Five steps to clarity

Are you looking to create a high standard of communication? Follow these five steps:

  1. Identify your audience. Are they internal or external? This will inform step 2.
  1. Cater your communication to your audience. When communicating internally it’s safe to assume that technical terms or acronyms will be understood. An external audience on the other hand is looking for jargon-free language.
  1. Think about how your audience will see your communication. Short paragraphs allow an online reader to scan quickly. An email might be read on a phone, in which case too much text will be overwhelming.
  1. Short words and phrases convey information clearly and concisely.
  1. Grammar and spelling matter. Check everything (‘not’ and ‘now’ will always pass the spell check and can render very different meanings). Verify dates. Spell names correctly.

For more advice, get in touch.

Cartoon illustrating no. 5 of our five steps for good communication - spelling matters

Don’t succumb to poor communication

The NHS is poorly. Very poorly. Poorly, by the way, is a medical professional’s euphemism for ‘in danger of expiring’.

It appears to the outside observer that poor internal and external communication may prove to be dangerous, even fatal.

Jargon is the poison that will kill the health service’s communication and when it cannot communicate, it will, itself, die.

In a biting piece on the NHS, Health correspondent Nick Triggle explains how confused and confusing language is symptomatic of the decline.

He cites ‘STP’ as one example. Not the motor oil, by the way, but an acronym for an equally obscure item of management-speak.

On its own the acronym doesn’t give much away. What does it stand for? ‘Sustainability and transformation plan’. Hmm; none the wiser?

Sustainability and Transformation Plans have the power to re-shape the health system because they reduce hospital services and offer care at community level instead.

It’s an example of a dramatic change masked by jargon that is impossible to understand. Some insiders have dubbed ‘STP’s ‘sticky toffee puddings’, possibly to avoid the inevitable political and media backlash to everything the health service tries to do.

Cartoon illustrating the dangers of using too much jargon which results in poor communication

The NHS is rather too fond of jargon-filled communication, though.

For example: an ‘ambulatory patient pathway’ isn’t a hospital corridor. It’s a convoluted way of saying that a patient can go home after being seen in hospital.

There are 50 Vanguards in the NHS. Do you know what they are? Not advancing armies but, “Each vanguard is taking a lead on the development of new care models which will act as the blueprints for the NHS moving forward” or as you and I might say, a practical way to test new ways to run patient services.

‘Operational Pressures Escalation Levels’ are now used to describe how busy a hospital is.

Triggle reports that the Plain English Campaign (PEC) has labelled the language the NHS uses as “simply gobbledygook”.

PEC spokesman Steve Jenner says it is difficult for the public to understand what’s going on: “I can’t help thinking that [situation] suits the NHS sometimes”.

If the purpose of communication is to convey information, and it is, to cloak the facts in jargon obscures that information. The NHS, above all fails to communicate and tell patients and users the unvarnished truth.

Should you run towards, or away from, a policeman who is holding a gun?

Schools that send pupils on trips to London and elsewhere routinely provide their students with practical advice about security and how they can help keep themselves and their friends safe. This advice is now standard operating communication in schools.

But, to parents as well as pupils and other folk going about their lawful business, security messages have started to sound like charity appeals. They blur into one relentless monologue and, whoever we are, we generally tend to tune out the warnings unless there’s an armed policeman barking orders at us. Oh, and here’s a tip: best not run towards her or him as that can be misinterpreted as an act of aggression and end badly.

A thoughtful piece by psychologist Stephen Grosz, published in the FT Magazine in 2011, a snippet of which is below, contains important clues about personal survival. Its content communicates clearly, and illustrates vividly, why one crucial element to surviving a terror incident is to take control of your own life rather than wait for instructions; instructions which may well come too late.

You can find a full version of the piece, which forms a chapter in his book, along with other fascinating insights into the human psyche in Grosz’s The Examined Life. You never know; it might just save your life, limbs or loved ones.Page scan from Stephen Grosz's 'The Examined Life' - Should you run towards, or away from, a policeman who is holding a gun?