the jargon count builds up.

Cascading jargon

In a recent Guardian article, Steven Poole had an enjoyable dig at office jargon. Among other things, he suggested that asking for something by “end of play” might be “trying to hypnotise you into thinking you are having fun”. I am similarly suspicious of the corporate fondness for prettifying everyday tasks and functions, the word “cascade” being one of the most preposterous examples.

“Please cascade this email to your direct reports,” ran a sentence in an email I was sent the other day in preparation for a workshop. I challenged my clients to find an alternative way of expressing this request, and was delighted when they came up with: “Please share this message with your team.” I was even more delighted that they unanimously preferred their revised version.

In this instance, replacing the words “direct reports” with “your team” was probably just as important in conveying the everyday human warmth so lacking in the original. But the word “cascade” retains a grim fascination for me.

Not only is the introduction of a waterfall metaphor unnecessary and distracting. It also suggests an old-fashioned top-down management style. What about the poor soaked and huddled masses underneath?

More financial crisis jargon

It’s been a few months since my post on PIIGS and BRICs, so I thought I’d update you on the latest financial crisis jargon.

“Grexit” (Greek exit from the Eurozone) from last time has been joined by “Brixit” (British exit from the EU. It also appears less frequently as “Brexit”), “Spexit” (Spanish exit) and the more awkward “Fixit” (for Finland). I’m coining “Netherlexit” now. 🙂

The US “fiscal cliff” has had a lot of press thanks to November’s elections. I don’t want to get too technical but the fiscal cliff refers to a bunch of tax cuts that are going to expire on 1st January 2013 at the same time as spending cuts come into force. Many economists are worried that, unless the US government takes steps to mitigate its effects, the cliff will badly damage the US and other economies.

I think it’s an effective metaphor because it conjures up the image of a car speeding towards a cliff then hurtling off, Thelma and Louise-style. It sounds ominous and, assuming the situation isn’t resolved soon, I expect the US stock market data to resemble a cliff – suddenly plummeting in January. Others are more optimistic, saying that “fiscal hill” or “fiscal slope” would be a better, less alarmist term.

I look forward to seeing what new financial words 2013 will bring. In the meantime, you can always expand your knowledge and sound clever to your friends with the Wikipedia list of Eurozone crisis acronyms.

Animal metaphors

I am indebted to my friend the author Adam Jacot for some animal metaphors that have surfaced in management circles. You may be familiar with “boiled frog syndrome”, “lipstick on a pig” and “elephant in the room”, for which “moose on the table” seems to be an alternative, presumably among Canadians.

But unless you are a statistician, you probably haven’t heard of “a pig in a python”, which strikes me as an apt illustration of a surge in a statistic measured over time. Nor had I heard of “shooting the puppy”, which means to do the unthinkable. My favourite new animal metaphor, however, is “seagull manager” for one of those annoying people who flies in, makes a lot of noise, shits all over everything, then leaves. I suspect we can all think of someone who might fit that description.

Long live metaphors, I say, and animal ones are as good as any. Except that metaphors have even shorter lives than animals. In fact, they are more like fruit – delicious when fresh, increasingly unpalatable as they age.

PIIGS might not fly, but BRICs can

If you’ve been anywhere near a paper or television at any time in the last eight or nine months, you will have heard something about problems in the Eurozone.

While the last major financial crisis left us with a lot of complicated jargon to digest (can anyone remember the difference between a CDS and a CDO and why it matters?), the Eurozone crisis has its own special vocabulary.

One that we’ve seen a lot of recently is ‘Grexit’ (Greek exit) as a shorthand for Greece leaving the Eurozone. It’s short, and presumably originated with financial services types needing a quick way to discuss what is either a certainty or an impossibility, depending on who you listen to. It’s fast to say and has that ‘x’ in the middle which grabs the reader’s eye. It will either be forgotten if Greece stays in the Euro or it might become the way their exit is remembered.

An even newer one is ‘Spailout’ (Spanish bailout) for the €100bn recently given to Spanish banks. It is a word that has existed for less than a fortnight, but has been used in headlines across the world. It’s unimaginable that a word could get such traction so quickly in any age before the internet, which has allowed more neologisms than ever before. It is, admittedly, probably not going to stay for too much longer and will probably be forgotten as soon as the next big crisis strikes Europe.

The final term I’d like to look at is ‘PIIGS’, sometimes seen as ‘PIIGS countries’ – an acronym for Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain. As you might expect for an acronym obliquely referring to swine, it’s not usually complimentary. You can compare it to the ‘BRIC’ countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) which are all developing and building rapidly – which is sort of brick-related, I suppose.

Some organisations use acronyms which spell existing words (for example the fictional SPECTRE from James Bond) because it does make a difference to how you perceive a thing. Would you rather buy a COOL computer (Computer Offering Outstanding Luxury) or a CRAP computer (Computer Resisting All Problems)? It doesn’t matter what the acronym stands for as much as it matters what it spells.

The thin red line issue

Here’s another piece of jargon. How many of you have heard something described as a “red line issue” as in “We regard the removal of Trident as a red line issue.”?

Like “pushing the envelope”, it’s connected to flying. Aircraft have a maximum safe speed they can travel at, indicated by a red line. You’ll see a similar line on the rev counter of your car. So a “red line issue” is an issue people won’t back down over, something they cannot cross.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of other possible interpretations. If something is underlined in red, it’s being emphasised, so a “red line issue” could be one that’s important.

Similarly, in Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature, edits are made in red and underlined, so a “red line issue” could be something that needs to change.

And there’s the historical “Thin Red Line” I allude to in the title, which could lead your reader to assume that a “red line issue” is something defended by a small number of people.

There’s even the practice of “redlining” in the United States, where jobs, loans, mortgages and healthcare are restricted to certain parts of a city. Districts outlined in red on maps, usually inhabited by racial minorities, would be denied these services. So a “redline” issue is not the same as a “red line” issue.

I suggest avoiding all “red line” issues, as they’re almost certain to confuse your reader.

The value of clichés

I went to see an extraordinary new play recently – London Road at the National Theatre. It is a verbatim record of interviews with neighbours in London Road, Ipswich, in the aftermath of the murders of prostitutes by serial killer Steve Wright – performed by actors and set to music. The words themselves are unremarkable in the extreme, consisting of clichés and platitudes – often repeated several times – of the kind uttered unthinkingly by people who don’t quite know what to say but feel compelled to say something. It is the context and the performance as well as the verisimilitude that make the play so mesmerising.

It made me think again about clichés and language. We should acknowledge, certainly, that clichés and platitudes and jargon are comforting. They reinforce human solidarity. They show empathy.

What they don’t do is enlighten, motivate, or persuade the reader or listener to act in a certain way – which is what Clarity and its clients are usually trying to achieve. Nonetheless, we should never underestimate the power of ordinariness, so brilliantly highlighted in London Road by the writer Alecky Blythe and her musical collaborator Alan Cork.

Ridiculous neologism of the month No. 1

I’m an open-minded kind of guy, I accept that language changes, that people coin neologisms (new words) all the time. I even accept that some of them aren’t the worst words I’ve ever heard. When I saw “organogram”, however, I nearly fell out of my chair.

I first came across it a few weeks ago and, since then, have encountered it twice more. My spellchecker, fortunately, continues to underline it. Maybe it will appear in Word 2012 (along with the apocalypse!). So what is an organogram? Any guesses? It’s nothing like a telegram or anything to do with organs or organic food or even a typo of “oregano gram”. Still have no idea?

It’s an organisation diagram. Obviously. Why people have decided that these two words are much too long is far beyond me and I am unable to see what’s wrong with the much simpler “management structure” or “organisation(al) structure”. I suppose one should be mildly grateful that we don’t have “managrams” or “organotures” but I fear I am tempting fate and will shut up now.

Are your assets a resource or are your resources an asset?

Diamonds are in the news at the moment, so we thought we’d draw attention to the Company profile of Gem Diamonds. From their website:

“Gem Diamonds is a global diamond company that has been pursuing a long term growth strategy through targeted acquisitions and the development of existing assets. Under current market conditions, the Group is focused on the development of its cash generative assets and has curtailed all non-essential capital and development expenditure.”

The main problem I have here is with the way they use the word “assets”. Like “resources”, it can be incredibly vague. So when they talk about “development of existing assets”, do they mean polishing and cutting diamonds or improving their mining techniques or better training for their staff or something else entirely?
“Cash generative assets” is even worse. Are these liquid assets (i.e. diamonds) or things they can sell to make a lot of money (i.e. diamond mines)? And it needs a hyphen.

It’s much better to be specific, so don’t talk about your “resources” if you mean buildings and, while your staff are very useful to you, don’t describe them as “assets”. It’s weird and dehumanising and, worst of all, can confuse the reader.