Time for straight talking

by Ken McEwen, Ken McEwen Public Relations

One of my favourite all-time quotes is the infamous statement made by Donald Rumsfeld, then US Defense Secretary, at a press briefing in 2002.

“There are known knowns – there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.”

straight talking
The reason I like this quotation is that it reminds me why I have a job. A large part of my work, is helping people and organisations to communicate effectively.

The business world, sadly, is a culprit. It is all too easy to follow the herd and use buzz words and expressions like “going forward”. (Are businesses really likely to plan to go backward?).

Sometimes what grates is the misuse of words, like “unique”. A recent classic was when a Scottish business organisation proudly announced a “unique business initiative modelled on a successful programme in Australia”. Ah, so it wasn’t that unique, after all!

All too often, buzz words are sprinkled into business prose like pepper from a pepper-grinder. I decided to have a go at producing my own gobbledegook:

‘If you drill down into the game plan, we may need to be proactive in envisioning the requirement to re-engineer our offering, if we are to leverage the required paradigm shift. To set out our stall of integrated, client-focussed, results-driven deliverables, we must empower customers at the coal face to feed back market intelligence.

‘There may be a requirement to take this offline, diarise some quality time and touch base with everyone on our radar if we are to take on board their thinking on our unique suite of bespoke products and services. Thinking out of the box and looking at the big picture with blue-sky thinking, the requirement is to push the envelope, to re-engineer our offering and ensure we are ticking all the boxes.

‘Completion will only be signalled when we have put this to bed with a holistic solution that includes integrated marketing communications.’

(That last sentence is my coded plug for public relations!)

Adding to the impenetrable language, usually, is a liberal sprinkling of industry-specific jargon and the dreaded acronyms. Both can contribute to ease of communication for those in the know.

But, all too often, it seems to me, it is used to cover up for shortcomings. Indeed, many clearly use jargon and buzz words in a vain attempt to make themselves feel important. You can see them preen themselves when others have to ask what they mean!

Others use gobbledegook, as a form of encryption. It makes their communication only decipherable by others who hold the language key. This may be to protect their corporate interests. Or, just possibly, it may be to hoodwink others into thinking that what they do is more technical and impressive than it really is!

Then there are acronyms. These obscure and often anonymous strings of initials – while an excellent means of reducing wear and tear on computer keyboards – are often used in the same way as jargon, to encrypt conversations or to require the other party to admit ignorance.

IoD Scotland Magazine
A version of this blog appears in the IoD Scotland Summer 2012 magazine

So why use impenetrable language? If something is worth saying, then surely it can be expressed clearly and succinctly in simple language?

Indeed, I have found that jargon is often not necessary even in highly-technical industries. To me, technical writing is about explaining something in a way that does not insult those who understand the technicalities, but also accessible to those without specialist knowledge.

Working in Aberdeen I have had to write many technical stories, over the years, for the oil and gas industry. To this day I will often start out on, say, a press release, assuming that I need two versions – one jargon-free version for the business pages and a second with the jargon for the oil and gas media.

Usually I end up finding that one version suits all. Plain, straightforward English provides clear communication to both audiences.

So, let’s start some straight talking. Using plain (or maybe I should say vanilla?) language is the fundamental attribute of effective communication.
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