By Luke Heilbuth
Rereading George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English language this week, I was reminded of the link between clear expression and clear thought: If a person is unable to write or speak clearly, it’s unlikely they have much worthwhile to say.
So why do we tolerate jargon in the workplace? Think on mission-driven deliverables, leveraging diversity, ramping stakeholder engagement, driving innovation, maximising the customer experience, synergistic outcomes, out-boarding management solutions and socialising key documentation.
Just writing the above forces me to recall hundreds of hours wasted in fluorescent meeting rooms, listening to executives, bureaucrats and consultants drone in language so stale and abstract that it would be incomprehensible to an English speaker from a generation ago.
If you’re similarly haunted, read on. This article offers a theory on how business jargon developed, explains why managers still use it, explains how it erodes our ability to think strategically and offers simple tips to avoid it.
How did managerial jargon develop?
For thousands of years, most people were illiterate peasants tied to the soil. The verbs they used to define their work were rooted in concrete meaning: To plant, to sow, to harvest, to thresh.
There was a clear link between expression and the realities of daily life. A farmer conveyed his thoughts and deeds in easily understandable words and images. He would never dream of iterating healthy seeds into life or ideating a working plough.
The expansion of the services economy gave rise to this kind of corporate guff. As white-collar jobs grew at the expense of traditional agriculture and manufacturing, employees imagined a new vocabulary to talk about their work.
This was understandable in part. Entire industries like social media, HR and IT services had been created from nothing, and new words were needed to better explain the technologies (like the internet) and the trends (like machine learning) that helped fuel their creation.
But business-school academics and the executives and consultants they taught soon overdid it. They set aside simple Anglo-Saxon words in favour of Latin-based ones. Presumably they thought this made them sound smarter. 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. 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.”
Why do managers find jargon useful?
The idea of deception is important because deceit is the lifeblood of jargon, explaining its usefulness and staying power. Management, especially, employs it to self-deceive and deceive others. Let me explain.
Recent studies in psychology show our brain to be a cognitive miser. To save energy and avoid stress, we are programmed to shun effortful, original thinking for less effortful, superficial thinking. Speaking or writing in jargon is the kind of mental shortcut that our brain urges us to take.
We don’t want to spend the time required to craft clear and original language. So we fall back on clichés and buzzwords which sound vaguely intelligent but take no effort to produce. Don’t fool yourself: If you’re using jargon, you’re not really trying.
Or, in some cases, maybe you are. The second reason jargon is useful is more insidious: A number of professionals can’t write or speak intelligently, so they cloak their ignorance in gobbledygook. How else to justify a premium salary?
The task becomes not to convey meaning, but to obscure it, by playing on the insecurities of the listener. Remember the Emperor’s New Clothes? Many people won’t question even the most ridiculous assertion for fear of looking stupid.
The jargon-monger is aware of this. He implies that anyone who questions him is just incapable of understanding his profundity. Take the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. I’ll leave you to decide whether he deserved an honorary doctorate from Cambridge:
“In the description of the structure called normal, normative, central, ideal, this possibility must be integrated as an essential possibility. The possibility cannot be treated as though it were a simple accident-marginal or parasitic. It cannot be, and hence ought not to be, and this passage from can to ought reflects the entire difficulty. In the analysis of so-called normal cases, one neither can nor ought, in all theoretical rigor, to exclude the possibility of transgression.”
Fine, you might say. Corporates are unlikely to take a post-modernist academic seriously. So here’s another vignette from one of the world’s largest accounting firms. Marvel a moment at the link between consulting fees and value for money:
“We help clients across a range of service industries develop and implement an improved paradigm for managing complexity. Product architectures that maximize the commonalities and minimize the differences help describe the product or service in a way that is extremely useful in both the innovation and delivery streams. The business is simplified by facilitating alignment of the support infrastructure in the delivery stream through focused technologies and processes, and engineered through tailored business streams that segment the “process” support infrastructure typically around stability, predictability, or difficulty.”
At other times, the deceit is born from cowardice. When a CEO uses phrases and words like capacity constraint, rightsizing or transitioning, they’re avoiding starting a conversation with the blunt but honest: “We need to fire some of you”. While they might feel initial relief at avoiding an emotionally charged confrontation, this kind of dishonesty inevitably undermines respect for their leadership.
Why jargon stifles clear thought
If you take nothing else from this article, take this. Jargon makes it impossible to say anything original, honest or interesting. As Don Watson points out, you can’t think in clichés, or convey compelling ideas without images. Bad language and bad thought reinforce each other.
Orwell summed it up well: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. 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.”
Nothing stifles thought quicker than a glittering generality. You may not have heard the phrase, but I bet you’re guilty of using them. Having written speeches for the Prime Minister, I’ve sinned on this front many times.
A glittering generality is an emotionally-charged word connected to an idea that’s valued in society. Leaders in all fields use them indiscriminately. Examples include freedom, unity, security, democracy, change, innovation, diversity and prosperity.
There’s nothing wrong with the ideas these words convey. All of them are valuable. The problem lies in the fact that they’re employed as jargon in disguise: Abstract, imprecise and intellectually undemanding.
For instance, a leader says innovation is good. The audience accepts the verdict. No-one asks what they mean by innovation, or what practical steps will be introduced to make the organisation more innovative, or whether there are downsides (like automation costing jobs) or what metrics will test whether innovation has been achieved.
Glittering generalities sound compelling in passing, but they’re ultimately dishonest. Don’t speak in hollow platitudes. Take time to explain to your audience what you mean.
How to avoid jargon
Here’s a simple tip for whenever you’re confronted with jargon: If you can’t understand what has been said, ask the speaker to explain it to you simply, as if you were 10-year-old. If they can’t, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Smart people (and why would you want to hire anyone else?) explain complex ideas simply and clearly.
To avoid using jargon yourself, heed this advice from 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? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”
By John Mulhall
What 30 years of television journalism has taught me about personal presentation.
Even as a cub reporter I knew that a presentable appearance and a smooth delivery were the keys to televisual success – but no-one appreciates that lesson completely till it goes horribly wrong. On camera. With thousands of people watching. And it can go wrong very easily on television because there’s so much that’s out of the reporter’s control.
Take the “piece-to-camera” or “stand-up” for example, that short segment in most TV news items where the reporter addresses the audience directly in front of the camera. In my quite junior days I was covering a story on a sudden bus strike and, with the deadline looming, I wanted to record a hasty stand-up by the side of the road just as a bus was pulling out behind me. We were shooting on film, not video, in those days and on my first take I fluffed the line, but as the bus was still in shot I told the camera operator to keep rolling and on the second take I delivered the line exactly right.
We rushed back to the studio to process the film and cut the story under intense pressure. The film editor did a great job under the circumstances – except for one small factor: he had left both versions of me standing by the roadside in the story. So tens of thousands of people saw me deliver an actual blooper “live” on the evening news. Of course, the impact of the story was completely lost as the viewers doubled up in their lounge rooms laughing at the hapless buffoon on screen.
The lesson I took from that experience was that it doesn’t matter how good or how important the message is that you are trying to get across, it can be ruined if you don’t nail the presentation.
And so it is in business. Your product might be great, your service excellent and your story quite gripping, but if you don’t sell it to your “audience” in a compelling way all the rest will mean nothing.
In the case of personal presentations, whether it be a pitch to a potential customer, a report to the board or an address to an industry forum, we must never let the messenger distract the audience from the message. Everything about our presentation must work to enhance the message: to make it interesting, to make it relevant, to make it memorable.
The problem is there are so many ways we can shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to delivering a personal presentation. It can be something as simple as a too quiet voice or a too loud shirt that will draw the listeners’ attention away from the content of our presentation to focus instead on the way it’s being delivered. There are some obvious steps we can take to present a professional and competent image: we need to get our personal appearance right (our clothes, our hair and makeup, our facial expressions); we need to get our delivery right (our voice quality, our projection, our body language) and we need to get the content right (our materials, our words, our images).
At one time or another everyone has had the experience of finding their attention straying from the presenter’s message to something far more compelling: like the speaker’s squeaky voice, the humorous spelling mistake on the power point slide, or the host’s open flies. Simple things that can make your entire message fall on deaf ears.
We train our staff to make the stuff, we train them to manage the stuff and we train them market the stuff; so it’s worthwhile training them in personal presentation to ensure that when they stand up to sell the stuff the audience will walk away feeling informed, enthusiastic and convinced.
In a three-decade broadcasting career I’ve seen many ways that poor choices in presentation can ruin a good story. Like the time I shot a long stand-up with an airport in the background and a succession of planes landing behind me. It wasn’t till it went to air that we really appreciated the poor framing of the shot as the planes landed directly behind my eye line – or, as it appeared to the viewer, entering one ear and leaving the other.
Personal presentation – it’s so easy to get it wrong.
John Mulhall spent over 25 years at the ABC, working in Sydney and Canberra as a news producer, chief of staff, news editor and national network editor. During that time he was a member, and one-time chairman, of the ABC’s Standing Committee on Spoken English.
by Gethin Fisher and Melody Li
This February sees the global release* of a cultural and economic phenomenon that could reshape our media landscape for many years to come.
The Great Wall is a blockbuster movie that was funded, directed and shot in China but features the world’s most bankable Hollywood star in the hope of reaching a truly global audience. And with the number of foreign films granted release in China still restricted to approximately 34 a year, this movie could be the start of a new formula that we should all get used to.
So what can marketers learn from the trailers that have preceded the release? What do they tell us about cross-cultural storytelling? And how might we apply these lessons to tailor our global content for local audiences?
The first ninety-second, English language trailer follows the conventions of a fantasy war movie, akin to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It features Matt Damon heavily, I counted eleven times, going into battle with some Chinese comrades against what appears to be an army of dragons.
The Chinese cut features many of the same set pieces, but has a markedly different tone and reading.
For example, the Chinese trailer takes longer to build up suspense, as the menacing strings brood around an epic landscape. Damon, while still prominent, is now part of a gang of heroes, all A-list Chinese stars in their own right, as we see more of what appear to be five armies that have gathered together to fight the dragon threat.
These editorial decisions reflect some cultural differences in storytelling.
Our Western brains are programmed from early childhood to recognise the hero’s journey, as our brave protagonist is convinced to set off on a noble quest.
In traditional Chinese stories, more time is given to context and duty, as we consider the events that shaped the man: how did he reach this point? How was he affected or antagonised? And what should be our collective response?
This leads to a different narrative, where the focus is not singular and linear, but collective and contextual, an idea that is also reflected in the promotional posters.
But crucially, an overt ideological point is made in a quote that is notable and consistent across both trailers. As Matt Damon’s character tells us, “I was born into battle. I fought for greed, and Gods. This is the first war I’ve seen worth fighting for.”
Many fictional superheroes have similar creeds but in this context, where an American hero is defending The Great Wall of China, this message signals a broader requirement: that to succeed creatively in China, you must first recognise and respect their cultural sensitivities.
*The Great Wall was released in China and other Asian markets in December and comes out on February 16 in Australia.
Gethin Fisher & Ming Ming Feng
Cross-cultural pollination in a globalised world is ushering in a vibrant new era of communication.
In the following pages you’ll find ten top tips to help you navigate new conversations when doing business in China.
好运 (Good luck)
You hear so many BIG NUMBERS about China that it can get a bit tedious: the endless stats about growth and prosperity, the fawning speeches on the Great Opportunity, and the squillion dollar rhetoric around the benefits of CHAFTA, can leave you feeling sleepy and suspicious.
But once in a while a story breaks of a local business done good and you have to stop and think: how did they do that? What’s their secret? It seems almost too good to be true.
The latest face-slapper of a stat came from Bellamy’s Australia, who have doubled their revenue and tripled their earnings in the last financial year.
What makes these numbers interesting is that while a quarter of their turnover, an impressive $62 million, came directly from China, it was the growth of their Australian business that really stuck out: a whopping $120 million in increased sales in the last financial year.
(Say that again?)
I said $120 million in additional Australian sales of baby formula in the last financial year. That’s 67% year-on-year growth in a country where births are declining and breastfeeding is increasing. So what’s the magic formula?
Bellamy’s cite a number of strategic decisions they’ve made to increase their supply and distribution but, according to their full year results presentation, one significant success factor is the rise of the daigou.
Alibaba estimates there are 150,000 daigou shopping in Australia today. Their mission? To buy local produce and to ship it back to China. Their method? WeChat, Taobao or another sophisticated social channel that enables payments and performance reviews in the same way that Uber has democratised travel.
Through our work in bilingual design, I’ve met a few daigou and without fail they’ve been nice young people who spend too much time on their smartphones. They’re not the threatening leeches on the Australian economy some would depict, but friendly entrepreneurs working hard to keep their customers happy and paying fair price and taxes for local product.
I’m sure there are less scrupulous operations in action, just as I’m sure Bellamy’s have made countless other good decisions to triple their business. But for now I say 祝 贺 (congratulations) to Bellamy’s, 谢谢 (thank you) to the daigou, and I encourage other Aussie companies to embrace this dynamic new sales channel.
For further reading on this topic check out the Wonkblog at The Washington Post, ‘This is what happens to half of Australia’s baby formula’
Australian author Catherine Jinks has written over 40 books, many for that most difficult of audiences: the young adult reader. She has won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award four times, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the Aurealis Award for Science Fiction, the IBBY Australia Ena Noel Encouragement Award, the Adelaide Festival Award, and the Davitt Award for Crime Fiction*. But this critically acclaimed author, whose books are published the US, UK, Germany, Poland, Spain and Portugal started her early writing life as a business writer, making her one of a rare breed: a writer who successfully transcended the divide between business writing and fiction.
What lessons did you learn as a business writer that you were able to transfer to fiction writing?
As a business writer, I learned several things that influenced my fiction writing. I was writing for a widely scattered audience, ranging in age from eighteen to eighty. I wasn’t aiming at any specific demographic; nor did I have the luxury of a captive audience. No one had to read what I wrote. What’s more, I was often tackling the kind of subject that makes most people’s eyes glaze over. Credit risk analysis, for example. Orientation training. Financial instruments. So I learned pretty quickly to keep it simple, interesting, pacy and human. These, of course, are the keys to good fiction writing as well. And once you’ve been a business writer, fiction writing is a walk in the park. You have so much more freedom! But you have to work out how to control the car before you can become a formula-one racing driver. I definitely honed my writing skills as a business writer before I started writing novels. It was damn good training.
The business world is being urged to tell their story through their brands, content marketing, advertising – even in their reporting. Reviewers have seen the storytelling aspect of your books as one of their great strengths. Can you share some secrets?
Good storytelling is essentially a matter of expert pacing, no matter what the medium is. And pace is something you can probably learn best from studying the masters. Knowing where to put a climax, where to build tension, where to pull back and relax – that’s something you pick up when you read a lot, or watch a lot of cinema, or listen to a really top-class raconteur. One thing I can say here is that for writers, pace is not only about content, but about the way you put together sentences. A series of short film shots – the sort of thing film directors do when they’re covering a gun battle. Long and complex sentences give a slower, more relaxed feel. You have to keep all this in mind, when you’re telling a story.
What books do you return to when you want to be inspired by great writing?
I can’t say I’m the sort of person who’s really inspired by other people’s writing. I’m more likely to be inspired by a place, or a film, or a story, or a face, or a piece of music – those are the things that trigger inspiration, for me. Moreover, I like and admire a vast number of books, not all of them because the writing is spectacular. You can enjoy a book, and return to it repeatedly, without necessarily wanting to emulate the author. Sometimes you enjoy and revere it because you could never hope it imitate it; it’s quite beyond you. That said, I have to acknowledge that there are a number of writers whose expertise fills me with a deep and abiding sense of the most profound satisfaction. They never lag, they never put a foot wrong, they are absolute masters of the written word. Evelyn Waugh is (or was) one of them; his dialogue beggars belief. Jane Austen was another. Somerset Maugham’s style was practically flawless. The work of these authors has a clarity, a precision, an elegance that makes it deceptively simple, with a simplicity that almost no one else can ever hope to attain. Whenever I read it, I come away knowing that I have to work harder. Which is inspiration of a sort, I suppose.
You’ve won countless awards as a fiction writer, but you also won numerous awards as a business writer. How in those days did you make what you were writing interesting? How did you paint pictures in your readers’ minds?
One way of keeping an audience interested was to quote direct speech. (As Alice in Wonderland said, what’s the use of a book with no pictures or conversations?) Kicking off with a quote is particularly helpful, providing the quote’s got a bit of punch to it. And you can usually find a quote like that, because most people will loosen up enough to give you something genuine, if you work on them a little. (The problem then is to get it past the censors.)
Another tip is to keep things concrete. Rather than using electronics to communicate, visit workplaces. Conduct face-to-face interviews. Do that, and you not only get a better sense of what you’re writing about; you also pick up concrete details – about process, about environments, about customers – that you can use to pep up the blandest theory.
Ask direct questions. I often start chapters with questions: “Ladies, I appeal to you – what makes a man?” This was a trick I learned from my years as a business writer. If you ask a question, the reader will at least hang around long enough to find out the answer.
My next piece of advice is this: always collect stories. I don’t care what you’re writing about – there are always stories associated with it. I used to pounce on people’s little accounts of “a customer I once dealt with…” or “the first time I ever did so-and-so” the way a miner might pounce on a tiny, shining gem. If you have to wander off on a tangent during the interview to score this stuff, then do it.
Finally, try to keep your focus on people. It doesn’t matter what theoretical realm you stray into, there’s always a person at the bottom of it all. That person is your hook and your anchor. People relate to people. If there’s a name, a face, an individual somewhere in the piece, you’re way ahead already.
Can you think of an example or two of what not to do as a business writer?
Never, never use buzzwords. Or jargon. Start doing that, and true comprehension just flies out the door. Bureaucratic language is designed to blur the edges. There’s always a lot of furry terminology flying around in corporations, especially when it comes to things like “vision statements.” You don’t often see anything as vague as a vision statement. Probably because the language is being used to disguise the fact that a) there hasn’t been a lot of thought put into what’s really wanted; b) there are two (or more) different schools of thought on the subject, so ecumenical umbrella terms are needed to cover every alternative; or c) someone wants to sound impressive by using a lot of five syllable words.
This last tendency is more widespread than you think. It’s also associated with the fact that setting things down in concrete terms doesn’t allow you much wriggle-room, if you want to start passing the buck later. If your job as a business communicator is to provide such escape routes, by all means start mastering the buzz words. However, if you’re trying to explain something to people who aren’t in the know, it’s best to call a spade a spade.
You’re a prolific writer – have you ever suffered writer’s block. If so, how would you recommend overcoming it?
There are two ways of making sure writers’ block never even enters the picture – at least in my case. One way might be helpful to business communicators; the other probably doesn’t have much relevance. To make sure I don’t suddenly find myself adrift in the middle of writing a book, I always start the whole process with a synopsis – the more detailed, the better. I’ve had synopses forty pages long (single spaced). My advice is that, no matter how much you want to leap in and start something, you shouldn’t do it until you’ve drawn a plan. It’s like building the frame of a house before you start laying the bricks, or drawing a map before you set out on a journey. The important thing is to ensure that you don’t find yourself wandering down the wrong road, or standing at the edge of a cliff. Planning, planning, planning – that’s my motto. Thanks to my synopses, I don’t get writer’s block. I thrash all that stuff out in my head before I set finger to keyboard, while I’m still in the plotting, note-taking stage.
My other way of combating writers’ block is to use theme music. This is a technique that probably wouldn’t be too useful to your average business communicator, but it goes like this: whenever I’m plotting a story, I find one or two pieces of music that sum it up for me – that give me a creative rush. Then, whenever I’m starting to flag, I listen to the music and it’s like a strong cup of coffee. It gets me interested again. It renews my emotional engagement, while the synopsis does the technical job of pushing me along the right path.
*A Very Unusual Pursuit – Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award: Younger Readers, Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature
Pagan’s Vows– Victorian Premier’s Award, Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award: Older Readers
Eye to Eye – Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award: Older Readers, Aurealis Award for Science Fiction
You’ll wake the baby – Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award: Early Childhood
Evil Genius, Genius Squad – Davitt Award for Crime Fiction
The emergence of HTML5 has led to an explosion of new ways to tell stories online. Here are just six examples, though we could have given you sixty!
1. Paced learning
‘Where did everything come from? Where are we heading?’ These are two big questions that you can answer in approximately 50 minutes at bighistoryproject.com The content and UX of this site are awesome. It tells you exactly where you are in each chapter, allows you to control the speed at which you learn and enables you to explore the wonders of the universe in many different ways. I’m sure even Mr Spock would be mildly impressed!
2. Data visualisation
If you’re a corporate communicator, you’ve probably been passed a giant spreadsheet and asked to ‘make a story out of that lot’. I suspect this project, from the Economic Policy Institute, started in the same way. But check out the interesting ways they get you to interact and personalise this data. It’s both technically inspiring and thought provoking for all us who live in this ‘lucky country’.
Microsoft is too big and powerful to get completely swept aside by all this innovation. They’ve responded with lots of new tools for basically taking PowerPoint online. Sway is their inhouse tool for producing interactive reports and presentations, and Stacker is a free software tool that has a similar idea. Both can be embedded into your existing website and are responsive and therefore mobile-friendly.
It’s easy to be mean about averages, but often the really interesting stories lie in your outliers, a data point that is distanced from the norm.
The Spotify Year In Music review is not interesting for telling us that lots of people listen to Taylor Swift. It’s the outliers, the unusual fun facts, that will stick with you. Like more people listening to Abba on New Years Day than any other band; or 30 May being the happiest day for music.
And finally, here’s a digital medium that has no pictures. It doesn’t need any code, has no interactivity and is basically mirroring one of the earliest forms of mass communication: radio.
Nevertheless, podcasts have had a massive upsurge in interest and innovation in the last couple of years, in large part because it’s the perfect format for commuters that need to keep their eyes on the road but their ears can be distracted. I listened to this RadioLab episode on my way in this morning, which has a great story and an even better tone of voice. You might also like Serial or Freakonomics Radio on your next commute.
If you like this content, then you will love our new ebook, ‘Data Fatigue and the future of datavis’. To pre-order you copy, email email@example.com
A scribe once said that if English made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur.
Ours is a wonderfully rich and complex language, but there are aspects of it that can get the better of even the most seasoned writer. Here are some questions that have been posed recently by clients and colleagues that may have had you wondering . . .
Q Recently a colleague of mine read through the first draft of a marketing brochure I’d written. Among many changes he suggested was an amendment I’d like your opinion on. My final sentence started: Please contact … or myself for more information … and he’d changed myself to me. Was there anything wrong with my version?A I’m afraid so. You’ve opted for the reflexive pronoun “myself” over the straightforward personal pronoun “me”. If it’s any consolation it’s a common mistake – and a tempting one too as it skirts that other old chestnut: me or I? To review the basics: personal pronouns are words used in the place of a noun or thing and include I, me, you, he, she, it, we, our, us, he, she, they and them. Reflexive pronouns are words like myself, yourself, themselves, itself and so on. You use reflexive pronouns with verbs or with prepositions that refer back to the subject of the sentence, for example: your colleague should try writing a document himself or he needs to experience it for himself. They also come in handy when you want to emphasise something, like this: next time I’ll do it myself, thanks.
Q What’s the difference between past and passed?
A There’s no difference in the way they sound and that’s part of the confusion. Passed is only used as the past tense and past participle of the verb to pass, in text like this: we passed the entrance or the moment has passed. For everything else, choose past. Past works as an adjective: the past month has been hot; an adverb: the president walked past, a noun: it happened in the past or a preposition: it’s half past five already.
Q Do you write daytime as one word or two?A Daytime is a single compound word. It remains indivisible whether you’re using it as a noun: it’s an activity suited to the daytime or an adjective: a daytime activity. Compounds come in three varieties: fused as a single word like our example here; hyphenated like mind-reader or mother-in-law; and separated into discrete words with a single meaning like soft sell or breach of contract. Is there a hard-and-fast rule to follow when choosing an option? If only. Night-time, for example is commonly offered as a hyphenated compound. The best advice I can give is turn to your dictionary of choice for help. If the term you’re interested in is not listed at all you can be sure the words are separate.
In the rush and hurly burly of life within an organisation, it is easy to settle for a standard of writing that is below your full potential.
There are deadlines to meet, bosses to please, and with so many other people writing less-than-inspiring copy, you might ask yourself whether there’s any point in trying to break the corporate mould. This sort of thing happens to many a competent writer who has the ability to be really good – the power of the buzzword weighs down your words.
The problem is that truly engaging and persuasive copy takes more than this. It requires a fresh approach, a bold style and an ability to create genuine excitement with words.
The good news is that more and more organisations are realising that corporate copy, whether internal or external, only works if it can reach into the minds of the readers and touch them on an emotional and intellectual level. And there are ways to move your writing from blah to wow, once you’ve decided to cast off the shackles of corporate-speak.
Firstly, clean up your act. Examine your writing carefully for jargon, buzzwords, hackneyed words and phrases. Prune away needless repetition and pompous, old-fashioned words.
Once you’ve done that, and have a clear conversational style, you’ll have a strong base from which to explore ways to give your words extra persuasive power.
One way is to use facts for maximum impact. Burying people in boring data only adds to their confusion. Seek out the facts that truly tell a tale, the ones that resonate with readers and act as proof points for your arguments.
A second is to present your material using the persuasive techniques of rhetoric. Writers have spent millennia working these out. You don’t need to use the fancier ones, but some of them work as well as they ever did, even in a cynical world.
A third is to think of words in a three-dimensional way, not only in terms of their basic meaning. The sound of words greatly affects how readers respond, and the rhythm of your prose can keep your reader awake and involved. And the emotional aura around words, their connotation, is vital to effective communication.
Fourthly, connect, connect, connect! If people don’t feel you have something to offer them, and that you’re on the right wavelength, they won’t listen or, if they do, won’t respond.
Humour can be useful in this regard. It’s a vibrant part of our lives, yet it so often fades into the background as we try to show how serious we are about our work and reaching corporate goals. The fact is, being funny doesn’t mean being flippant, and humour is often one of the best ways to make a business point and win over an audience.
Finally, think about how you write on Facebook, how you tell stories in the pub, what you would do if you were trying to persuade your brother not to do something stupid; think about the thrill you had as a child when you wrote something people really liked.
Then you’ll be well on the way to unleashing your real writing self on the corporate world.
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By Derryn Heilbuth
At BWD we’re great believers in reports. Why? Because we’re great believers in the power and potential of business as an enabler of change. And done well, reporting – particularly sustainability reporting – is a useful way for business to gauge its true performance and impact.
For those of us who help clients produce reports, our jobs have been made easier by the good folks at the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) who’ve provided useful guidelines to promote non-financial reporting and improve its quality.
Since their inception in 2000, these guidelines have been through various iterations. In May last year, BWD attended the GRI conference in Amsterdam where the latest set – G4 – was released. Since then we’ve worked with clients to produce four G4 reports. We’re about to start on another three and this week we heard that one of the reports we designed for Fuji Xerox Australia has been nominated as a finalist in the 2015 CR Report Awards. Go team!
The more reports we do, the more we like G4. Here’s why:
You report on what’s important
Materiality sits at the heart of G4. What does this mean? Well, companies decide which issues are most important to it, its stakeholders, its sector and the wider operating environment; they develop processes to identify, prioritise and review these issues; and finally they discuss how they’re being managed.
Reporting in this way means that reports should no longer be long (and boring) tick-box exercises covering a host of irrelevant indicators, but rather a clear articulation of a company’s value, strategy, risks, opportunities and future plans.
You share the concerns of your stakeholders
When a company reveals who its stakeholders are, explains how it engages with them, details their concerns and how they’re responding to these concerns, we as readers have a far greater understanding of the context and environment in which the company operates. We get a sense of the issues emerging on the horizon and can assess how these may impact on the company’s business model and strategy.
You explain how your material issues are being managed
Simply put, being asked to describe how management is dealing with what’s most important to the business allows report users to assess whether they’re up to the task.
You talk transparently about your culture
Finding meaning in one’s existence is one of the most basic needs of the human condition. So it follows that finding meaning in work, where people spend so much of their time, is an important ingredient in individual wellbeing. The increased level of disclosure G4 requires on labour practices gives readers a good insight into a company’s culture. If a company is able to tell a compelling story about the way it treats its people, the report can become a great tool for recruiting – and for turning employees into brand advocates.
You show who’s responsible
For too long, the sustainability agenda has been driven by passionate champions who don’t necessarily have that much influence on the organisation’s leaders. By asking for specific details about governance, G4 should move accountability up to the top of the organisation where it belongs.
You talk about your impacts
Okay. Not everyone does this well – yet. But business now has an opportunity to look internally and externally and have a conversation about the broader implications of its activities. And once the conversation has started, it should become easier for a company to evaluate the impacts within its control and outside of it, and make the necessary changes, or partner with others if need be.
You show the link between business strategy and sustainability
Here’s hoping . . .
Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it – Confucius
Content should be engaging and compelling. But it should also be “beautiful,” says Antonia Christie, head of communications for Facebook in Australia.
Speaking at a recent PRIA panel discussion on the new rules of PR and Marketing and the role of social media in communications, Antonia said design, evocative images, compelling words and sounds are only part of the recipe for effective communications. Producing beautiful content is more complex.
It uses a combination of language and design (and may also have interactive components) to spark an emotional response in users.
From a written perspective, beautiful content uses elegant and inspirational words on topics that directly interest the user, and it does so simply.
From a design viewpoint, it uses images to surprise, move and fascinate. Bright colours can enrapture, arouse or amplify an atmosphere. Typography and animation that reflect a mood or emotion inherent in the message – humour, authority, excitement – are also powerful. Today’s unique typefaces transcend text; they help to blend images, colours and shapes to present coherent, potent statements.
This all makes sense, but does it necessarily make content more effective? In the opinion of another panellist, social media consultant Roger Christie (no relation to Antonia), content should strike a balance between beauty and effectiveness. Truly effective content is not only aesthetically appealing but tailored for the most appropriate digital channels that will reach the right people, easily, and designers seeking to create something artistically brilliant shouldn’t forget that. As he puts it: “Beauty appeases the artist – ‘effective’ appeases the executive, and in the end businesses must ensure they do their content justice.”
The goal of many content creators is to produce something that evokes a strong response in the user – and potentially changes their behaviour. For example a Spanish charity project takes placards made by the city’s homeless people and turns them into unusual yet attractive downloadable fonts that can be purchased. It raises awareness of the homelessness issue and encourages the use of unique and striking fonts on corporate branding and social media.
Evoking the senses is Whole Foods’ online magazine Dark Rye, which cleverly integrates vivid pictures, videos and stories to highlight recipes and farmers’ experiences. Their blog pulls in the user with punchy advice that combines corporate values and innovative thinking.
Visual platforms like Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr are reflecting current appetites for appealing visual storytelling. Undoubtedly the push for beautiful content is in part a recognition of the increased competition for attention of audiences, who have grown tired of marketing messages and ”noise” that can seem bland, unfocused and contrived.
Content that’s subtle, colourful, emotional, authentic, meaningful and possibly surprising can look, read, sound and feel ”beautiful”. But for beautiful content to be truly effective, it must be interactive, portable, conversational, responsive and dialogue-provoking. It goes beyond the visual, the design, and the understanding of demographics and psychographics.
It’s about knowing how users interpret, absorb and relate to content on an emotional level. In the fast-moving world of content creation, the evidence suggests it’s a road well worth following.
Sustainability reporting has come a long way since 2004 when BWD designed and produced IAG’s sustainability report. It was their – and our – first report.
Now, 85% of ASX200 companies are providing some level of sustainability reporting.
In its annual review of sustainability disclosure, the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ASCI) rates the sustainability information 40% of these companies are providing as “comprehensive” or “detailed.”
That’s good news. Not so good are the 43% of ASX200 companies whose sustainability reporting was found to be basic or non-existent.
New reporting guidelines and regulations that have been introduced by ASIC and the ASX Corporate Governance Council will mean these laggards will have to pay more attention to the issue and think more broadly about the way they report on corporate performance. Simply focusing on financials is no longer enough.
Of course, the increasing pressure to improve sustainability disclosure is not only good for investors, who will have a better understanding of the risks associated with the companies and sectors they choose to invest in.
Transparency about an organisation’s environmental, social and governance risks is also good for other groups like governments, suppliers, NGOs, customers and consumers.
But how many of these groups are really reading the annual and/or sustainability reports into which companies invest so much time, expense and effort?
What’s more in the new communication environment in which we find ourselves (see Designed Communication) writers and designers of these reports are being challenged to cut down on unwieldy text, interpret data so people can easily understand what it means and use their skills to tell visual stories that engage audiences.
So what we need to be doing is thinking about sustainability communications, not simply sustainability reporting.
What does this entail? First, it means we must:
Adopt a newsroom mentality; ie create content that’s useful and relevant
Ditch jargon and corporate speak
Reuse longer report content in multiple shorter formats and make it easy to share
Go big on infographics which can then be distributed in a variety of formats and channels
Second, your employees are your first and most important audience in sustainability communication. So design a communication strategy that’s designed to educate, inspire and encourage innovation. Here’s why:
Educating employees: Raising awareness of your sustainability strategy and the impact it’s having leads to commitment and buy-in so employees become your organisation’s ‘brand advocates’ and ‘sustainability ambassadors’. At a time when conscious consumption is having a big impact on brands, this has never been more important.
Inspiring individuals to act: This promotes understanding that each employee is responsible for building the organisation’s sustainability credentials.
Encouraging innovation: Being empowered to ‘think’ is a great tool of engagement. Making employees part of the solution by getting them to generate innovative ideas is a practical way to get buy-in and encourage them to take responsibility for the organisation’s sustainability reputation.
When a government agency communicates with you, do you respond rationally?
Not necessarily. That’s why more and more government agencies are interested in researching and applying the principles of ‘nudging’ or behavioural economics when writing policy and communicating with the public.
Nudge theory, first proposed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, challenged the way people make decisions.
Using insights from psychology and behavioural science, behavioural economics showcases behaviours that are different from those usually assumed in economics, where people behave in a rational and calculated way, weighing up costs and benefits when making choices.
It recognises that people have finite attention spans, that decisions may be emotional and driven by factors like fear and stress, and that beliefs can play a part in determining choices.
Further research has confirmed you can alter behaviour by changing the way you present information.
Governments are embracing these findings. In Britain, David Cameron’s Cabinet office has set up the Behavioural Insights Team or ‘nudge unit’ to apply the insights to the design of public policy. Likewise, government agencies in the US, Canada, Singapore and Australia have developed ‘behaviourally informed’ policies and programs.
BWD has completed a project for a government agency examining how behavioural economics principles can be applied to its communications. We were asked to examine, and report on, research findings from a seminal paper by the British Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team and a field trial, testing ways in which letters were written and presented to the public by the UK Financial Conduct Authority. We were then asked to apply the findings to a suite of communications we were commissioned to write and design.
These lessons emerged:
Make it easy. Make it as straightforward as possible for people to do what you’re asking them to do.
Highlight key messages. Draw people’s attention to important information or actions required of them (open with two, clear, direct bullet points).
Use personal language. Personalise language so people understand why a message or process is relevant to them (use pronouns: you, we, our, yours).
Tell people what others are doing. Highlight the positive behaviour of others; for instance that ‘9 out of 10 people respond promptly’.
Highlight the risk and impact of dishonesty. Emphasise the risk and consequences of not conforming/responding.
Prompt honesty at key moments. Ensure that people are prompted to be honest at key moments when filling in a form or answering questions.
Reward desired behaviour. Incentivise or reward behaviour that saves time or money.
Simplify the message by reducing text.Suggest that taking action is easy.Send reminder correspondence three weeks later. Reminder letters sent three to six weeks after the first helped lift response rates, with a three-week gap working best.
The use of a CEO signature reduced responses, and messages on envelopes have virtually no effect. Hand-writing recipients’ names on letters results in a spike in responses, as does having, as the signatory, a local representative or someone perceived to be ‘close to home’.
In the US, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has also identified ways to get better results from written communications. It has seen increased compliance and less confusion among taxpayers, for example, after making improvements in response to the US Plain Writing ACT (2010). This law requires all federal government agencies to communicate with the public in a ‘clear, concise and well-organized manner’.
Many of the IRS’ recommendations are similar to those of the British researchers, and include:
Focus on addressing the taxpayer’s needs, not the IRS’.Use short paragraphs and sections.Prompt the reader to act with headings and lists.
Interestingly, the studies revealed potential differences in responses according to gender, age, business size and so on. And information on local cultural practices and beliefs can have some effect when applying the principles of behavioural economics.
Whether ‘nudges’ have only a short-term effect with recipients becoming desensitised to the information remains to be seen. Because field research in the field is fairly new, researchers stress the need to conduct more trials and update and finesse what’s been done if behavioural economics principles are to be applied most effectively.
– Derryn Heilbuth
One of the best weapons in a writer’s armoury is the quote. The secret is to know how to use it well. “All journalists worthy of the name use quotes,” according to John Campbell, former editorial director of the giant Hearst magazine group in the US. “Not all use them well.”
As we battle the Internet, television and new media for the reader’s attention we don’t have many weapons in our armoury. One of the best is the quote. You were just drawn in by one from John Campbell.
Until television came along, quotes were mostly just that . . . slabs of direct speech used by reporters to lend variety to their reported speech. Like this: John Smith told the Senate it was high time the federal government spent more on education and training so that Australia could be more productive and competitive.
“Despite the downturn, many Australian businesses cannot find the staff they need to compete against companies overseas that have lower labour costs and a better trained pool of talent to draw from,” he told senators.
In the second paragraph the writer has simply reproduced a slab of Smith’s speech using his exact words. The quote is not used for any other purpose than to give an illusion of variety – to break long paragraphs of reported speech.
Reporters were – sometimes still are – taught to write like that: Using direct speech simply to give variety to reported speech. But employing quotes like that, in the words of John Campbell, is “not using them well.” The modern quote is a different thing altogether. It was television that began it. TV directors quickly found that voiceover reporting quickly becomes boring. TV needs sights to see, sounds to hear, and things to happen.
Television directors responded with the sound bite, a snippet of video used to punctuate, emphasise or add credibility to a voice-over report. Their use quickly spread to radio which began using “actuality” snippets of speech and background sound to punctuate reporters’ accounts.
Finally the sound bite spread to newspapers and magazines, replacing lengthy slabs of direct speech: the modern quote. Like their TV counterparts, sound bite-style quotes are brief: “One sentence is preferable,” according to John Campbell, “two is often okay, but three is usually one too many.”
(That last quote was a single sentence. Notice how it underlines my point, lends credibility to what I’m writing and gives you a welcome change of pace from my words – the perfect modern quote).
There are times where the importance of exactly what was said in full is needed for legal and other reasons – the Treasurer’s Budget speech for example, or an important policy statement by a chief executive in a company publication.
But in both these cases interpretive reports using sound bite-style quotes are still needed and the full text can be carried separately and cross-referenced (for those who need it or have the time).
So powerful have sound bites become that most political speeches are written around them. Successful writers in politics and corporate affairs know how hungry reporters are for snappy quotes.
Think of Reagan’s “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” or Thatcher’s “This lady’s not for turning.” As journalism evolves in the wake of the Internet, sound bite-style quotes are finding a still broader role. With readers having the same access to raw news as journalists, they know immediately what has happened.
But, ironically, they rely on writers more than ever for interpretation and insight: for why it happened. But they are more demanding too: they expect writers to know their subjects and provide credible evidence from multiple named sources.
And the best way of answering that demand – you guessed it – is lots of sound bite-style reinforcing quotes.
So you might write, as in this article from Development Asia magazine: Despite a temporary spike in remittances in some countries (like Pakistan) resulting from jobless workers returning home with cash, estimates for 2009 are for global transfers to fall between 9% and 20% – between $US25 billion and $US67 billion. “The potential drop is huge,” says Massimiliano Cali, Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a British independent think tank on international development.
Notice something here: the writer is relaying the information, not his sources. The sound-bite style quote conveys little actual information. The writer uses it mainly to reinforce what he has said, to gain credibility.
One caution: in your quest for credibility, don’t reinforce one point with more than one quote.
“One quote is plenty for each assertion,” says Sydney writing expert Peter Semicolon. “Writers should never use no more than one quote for each point,” says Frank Lyspeaking, Professor of Journalism at Alice Springs. “One reinforcing quote is enough,” adds Ed Itor, a prominent Brisbane newspaperman.
“Those last two quotes are redundant, repetitive, unnecessary, superfluous and excessive,” says Hugh Vaughan-Williams, a US-based editorial consultant. That last quote grabs attention, reinforces the point, and contains minimal information. The perfect sound bite . . . though I say it myself.
– Hugh Vaughan-Williams
The first speech I ever wrote was for a chairman of a bank. I’d written the letter to shareholders in his annual report and he asked me to prepare his address for the annual general meeting. I accepted with alacrity. When the day of the AGM arrived, I snuck into the back of the hotel function room where it was being held and settled down to listen to him deliver my pearls of wisdom.
It was dreadful. Why?
Being new to the game, I had broken one of the cardinal rules in speechwriting. I had written for the eye not the ear. The way the chairman wrote. Not the way he spoke. To add to my other sins, the speech was too complex, it had too many numbers and tongue twisters like particularly, peculiarly and familiarly.
Many years have passed since then and I’ve written more speeches than I can remember. I’ve trawled countless books, attended courses and conferences and have gleaned a host of tips and techniques. Here are some of them:
Tip #1. Show don’t tell
Anyone ever see the eulogy Brian Mulroney, the former Canadian Prime Minister, delivered at Ronald Reagan’s funeral? Here’s how he began:
[quote_note]In the spring of 1987 President Reagan and I were driven into a large hangar at the Ottawa Airport, to await the arrival of Mrs Reagan and my wife Mila, prior to departure ceremonies for their return to Washington. We were alone except for the security details. President Reagan’s visit had been important, demanding and successful. Our discussions reflected the international agenda of the times: the nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union and the missile deployment by NATO, pressures in the Warsaw Pact, challenges resulting from the Berlin Wall and the ongoing separation of Germany and bilateral and hemispheric free trade. President Reagan had spoken to Parliament, handled complex files with skill and humour – strongly impressing his Canadian hosts – and here we were, waiting for our wives. When their car drove in a moment later, out stepped Nancy and Mila – looking like a million bucks. As they headed towards us, President Reagan threw his arm around my shoulder and said with a grin, “You know, Brian, for two Irishmen, we sure married up.”[/quote_note]
Mulroney is employing one of the oldest tricks in the books – and he’s doing it brilliantly.
The British poet T. S. Eliot once said that the key to successful communication is “show, don’t tell.”
This is especially true in speech-making and this is exactly what Mulroney is doing. Instead of telling us about Reagan’s character, he’s using this anecdote to show the aspects of the man he wants the world to remember: his humour, his warmth, his love for his wife Nancy and – despite the many criticisms to the contrary – his grasp of world affairs.
Great speakers always illustrate their key messages with examples or anecdotes. They don’t tell the audience about a character or an idea and expect them to take their word for it. They show what they mean and in this way supply the evidence to back up what they’re saying.
Tip No#2: Timing is critical
Great speakers also know that timing is critical to success. That anything over 20 minutes runs the risk of diminishing returns. This is the most overlooked advice in speech-making.
Ever since Romans stood in the sun to hear Caesar and his senators drone on through the day, ordinary people have had to suffer speech bores.
The 9th US President was William Henry Harrison. He’s remembered for two things. The longest inaugural speech in US history. And the shortest time in office. The two are related. He delivered his staggering one hour and 45 minute speech in a snowstorm with his jacket off. The cold he caught turned into pneumonia and he died one month later.
Death is perhaps too severe a punishment for long-windedness, but it’s worth noting that some of the greatest speeches in history have lasted a few minutes. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was four minutes long and Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was five. There are reasons that these great orations have stood the test of time, and brevity is one of them.
So once you’ve written or prepared your speech, go over it again and again – at least three times – to see what you can cut out of it without losing the sense or meaning of what you want to say.
Tip No#3: Do your research
Financial presentations are among the hardest to keep interesting. Here’s a great example of a speechwriter rising to the challenge:
[quote_note]By coincidence I’m speaking to you today on the anniversary of perhaps the most famous report to investors of all time. It was on this day in 1493 that Columbus had to report back to the King and Queen of Spain and explain how he’d spent their money. The text of Columbus’ report still does exist and a translation of a portion of that text reads: The reports of monsters are greatly exaggerated. And the basic message I have to bring you regarding our performance last year is that reports of monsters are greatly exaggerated.[/quote_note]
The writer had consulted a book called Chase’s Annual Events to see what historical events occurred on the day of the speech. As well as historical incidents, Chase’s also lists famous people born each day of the year. It’s a great technique to use – for speeches on any topic.
But you don’t need always need to go to international publications. I once wrote a speech for a black-tie dinner to celebrate Arnott’s 130 years in business (an iconic biscuit maker, no longer Australian owned). To research the speech, I went through the company’s publications and found this little gem:
[quote_note]One day Harold Arnott was mowing the grass around his imposing house at Homebush. The weather was warm and Harold wore old pants and a singlet. One of his arms was paralysed – the result of a sporting injury – and he held the arm across his body as he manhandled the mower around with his good hand. As he worked, a passerby stopped to watch him. Eventually the chap called him over to the fence. “So who owns this big flash place?” “One of the Arnotts, the biscuit people,” said Harold, wiping the sweat from his brow. “I thought as much,” said the chap. “It’s no wonder they’ve got so much money, having a poor, crippled old bastard like you mowing their lawn.”[/quote_note]Tip No#4: Become a master of verbal variety
Of the current crop of world politicians, Barack Obama would have to be among the most accomplished of speakers. Like all great speakers, he is the master of verbal variety. His language is clear and concise. He uses short words and sentences. He paints word pictures and poses questions. Instead of saying there are three reasons, he’ll say:
“Why do we do this? There are three reasons.”
He adds texture to his speeches by varying his pace, volume and vocal tone.
And he truly understands the power of the pause.
Tip No #5 Work on your ending
Like a good novel, a great story or moving piece of music, if you finish on a rousing and uplifting note, you will reinforce your speech’s messages and you’ll leave your audience with a strong impression they’ve heard something worthwhile. Your conclusion or a call to arms doesn’t need to be complex. It can be short and very simple.
A useful rule of thumb is to have three points, three being a number that many orators and educators recognise as having most impact.
– Derryn Heilbuth