Blog in 07 2011.
People love getting into a lather about language. If you needed proof, the BBC published an article last week about the supposed tidal wave of Americanisms overwhelming British English. And got a deluge of people’s personal peeves.
Now, never mind the fact that lots of these so-called Americanisms started off in British English in the first place. Or that many of the moans depend on people being wilfully dumb so they can pretend to be confused.
What’s amazing is that 1,295 could be moved to mither. It’s not just Americanisms, either. Start a conversation ‘I hate it when people say...’ and almost everyone will pitch in.
Why? Why do we care so much if someone says something different from (or ‘to’, or ‘than’) us?
We don’t think this argument is about language at all, really. After all, most of us have got bigger things to worry about than if someone says ‘normalcy’ when we’d have said ‘normality’. But to get het up, there must be something bigger at stake. Not just the odd word, but our identity. Our very culture. Somewhere, subconsciously, every time someone says ‘I’m good’, we believe a little patch of England dies. Maybe.
It’s why we think every business should be thinking about language. Because for lots of people, it’s the most obvious expression of a business’s culture and identity. And we judge our employers, suppliers and colleagues on these tiny little things.
While we’re on America...
we’ll be putting our own prejudices to the test in September. We’re taking up residence in New York to talk at The Economist's Human Potential summit, and running an open writing workshop on the morning of September 13. If you’re in NYC and want to come, or know someone we should take out for coffee and bagels, just email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’ve all done it. It’s often easiest to grab that opportunity for clichéd jargon with both hands, as you articulate your blue sky thinking, and permit others to comprehend your new synergised strategy for the business.
But complicated business jargon can actually be bad for business. You’ll just end up confusing your customers.
Two cases in point:
Last week Hampshire County Council left their residents in a right pickle, after sending out letters telling people the cost of care was going up – what they didn’t tell them was by how much. Instead, the letters waffled on without getting to the point. The council leader said: "On reflection, a courtesy letter saying 'be prepared for these costs' does result in these problems." He said letters with the exact amount would be sent out next week.
- Passenger Focus, the consumer watchdog for train companies, this week said ‘bewildering jargon’ on tickets needs to be cut to make it easier for passengers to buy tickets online. Because of jargon some passengers are paying too much for their train tickets.
So there you have it. Jargon might make you feel like you know what you’re talking about, but the rest of us won’t have a clue.
- Last week Hampshire County Council left their residents in a right pickle, after sending out letters telling people the cost of care was going up – what they didn’t tell them was by how much. Instead, the letters waffled on without getting to the point. The council leader said: "On reflection, a courtesy letter saying 'be prepared for these costs' does result in these problems." He said letters with the exact amount would be sent out next week.
Giving feedback on writing can be a tricky task. You know, sometimes, it just... doesn’t feel right. When you’re looking over someone’s writing at work, that’s the kind of remark that’ll probably earn you a colourful, unflattering nickname.
Thing is, you can turn that hazy feeling of not-quite-right-ness into some top-notch feedback. But you’ve got to take your feelings out of the equation. You’ve got to get objective.
How? Separate out your thoughts into three things:
Has your colleague included all the information you, as a reader, need to know? (Like when and where the meeting’s taking place. Or what the report’s recommendations are.) Or do you get to the end with a list of questions as long as your arm?
What’s the most important bit of information in the piece of writing? Is it easy to find? Has the writer put their ideas in the right order? And have they used headings and subheadings to help you find your way around the document?
Is it in your brand’s tone of voice? Is the writing clear and easy to understand? Or does it sound like it might have been written by a robot, rather than one human speaking to another?
Breaking the news
Once you’ve sorted your thoughts into content, structure and tone you can explain just where someone’s going wrong – objectively. That way you don’t hurt anybody’s feelings.
Importantly, it’ll also help you tell people exactly what they’re doing right. Like this: ‘Your tone needs a little work,’ (give them some pointers) ‘but your content and structure are spot on. Don’t change a thing about them.’ And that’s the kind of feedback that’ll probably earn you a winning smile and a nice cup of tea.