Say what you mean

I like Attorney-General Chris Finalyson’s style. Even if he comes across as a curmudgeon in producing guidelines for people in his office about clear communication (as distinct from ‘around’ clear communication, LOL, see below), boy do I sympathise.  I have pretty much one simple rule in writing or speaking: Say What You Mean.  Oh, and Mean What You Say.  But I don’t see a lot of it.  Instead I see a growing army of people in organisations, or reported in the media, desperate to sound as though they know what they are talking about.  When they possibly don’t.  Words are their smokescreen.  This may in part be related to anxiety about job security, leading to excessive mimicry of organisational bafflegab.  Or it may be related to an airy sense of entitlement to be evasive if one is a politician, or person in any senior role in public life, whose motives are obfuscation, preening and assumption of authority.  The following brief list of three crimes against clarity are risky communication tactics when reputation management is the new priority, a context in which “there is nowhere to hide”, as Communications practitioners like to say.  If you’re planning to be deliberately vague, pompous, and exclude logic, you can expect eventually that someone will hunt you down for an explanation.

So, managerial jargon is rife.  Trouble is, the more certain phrases are over-used the more impotent they become.  Language becomes flaccid, unfit for purpose.  Listeners or readers give up and become unreachable, or they nod as if they understand in order to please, but without insight, understanding or commitment.  Fair enough to say the use of jargon is a matter of personal taste and style; but be aware you may have a rather negative impact that you didn’t intend.  As a start, consider eliminating the following crimes from your communications:

What Not To Say

  • Going forward.  This phrase is almost always completely redundant.  It adds nothing to existing meaning.   It implies the speaker/writer is trying to sound strategic – as if to say “I am a person who thinks ahead; it’s natural to me to consider the future, and hey – I can speak the lingo.”  Believe me, all it does is make you sound like a prat.   Here is a real example from a company-wide email (details of the work referred to have been slightly altered):  “We anticipate that the sessions will provide you with the tools and mechanisms to ensure that going forward the role of rubbish collector will be a rewarding one for you and your refuse collection teams”.  Try removing going forward in the statement above … and there is NO CHANGE to the meaning.  What does “going forward” add?  Nothing!  Why is it included? Because the author wants to emphasise his/her status and function as a manager, otherwise known as being pompous.  Beware if you like to use it: more than a few will think you sound like a tosser.
  • In that space is a pompous, vague, almost comical expression.  What does it actually mean?  Vagueness, in my book, implies laziness.  Laziness tells me the speaker or writer doesn’t value clarity, or they want to sound more important, or add a veneer of strategic thinking.  But it is just a veneer.  If I sense the speaker or writer doesn’t value clarity or doesn’t know what they are talking about and is trying to hide it, I begin to doubt their trustworthiness.  Are they just creating a smokescreen hoping to impress?  I’m also distracted from what they may be genuinely trying to get across, unaware of how much they are undermining their message.  In that space, used naively or otherwise, undercuts credibility.
  • Worse, perhaps, is the popular around, used to obscure a lack of effort to define what the speaker is talking about.  Yet at the same time it’s intended to make the speaker sound authoritative.  “There are issues around safety….” or “we need to have a discussion around performance…” are unintentionally revealing remarks.  People who use ‘around’ in this way can’t be bothered to serve their listeners well – but they want us to take them seriously!  The use of this non-word has ballooned in the last year or two, in news reports and interviews, and in organisational discourse.  What do you mean, ‘around’? Do you mean with respect to? On? Regarding? About? In the matter of?  Around signals the speaker’s intentional obfuscation.  You have to ask yourself, why is this person trying to fool me about his /her knowledge and competence?  Further, there’s a tacit complicity expected of the listener, an expectation that they will not be rude enough to point out how meaningless it is.  Just as in the children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes, we dare not object or ask the person to explain more clearly what they mean, out of a shared commitment to saving face in public.  The speaker or writer takes a gamble that no one will comment.  A real example seen recently (but repeated in any number of communications every day): x person is here “….to progress our processes, policies, resources and capability around y [area of our business]”.  A simpler way of saying this is x person is here to work on y project.  It’s also more honest.

Numerous fine critiques of this phenomenon include this recent A – Z  of the gloriously mixed metaphors of business jargon such as close of play, backfill, leverage and heads up.  Some of these curious expressions have a sporting or military origin, giving this type of jargon a Boys’ Own flavour.

Say What You Mean, and Mean What You Say.  Think about your audience, how much you want them to genuinely engage with what you are saying, and how your message will be heard, perceived, remembered.  Are you being accurate, open, authentic, truthful, logical, fair, consistent?  Or are you being lazy?  Worse, are you trying to obscure your lack of preparation or real expertise on this topic?  Imprecision leads to poor logic, weak reasoning, and “rationales” you could drive a truck through.  The problems we all have to solve today require ruthless accuracy, clarity, honesty and accountability, all served best through clear language used with integrity. Language used well is a joy, but we all have to protect its capacity to wave a magic wand of understanding.

I haven’t gone near at the end of the day, no brainer, it’s not brain surgery / it’s not rocket science, value add, what’s the takeaway from this discussion?, what’s the value proposition?  Doubtless there’s meaning, of sorts, in there somewhere.  We must know what we mean by “value”, mustn’t we?  But let’s not go there.

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