Language Gets In The Way

Last week, I wrote about the role of language in defining, creating and implementing change. The point being that we invent new terms, coin expressions and select words based upon the meaning that they convey. The purpose and goal is to ensure that when we talk about something, it is relevant, appropriate and understood. We are striving for meaning and for acceptance. At the same time, the specificity of word choices is all about nuance. We are looking for just the right term to express what we mean, in a way that everyone will buy and and support.

This is unquestionably important and necessary. Not using relevant terms to describe ideas and concepts mean that people potentially won’t relate to or accept the ideas being explored. They won’t buy into or embrace the process. They won’t see their work in what is being described. Word choice is a critically important consideration in guiding change.

At the same time, however, words have an amazing ability to get in the way. They can be obstructive, they can be obscure, they can obfuscate and they can be downright elitist (if I was seriously intent on alliteration, and didn’t mind being elitist myself, I could have gone for “overweening” here). The challenge is that—as far as word choice goes—it is an extremely short distance from useful to unhelpful.

We are all familiar with jargon that is used for the sake of jargon. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard terms like “synergize,” “reach out,” “circle back,” “incentivize,” “impactful” and (and I’m not kidding here) “solutionize,” I would be a very wealthy man. It’s how we got to buzzword bingo, after all.

The problems of jargon run deeper than that, though (and that was probably a jargony way of saying that jargon has a bunch of issues that we need to discuss). While specific terms and words can help to create meaning and understanding, the opposite is actually true. Part of the reasons that jargon is used in the workplace is to manipulate understanding. And that works both ways. Sometimes the intention is to confuse the listener. And sometimes the jargon is employed to hide the fact that the speaker has absolutely no clue what they are talking about.

A good example of language to confuse the listener (or at least downplay the intentions of the speaker) comes from the reengineering movement of the 1990s. “Reengineering” is actually a buzzword all on its own. Coined by Michael Hammer and James Champy in a book whose title led with the term, the original intent was to support organizations in unlocking significant productivity gains. The preferred definition of productivity, unfortunately, was quickly associated with the reduction of staff.

What started off as a theoretical movement to support radical transformation of organizations quickly turned into a euphemism for layoffs. Other synonyms include “downsizing,” “rightsizing,” “workforce optimization” and “releasing employees to the market.” All of this is a not-so-subtle attempt to avoid the honest admission that we’re firing people because we don’t want them, don’t need them or believe that the ones that stay behind will suck it up and pick up the slack. And that last sentence is also entirely euphemistic.

A different issue arises when the primary purpose of jargon is to hide the ignorance of the speaker. This is often when the use of buzzwords increases exponentially, while the actual meaning of what is said declines precipitously. What ultimately emerges is a number of bromides, using words that sound impressive and actual say very little.

Employing jargony cover as a means of distraction is arguably considered safe haven by the subjects for whom buzzword bingo was originally created. These are the situations where exhortations of the need to “synergize,” “leverage,” “be agile” and employ “best of breed” strategies are likely to appear. What any of those terms actually means in this context is an open question. The speaker is trying to use impressive-sounding and relevant terms in an effort to sound knowledgeable, while realizing questionable relevance. The essence of this approach is trying to impress the listener. The challenge is that it usually does the opposite.

The most common reason we employ jargon, however, is in order to—in theory—communicate simply. This goes back to the idea of the words we choose conveying specific and relevant meaning. The problem with this is that what starts as nuance quickly becomes nonsensical. And that isn’t an accident—it’s by design. Part of the way that we use language is as a form of identification, and a means of communicating belonging.

Communication-as-identity is fundamentally rooted in a need for recognition and for acceptance. It’s a way of signalling to others that we are one of them. At its essence, specific language is the linguistic equivalent of the secret handshake; it is a way of signalling that we are one of the tribe, and that we belong. How this comes to be is surprisingly simplistic; what starts as useful nuance becomes elitist differentiator. The meaning that we create by word choice and vocabulary becomes a way to separate those-who-understand from the great unwashed. In doing so, we take the original intent of enhanced meaning and pervert it into a sense of exclusive understanding. Rather than building acceptance and understanding, we reinforce rejection and obscurity.

If I’m completely honest–and I genuinely do try to be in these posts—then I’m not immune to this. I routinely talk of situations and challenges as having “a lot of moving parts,” largely because they do. I’ll exhort that we “don’t have much runway” to get something done, which is a nice but disingenuous way of saying that the something has a ridiculously short deadline. I’ve spoken about agility and resilience, although for the most part when I do my meaning aligns with the dictionary definition.

I used to be worse, mind you. There was a time—admittedly a long time ago—when I thought that the purpose of business language was to obfuscate and confuse. I believed that convoluted expressions and highfaluting terms were a sign of competence and capability. The result was sentences, paragraphs and entire documents that were breathtaking in their impenetrability.

Given that some of those documents were resumé cover letters (and knowing what I know now) it is a wonder that I got interviews, let alone job offers. But that in itself is indicative of the problem we have with language. The greatest fears in the workplace are vulnerability and lack of control. When faced with language we don’t understand, both of those factors often get triggered.

It takes an enormously confident person to hear something confusing, look the speaker in the eye and say “I have no clue what you just said.” We value being confident. We want to appear competent. Acknowledging that what someone has said is incomprehensible can appear brave to the point of foolhardiness. And yet, doing so can be an enormously powerful thing.

Something that I learned a long time ago is that if I have a question, there is every likelihood that several other people in the room have the same question. Extrapolating further, if I didn’t get what someone said, it’s entirely likely that other people also don’t have a clue as to the speaker’s meaning. It is simply a question of who has confidence to actually ask for clarification.

On the other hand, there is an open question of how to make sure that we are speaking clearly and not employing obscure, unclear jargon. If we want to be understood, what are the strategies to ensure easy and ready comprehension? In other words, what are the things that we most need to keep in mind to communicate clearly?

Keep it simple. Complex ideas typically sound complex largely because we don’t yet understand what we are trying to say. Once we have the essence of it, we should be able to find ways of expressing it that most people will readily understand. The harder it is to describe, the less likely it is that we are ready to describe it. That means we need to do some more work for ourselves, before we attempt to communicate to others. As one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman, has said: “I write because I want to learn what I think about things, and I write fiction because I want to find out what happens next to the people in my head.” Only when we understand what we think can we explain it to others.

Keep it short. Simple language is powerful language. By extension, the more complex the expression, the more convoluted the sentence is likely to be. One of the simplest but most useful bits of advice I ever received was from an executive who specialized in communication. Her principle was that all sentences should be no more than ten words. That’s a hard constraint, and it’s hard to work within. There are many sentences in this article that don’t comply. But there are few that are much longer than that. Every time I use a comma, a semi-colon or an em-dash, I now ask myself “Am I being clear? Is there a way of expressing this more simply?”

Use straightforward language. This is where words genuinely matter. And the clearer we make our meaning, the simpler the words we use. This is where “grade level” comes in to play in writing. Which isn’t something that I actively thing about, but I’m nonetheless peripherally aware of it. The more abstract and esoteric our language, the less people are going to easily understand. Being deliberately obtuse is asking to be at best misunderstood, and at worst ignored. And yet, there are numerous writers and speakers who seem to go out of their way to use difficult words and complex expressions. As I was taught early on, “Never use a big word, when a diminutive one will do.”

An important point of clarification regarding clear and straightforward speaking is that I am not suggesting “talking down” to your audience. And if you think you are, that’s probably true. Language can be incredibly elitist. At the same time, it doesn’t have to be.

Take Winston Churchill, for example. He was a formidable mind, he possessed a considerable vocabulary and his oratorical skills were second to none. If you were going to seek out optimal candidates for “first class snob,” he ticks an inspiring number of boxes. And yet he was an incredibly clear speaker. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” is a whole lot more meaningful than “I posit that sanguination, labour, lamentations and perspirations will ultimately render us successful.” And yet it is all to easy to see a neophyte leader thinking that the latter phrase sounds far more impressive.

Language is important. Words are powerful. How we choose to say what we say can have enormous impact. We can also undermine ourselves without thinking about it. And that is the essence of the problem. Effective communication requires active intent. We need to know what we are trying to say, and we need to consider the best way of saying it. That requires knowing ourselves, understanding our audience and being clear about our message.

Simple is good. But simple is hard. It takes a lot of work to communicate in a way that sounds effortless. The payoff from doing so is significant. The essence of clear communication is letting the ideas stand for themselves, and getting our egos out of the way. That’s easy to say. It’s a lot harder to do. But if we are to be effective, we owe ourselves and our audience nothing less.

2 Comments to “Language Gets In The Way”

  1. Karen Arthurs says:

    Thank You.

  2. Jim Duggan says:

    Thank you Mark for this article and the points at the end. One thing I have found is that when I purposefully edit an email or document, I can reduce the number of words by a significant number without altering the intent. It comes down to looking at each sentence, and sometimes individual words, to question whether it is contributing towards the goal, which is effective communication.

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