Practical tips for strong communication in the workplace

Monday, 01 March 2021


    Business speak can be an obstacle to clear communication in the workplace. Here are some useful tips for how to get your message across, from BWD founder Derryn Heilbuth.

    The ethical landscape traversed by company directors has always been complex and the boardroom is the ultimate source of the ethical tone that flows throughout a well-governed organisation. Ethics are the choices we make and actions we take — as informed by the values and principles we hold and the purposes we serve — as individuals, communities and societies.

    George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, famously stated: “If a person is unable to write or speak clearly, it’s unlikely they have much worthwhile to say.”

    So why, despite the scorn heaped on workplace jargon, do we continue to tolerate it? Particularly when it comes to the language used to describe the most vital functions of today’s modern business: the way it manages its strategy, risk, people and governance. If these functions are signed off by those who sit around boardroom tables, why do the people involved accept from management the fuzzy language and thinking behind jargon such as “mission-driven deliverables”, “leveraging diversity”, “maximising customer experience” and”‘ensuring synergistic outcomes”?

    For many centuries, the verbs used to define work were rooted in concrete meaning — to plant, sew, make, harvest. There was a clear link between expression and the realities of daily life. People conveyed their thoughts and deeds in easily understandable words and images. They would never dream of iterating seeds into life or ideating the garment they were producing.

    The rise of jargon

    The expansion of the services economy gave rise to corporate guff. As white-collar jobs grew at the expense of traditional agriculture and manufacturing, managers invented a new vocabulary to talk about their work.

    This was understandable in part. Entire industries such as risk management, HR and IT services had been created and new words were needed to better explain the theories, technologies and trends that helped fuel their creation. But managers overdid it. They set aside simple Anglo-Saxon words in favour of Latin-based ones. But as Orwell warned, a preference for Latinate language can be about more than style. “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote Orwell. “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

    Of course, Latinate language is not the only problem. Grammatically speaking, corporate jargon turns nouns into verbs (to “ideate”, to “dialogue”), verbs into nouns (“takeaway”, “deliverable”), describes work that’s not done in an office (“drill down”, “circle back”) or is just plain nonsense (“boil the ocean”, “build the plane while flying it”).

    Whenever I ask my business writing students to make a case for corporate jargon, the answer is always “a useful shorthand everyone understands”.

    But here’s the problem — there will always be people in the room, new to the company or the industry, who won’t understand the jargon. And many won’t question even the most ridiculous terms for fear of looking stupid. Worse, speaking or writing in jargon is a kind of mental shortcut. It negates the time and intellectual rigour required to first think clearly and strategically; then second, to craft clear and original language to express this thinking.

    As Australian author Don Watson points out in his books Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language and Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, bad language and bad thought reinforce each other, taking up the conversation started by Orwell in his 1946 essay. Watson’s books, first published over a decade ago, are as relevant as when first penned and should be required reading for anyone entering corporate life. According to Watson, the language of managerialism “removes the need for thinking: this essential and uniquely human faculty is suspended along with all memory of what feeling, need or notion inspired the thing in the first place”.

    Orwell had described it like this: “It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

    Clear communication

    How can directors begin the task of encouraging clear communication in their organisations? Whenever you’re confronted with jargon, if you can’t understand what has been said, ask the speaker to explain it simply, in plain English. Smart people — and why would you want to hire anyone else? — explain complex ideas simply and clearly.

    To avoid falling into the jargon trap:

    • Strive to use shorter sentences
    • Use precise, simpler words — “start” not “commence”, “use” not “utilise”
    • Cut the clutter by removing unnecessary adjectives, adverbs and adverbial phrases — such as “currently”, “highly”, “at this point in time”
    • Choose the active rather than the passive voice — “the board considered the proposal” rather than “the proposal was considered by the board”

    And finally, you should certainly heed the following advice from George Orwell: “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus, What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”

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