The case for plain language in spoken and written communication
This is an article about the abuse and misuse of language. There’s a simple message: speak and write as plainly as possible if you want to be understood.
Jargon is a power game. We manipulate and mangle language to dodge difficult conversations; to confuse and complicate; to reinforce groups; as a foil for ignorance; or to sound impressive.
Organisations create their own vernacular that becomes adopted like a dialect. At best it’s lousy form of communication and at worst it’s divisive.
The Financial Times management writer Lucy Kellaway is a long time campaigner for plain speaking in business. Here's what she said as she left the newspaper to retrain as a teacher in 2017.
“For nearly a quarter of a century, I have been writing columns telling business people to stop talking rot. For the same amount of time they have been taking no notice."
“Two things have happened. Business bullshit has got a million per cent more bullshitty, and I’ve stopped predicting a correction. I’m 110 per cent sure there won’t be one.”
Please heed Kellaway’s advice and stop using jargon. We owe it to each other and to the public to communicate as clearly as possible.
Apply the Mum and Dad test. If you parents can’t understand what you’re writing you need to make your words work harder.
Here are some words and phrases shared by my network that we love to hate. It’s cheeky but I hope that it makes the point.
You'll almost certainly have more to add. Please banish these from your spoken and written language.
Amplify, dial-up or maximise – all oft abused and misused terms meaning to increase.
Ideate, imagineering or thought shower – all terms used to describe two or more people debating and discussing ideas. Seldom creative.
Outreach, reach out, reaching out and reaching in – all ill-advised unless you’re the Four Tops or your karaoke game is strong.
Run it up the flagpole – a phrase for testing advertising with 1950s Madison Avenue Mad Men credentials. Flags are the only things that should be run up a flagpole.
Thinking outside of the box – the box is a metaphysical place that you learn about on management courses that constrains thinking.
Thought grenade – an explosive idea, obviously. Let me know if you ever come across one.
Management meeting gobbledygook
Deep dive – pay attention to detail but don’t get stuck in the weeds.
Leverage – this occurs when you apply a lever against an immovable object. Good luck getting a wrench past reception.
Low hanging fruit - it's not low, it's not hanging and it's not fruit.
Moving forward, or going forward – as opposed to going backwards.
Push back – to disagree with a customer or manager while remaining appropriately servile.
Resonate – musical notes resonate. Ideas don’t usually unless you sing about them out loud.
Revert – commonly used to mean reply. It actually means to return to a former state.
Shifting the needle or shifting the dial – may work in a recording studio, although even then that’s doubtful. They certainly don’t work in a business meeting.
Touch base – touching anyone in a professional situation is ill-advised, proceed with extreme caution.
We need some white eye time, or let me see the white of your eyes – we need a meeting, face-to-face.
Wheels up – unless you’re flying an aircraft. See also how are we going to land this, and will it fly?
Innovation but not as you know it
Baked in – bakeries are for baking; boardrooms are for management bullshit. Never mix the two.
Bandwidth – data capacity frequently misapplied to time and labour.
Bleeding edge – seek first aid and apply a plaster in the case of blood.
On the radar – not aviation or marine banter. Used instead to acknowledge familiarity with a situation.
Stay up in the helicopter – another aviation term this time to imply a high level view of an issue.
Not so plain speaking
Bio break or comfort break – a visit to the toilet where this phrase should be flushed away.
Blue sky thinking, blue sky moment, blue sky idea, clear blue water, and blue unicorn – blue has no place in the boardroom.
Gone dark – silence. Almost certainly a good thing.
Hygiene – a base level standard, no disinfectant required.
Key – used to unlock a door but frequently abused to add emphasis.
Lipstick on a pig – if you ever manage to put make-up on a farmyard animal please send me a photo.
Traction – it’s no surprise that your idea isn’t gaining traction, unless it is a mechanically propelled object.
Deal with that in slow time, park it, put it on the back burner, or kick into the long grass – passive aggressive ways of dismissing an idea.
Full time equivalent – often abbreviated to FTE. That’ll be an actual human being.
It’s not in my gift – usually used by managers to decline requests for pay rises.
Let me unpack that for you – an offer for a situation to be explained in plain English. The clue is in the phrase.
On the same page or singing from the same hymn sheet – we’re in agreement, and we speak or sing, as one.
Sweat assets – usually involves sweating asses not assets.
Swim lane – only possible if you are wearing appropriate sportswear and are actually in a swimming pool.
Sentence construction – Sentences that start with like, no and so, are a relatively new form of corporate debauchery that have slipped into the written language from the spoken word.
Invite – no, I'm afraid that I can't accept your invite but you could try sending me an invitation.
Ladder – a tool used for climbing. Someone will get hurt if used to ladder-up ideas.
Socialise – share content or ideas with a wider public.
Surface – we have yet to surface a single view of plain language.
Workshop – we need to workshop this idea. Oh no we don’t.
Abused, over used and misused
There are some words that are simply overused, and have become abused and misused to the point of being knackered.
Here’s a list of worn out words, please try and find alternatives: agile, collaborate, community, disruptive, holistic, insight, journey, legacy, narrative, paradigm, proactive, solution, strategy, values, visibility, and vision.
Finally there’s a special place in grammar hell for people that mangle nouns into verbs and vice versa. Comms, cascade, gifting, impact and utilise are all examples.
Plain English - The Campaign for Plain English has been campaigning against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information since 1979. It has published a series of free guides and glossaries to encourage clarity in personal and organisational communication.
Words to avoid – The UK Government Digital Service has published an excellent guide to spoken and written style, spelling and grammar. It includes a long list of words and phrases to avoid in clear communication.
Summary: keep it simple
#1 Think about your reader
I apply the Mum and Dad test. If they can’t understand your writing your need to edit and rewrite.
#2 Plain speaking and writing is hard
Write as clearly and as simply as you can so that you can be understood by as many people as possible. It is much harder than writing pompous hyperbole.
#3 Diversity in language
Jargon is a form of language created to reinforce a clique or community. Avoid the words and phrases listed in this article.