Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Challenge – Cut Jargon Emissions

It’s getting to that time of the year when people start thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. For anyone working in business, here’s an idea: let’s try and make 2010 the year of plain English. A good way to start would be to read George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. Orwell understood how language could be used a weapon against the powerless, and how jargon and clichés are used to hide meaning, not clarify it. He offers six timeless rules for effective communication:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I am not 100% on number 6, and here’s another one for people in business:

7. Try and express your thoughts in one breath.

MBA-speak started by infecting the workplace but has tragically made its way into sport (losing teams now “lack accountability”) and even the home (KPI’s in the kitchen!).

  • Why do we have to touch base to get our ducks in a row when we could just meet?
  • Why must we synergize our learnings going forward, when comparing notes would do fine?
  • Why wouldn’t a busy person save time by saying “I’m busy” instead of due to cascading workflow, I am lacking in requisite bandwidth?
  • Why reach out when you can just make a call?
  • Why can’t we leave a meeting with things to do, rather than take-home actionables?
Communication is about accountability. If we express ourselves clearly, we have no choice but to stand by what we say. By resorting to clichés and jargon, people are blurring meaning to avoid scrutiny. It’s also laziness.

People are hungry for clarity and authenticity. In every part of life, let’s commit to using language to amplify meaning, not bury it.


Anonymous said...

It would be fair to say that, on balance, I do not disagree with the position your blog inidicates you have taken on this topic. In fact, talk about synergies! I'll be workshopping these insights with my virtual (matrix managed) team (will incorporate this into our "Raison d'etre Korero") and will revert in due course with a more considered consensus view based on the learnings gleaned from the intellectual capital gathered at said workhop.

I am confident that we will uncover synergistic leveragables worthy of further analysis and exploration and ultimate cascading to, and embedding within, the wider employee community.

Although this will have to wait until the Innovation, Sustainability, Kaizen and Simplification programmes have all passed through the final stage gates and have been transitioned into BAU.

So don't expect anything anytime soon.

In other words, I enjoyed your blog, and EVERYONE should read "Politics and the English Language".

Sergio Luna said...

This article seems pretty odd to me, since brand professionals, (we) are among the top responsible human beings of creating the most of the jargon used out there in the world.

Andy said...

Very wise words Kevin, I did have a chuckle when I read the second to last para. 'Communication is about accountability'. Little bit of MBA speak sneaking in there.

Andres Illanes said...


Anonymous said...

What a great post! This sort of language really annoys me. I am in the second year of my career, and I am surrounded by this kind of language, and I think my career will go more smoothly if I start to use it myself. Your post gave me a great insight - people use jargon both as a shortcut and a way to avoid original thinking. I have sent the link around the office in the hope it might make a difference next year. I can only live in hope! Simon

observant said...

Suggestion #8: Please Never Say Never

Thank you for highlighting Orwell’s "Politics and the English Language" essay.


Practicality and Motivation: It is very difficult to apply his essay proposals in practice, even if they are desirable, a point he also concedes in his essay:

“It will be seen that I have not made a full translation.”

Why not just say “I have not made a full translation.”?

How is it possible to be motivated by someone who does not practice what he advocates even in a very simple sentence?

Arbitrariness: “Not un-” formation: “…it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence…in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable.”

Isn’t the well-known motto “nothing is impossible” an effective double negative as well? If so, what makes it so effective or exceptional? If not, why not say “everything is possible?” How is it possible to apply rules that are variable?

Standards and Ambiguous Domain: “I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

What does he mean by literary? Related to abstract, non-political, professional (medical literature), linguistic (French literature), or cultural (European literature)? What if these forms overlap? Isn’t his essay a professional literary work? Can’t we also express thoughts in any “literary” use of language and if so what happens to his rules? Why don’t we just have an “Express-o-ThoughtLanguage” (no, that’s not the name for the new cyber café in the corner) and a “NonExpress-o-ThoughtLanguage” and drink “Orwell’s-Aid” on the first one?

Subjectivity: I believe language is a powerful communication device that applies both to thoughts and emotions which can be highly subjective. It involves unique idea expression. Sometimes the “perceived” shortest phrase is not enough to express the “intended” meaning of the longer phrase.

When Orwell suggests “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing…thought” why doesn’t he cut “and not for concealing”? Maybe he believes (feels?) the (ignorant) reader has not absorbed his message in the most effective way? Or is this another casual mistake of his own rules (for an attentive reader)?

Evolution and Creativity: Language also evolves with us. Who would have thought “google it” (a “jargon emission” or an “ordinary phrase”?) would have any meaning 64 years ago? What if the next inefficiently-spoken 41-syllabi phrase, a freak of nature, becomes the seed for the next biggest innovation? Haven’t we evolved biologically out of such “errors” into the more efficient beings that we are today? At times, why wouldn’t we want to exchange minimalism for a little bit of ambiguity that can expand everyone’s imagination to create original ideas (even in business) or to express our emotions, or our uniqueness? At the other extreme of clarity, to constrain language by aspiring to shackling Orwellian standards - a self-admitted impossible task even for a talented professional writer such as Orwell himself – may make us rather dull and out of synch with our nature.

Future: Perhaps, that’s where the communication innovation is taking us anyway. Rapidly, technology is crossing the brain barrier and researchers are attempting to “read” thoughts (Dehaene’s talk “Signatures of Consciousness”, One day, we may all be exchanging our barbarous “jargon emissions” for codified telepathic cyborg conversations based on “never-ed” Orwellian commandments that hold us accountable as we ruminate lazily in our emission-free “yellow submarines”, whether we like it or not. Who knows, we may even end up with a much more enriching human experience? In 2010, let’s try to improve our language but let’s not damage our humanity in the process. Let’s also, please “never say never” (“nothing was impossible”?). Never is a very long time.