Don’t sacrifice clarity by trying to sound authoritative

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September 2, 2010

We’ve all had the experience of talking with executives who are clearly very intelligent and know their stuff very well, but who are pretty much incomprehensible because they insist on using big words mixed with jargon.

We’ve all had the experience of talking with executives who are clearly very intelligent and know their stuff very well, but who are pretty much incomprehensible because they insist on using big words mixed with jargon.

Many business executives fall into the trap of speaking in long, convoluted sentences, full of words that don’t add much. They use “management-ese” and what I call “noise words”. It seems executives like “noise words” because they think it makes them sound important.

The trouble is that people who use them sacrifice clarity of message, and what’s the point of saying anything if others don’t know what you mean?

It’s all well and good using jargon with other executives who understand the code but it’s a bad practice to get into as it inevitably spills into other communications.

It’s a good example of the KISS principle where spokespeople should keep it simple and make sure they’re being understood – particularly in media interviews.

If a journalist you are talking to – or, worse, the audience they are interviewing you for – doesn’t understand what you’ve said, then it’s a wasted opportunity. Indeed, if the journalist doesn’t understand what you’re on about, they are unlikely to use your information.

Another problem with using jargon is that it can suggest the person is lazy and not thinking through what they want to say.

It’s the same with clichés. They can fall off the tongue (or the keyboard) very easily. However, their use can mean the person isn’t thinking deeply about what he or she is trying to say. Sometimes the clichés don’t even mean what the user thinks they do.

Clichés, jargon and noise words run the risk of annoying listeners or readers, encouraging them to tune out, and make the speaker sound pompous and out of touch. The overriding rule of communications is to use language that the audience understands and avoid the words and terms that could distract them from what you are saying and what you want them to understand.

A couple of websites that provide a good reality check include:

http://buzzkiller.net/buzzboard.htm – this site lists the words and phrases that are used too often, while http://buzzkiller.net/incite.htm ‘translates’ some of the more meaningless buzzwords.

http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/ – claiming to have been “fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979”, this site presents annual awards for the ‘best’ examples of gobbledygook.

There are also a number of good books that illustrate the language traps that people can fall into, including Don Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, or a new book by Roger Horberry, Sounds Good on Paper.