Plain speaking

Language is one of my big bugbears. Non commercial organisations (and even many commercial ones) battle with this. People working in non-profit organisations and research institutes often struggle to get their message out, because they fail to communicate in plain language.

Communicating in plain language is deceptively difficult. The end product might read really simply, but behind that there’s usually hours of work and lots of sweat and tears.

We’re all so used to communicating in jargon. Words like ’empowerment’, ‘capacity building’, and ‘marginalisation’ trip off our tongues. Not to mention the abbreviations and acronyms: “OVC, MDG, ART” … and so on and so forth.

One of my favourite books is called Gobbledygook, written by Don Watson. I heartily recommend it as a great argument in favour of plain language, with some great examples of what is wrong with all the jargon and cliches we use without thinking.

Watson refers to another of my favourite authors on the issue of plain language — George Orwell. Orwell was concerned with how politicians use language to obscure the truth and dull public thinking. He set this out brilliantly in an essay called Politics and the English Language.  Read it here or see the Wikipedia article here.

If you don’t think language is a problem, think about this: how many of your friends and family understand just what it is you do for a living? If you work in the non-profit sector, the chances are good that those close to you don’t have a clue — and it’s because you can’t tell them, without using words such as ‘facilitating’, ‘encompassing’, ‘MDGs’, and ‘engagement’.

I like to do a little exercise with people called the ‘Cocktail Party’. People have to mingle in a room, introduce themselves to others and explain what it is they do — all without using any of the jargon they normally use. The listeners have to stop them every time they hear one of the forbidden words. It’s a great test and eye opener. So, what to do if you suffer from jargon-itis? You can start by working out how to describe your job in plain language, using no more than two sentences.

If you’re stumped, George Orwell offers six rules that should help:

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


One response to “Plain speaking

  1. I really love this piece. Great, to the point, and educational! Thanks!

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