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?

To understate or overstate? A matter of life and death

You’re waiting for a bus on a frosty morning. You notice that “the traffic’s not too bad”.

Now that’s an understatement. You’re using double negatives to express a positive.

If the traffic’s not too bad, it’s good. If you’re not unaware, you know. And if you’re not as young as you use to be, you’re getting on.

Maybe you even want to show off a bit. In which case the literary device is called litotes.

Back to the morning commute. The bus is still nowhere to be seen. You huddle into your coat and think “I’m freezing!”

Bit of an overstatement. You’re exaggerating for the sake of emphasis.

When you claim to be freezing, you’re just feeling the cold. When you say that your bag weighs a ton, you mean that it’s heavy. And if you have a million and one things to do, you’re just busy – and possibly feeling a little bit overwhelmed.

Should you want to show off a tad more, you’re using hyperbole.

"I can smell fear too, I just don't go on about it." Exaggeration is all about understatement and overstatement.

Both terms have their roots in Ancient Greek. And as literary devices they are just as long-established. The poet Homer was using them back in 8th Century BC.

The current tendency to overuse litotes and hyperbole means that the full effect of the exaggeration has gradually been lost. Just think, no one is remotely surprised, or indeed concerned, if you say you’re so hungry you could eat a horse.

Homer, on the other hand, gives us hyperbole at its finest.

On a windless day, the hero Achilles finds himself unable to light the funeral pyre of his friend, Patroclus. So, naturally, he prays to the winds for assistance. His prayer is answered: “the two winds rose with a cry that rent the air and swept the clouds before them”.

Crying, renting, sweeping winds. What a vivid picture!

Emulate Homer, the world’s most influential writer: use litotes and hyperbole and avoid the humdrum and the obvious.

A word of warning though. Be sparing in your use. Understatement and overstatement are exaggeration and constant exaggeration is boring.

And the last thing you want to do is bore your reader to, er, death. If you see what I mean.

Life of words

In the beginning

New words are conceived when existing words join to create a new meaning. For instance, you might have found yourself ‘hangry’, ‘unfriending’ someone or even accused of ‘manspreading’.

Registering the birth

New words are entered into dictionaries. But inclusion in a dictionary is little more than a rite of passage. At least ⅕ of the Oxford English Dictionary’s 231,000 entries are obsolete (Why words die (and how to stop a few of them from keeling over) The Economist 4th-10th March 2017).

New words also have their births announced in the media. This is usually accompanied by debate as to their parentage and, ultimately, as to their future.

The best way to spread the news of a word’s birth is, of course, by word of mouth. After all, “a word needs to be used to live” (ibid. The Economist).

Infancy

Young words go through a trying period. That is to say a period in which they are tried out. For some such as ‘hangry’ and ‘adorkable’ it’s just a phase, and one they grow out of as they are popularised.

Others are not so fortunate. For example, do you multislack at work? Probably, without even realising it.

If you use work-related windows to cover non-work-related ones open on your computer then yes, you multislack.

The American Dialect Society shortlisted multislacking for its 1998 Words of the Year vote. For almost twenty years we’ve been doing it. And yet we still don’t use the specific word that describes it. Multislacking has yet to advance beyond infancy.

Growing up

Once words have been popularised, they mature. Take ‘decimate.’ As a young word in Latin it meant ‘to kill one in ten’. Similarly, ‘μυριάς’ – Ancient Greek for 10,000 – has grown to become the less specific ‘myriad’.

C. S. Lewis uses the example of ‘gentleman’ (The Death of Words, 1944). In its infancy ‘gentleman’ defined a social and heraldic fact, but its meaning has decayed with age. Now, ‘gentleman’ requires what Lewis calls “adjectival parasites” – crutches such as ‘true,’ ‘honest’ and ‘real’ – to survive.

Cartoon illustrating how words are used particularly in essays

Employment

Words start work as soon as they are born. They are the raw materials for the manufacture of language, which is distributed and used for communication.

This communication is written, spoken, read and heard. But these are not distinct categories: speakers listen, writers read. And vice versa.

So the business of communication is the exchange of information. It is only profitable when it is understood.

For a word to succeed in its job, it needs careful deployment. As shareholders in the business of communication, that is our responsibility.

Reaching the end

Words find that retirement is followed by a quick death. Conversely to their widely-announced birth, a word’s death receives little or no acknowledgement. The fortunate few will have their passing mourned by the likes of The Spectator, the London Review of Books and The Literary Review. Recently, the Guardian published an obituary – ‘Golly’, ‘cassette’ and ‘croquet’: the words we no longer use (15th March 2017).

The circle of life

The ashes of the dead fertilise the soil and so it is with words: see ‘Brexit’.