scrap the jargon: 9 back-to-school tips for public services workers

August 24, 2009


Doris Day wants you to be a teacher’s pet.

Up and down the land people are about to return from holiday tanned and refreshed, full of exotic local pastries, ready to tackle the demands of autumn. It’s very serious. Careers depend on it. Public services depend on it.

To be blunt: councils are facing a deeper challenge today than they were this time last year. (And that’s just the recession! No, but seriously, folks…) Back then all they had to do was action their value-added across-the-piece community engagement in a timely manner, leveraging proactive predictors of beaconicity and subsidiary quantum improvement as they went. Now they still have to do all that – but they have to do it without the jargon.

In March the Local Government Association (LGA) issued a list of banned words and phrases. This was their attempt to clarify the guff that comes out of your local authority (or other public body; in my experience this is an across-the-piece scenario). And it is largely guff. Me and my similarly-employed chums get hours of harmless amusement from imitating this kind of language in our off-hours! How we larf.

So this is a forward move. But what is jargon? Now that it’s banned, how can you tell you’re using it?

Time to go back to school. Text Pixels school.

The BBC website lists the LGA’s banned over-the-top jargon. Predictors of beaconicity, however dynamic and picturesque, has to go; so have performance network, preventive services and rebaselining. (This word just makes me think of poor old Richard Pryor.) But the LGA’s list also contains plenty of words that are just – well, words.

The LGA has included words like robust, enhance, dialogue. These words all have very clear meanings. Words like citizen, or capacity. So what are they doing on the list? Well, the reason they’re there along with the predatory beaconicitrons, is that the councils who use them them are forcing the words to suck in their tummies, look to one side and NOT MOVE. Again, and again, and again. The actual meanings are lost through this repetition. In fact, the real meanings were more or less ignored even at the beginning. If you try to read a document – a letter, website, citizen charter, residents’ compact, circular, whatever – with the real, living meaning of these words in mind, it doesn’t make much sense.

And that’s just the public-facing stuff! I have seen the internal documents councils (and other bodies) produce by the truckload when they think no one’s looking. I can tell you, it’s not pretty. Strategies so bloated that they can hardly walk; mission statements so garbled they can’t talk; reports so dense that nobody knows what’s lurking in there. The admin assistants who have to spiral-bind them are miserable. Even their own mothers authors don’t love them. Everybody’s scared of them.

The comms departments in these places, where the trained writers are, can just about stem the tide of jargon that comes through their hands, but that is only a drop in the bucket. The LGA list is aimed directly at the other departments too. So I have prepared a few back-to-school tips for anyone who wants to go to the top of the class with the really good communicators, and not stay back with the unrefibrillated jargonimators.

How to fix your jargon

1. If only your colleagues can understand you, you’re probably talking jargon. You’re probably thinking jargon. Try explaining what you do to your mother. Then remember what you said when you write.

2. The reader only wants to know one thing: “What’s in it for me?” If you write to your audience, not about them, you will be much more likely to get your message across.

3. Imagine you were a person who lived in a local borough, and needed to get information about local services. Oh, wait: you are a person who lives in a local borough! Well, whatever next. Go on then: write to yourself. Your real self. What’s in it for you?

4. Even if you’re just writing the council meeting minutes, it’s likely that they get put up on the website. Right? So ask yourself: do we really want people to read this or not? (If the answer is “not,” you’ll have to wait for my post on hypocrisy and doublespeak.) If the answer is yes, then write it so they can read it.

5. Have you ever heard this word or phrase used this way outside a work context? I mean, and it wasn’t a joke? It wasn’t your goofy cousin talking about blue-sky thinking at a family picnic? Pushing the envelope at the reading of Great-Aunt Gladys’ will? Synergies when – oh, wait, there is no joke possible with that horrible word. If you haven’t seen it, scrap it.

6. If you are writing in jargon because that’s the only way you can understand what you’re saying, then you don’t understand it. Go ask someone what you’re trying to say.

7. Delete “of the” whenever possible. Your writing will be shorter and more direct. I bet your words will even be shorter.

8. Use direct verbs! If there is a person at the beginning of your action word, it’s a nice, direct verb. That’s good. The person (or council) is doing the thing. If  your action contains the word “is,” it is a bad, indirect verb. The action is being actioned, usually by no one or nothing. (Uh oh.) And a thing that is being done by nobody or nothing is far more likely to have four syllables and be gobbledigook. (Yes. That has four syllables. But it’s okay.)

9. This will take courage. Be brave. Be clear. Be simple. Say what you mean. And keep the PC to a bare minimum, too. I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about people respectfully. I mean, don’t use euphemisms. It’s another kind of jargon and people don’t like it.

(Bonus extra: get a copywriter in to help you out. Or an editor. Or a very clever pixie.)


15 Responses to “scrap the jargon: 9 back-to-school tips for public services workers”

  1. Ben said

    When I worked in the voluntary sector, I charitably assumed that jargon had corroded some of my colleagues’ power of thought and ability to express themselves. Looking back I realise they just weren’t very bright. Or maybe it was a bit of both?

  2. Andrew Philip said

    Blue-skies thinking outside of the box in terms of jargon must be actioned as part of the respect agenda in terms of customer-facing services going forward.

    Or “Good on ya, Katy!”

    • msbaroque said

      Andy, thanks for that, and yeah – you must be in a substantial amount of pain every day… I completely forgot about the respect agenda! And Dan, thi there. That is real class, that is. Deleveraging their capacity for synergies. Ouch. Thanks. And Kate, Ben, if you two didn’t know each other I’d be introducing you!

      • Andrew Philip said

        Indeed, Katy. We must all look at taking forward the incentivising of upskilling in the communication agenda.

  3. Great post – and so needed. Clear and to the point is great. On websites it helps with accessibility (six syllables – sorry) and something called conversions – which means getting people to do what you want them to.

    One of my great joys is receiving emails from Indian web development companies who use all the jargon of the job and have absolutely no idea that they are deleveraging their capacity for synergies.

    Chronic metaphorical overload is imminent.

  4. Mr. Dog said

    I can internalize and assimilate the realitive disvaluation of the term “beaconicity”, though I have never actually previously auralized it. But what about baconicity? Is that jargon, or just deliciousness?

  5. Murray said

    Good stuff. I have on my public sector desk a copy of Nick Webb’s “Dictionary of Bullshit”, which has chapters on Corporate, political, etc. jargon. I recommend it. I also recommend the report of a meeting of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee on “Official Language”:

    Q1 Chairman: Let us make a start. … Perhaps I could say, by way of introduction, welcome to our stakeholders. We look forward to our engagement, as we roll out our dialogue on a level playing field, so that, going forward in the public domain, we have a win-win step change that is fit for purpose across the piece.

    Professor Crystal: He is speaking outside the box!

    • msbaroque said

      Murray, thank you! That is ace stuff. I love this part:

      Q2 Chairman: In a sense, we know all this stuff that is floating around us, and we know what Orwell told us back in 1946, that “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” We have that all around us in official language, and what I really want to ask you is: Does this drivel matter or does it just irritate us?

      Professor Crystal: I think one has to ask the question: What is political language for? There are many answers to that question.

      I’ll have to read the whole thing now if it’s all as entertaining as that. And the Dictionary of Bullshit, too… so many books, so little shelf-space…

  6. msbaroque said

    Hey, there’s some crazy formatting going on with the replies here! Eh.

    Andy, you;re scaring me now. I’m like the little kid when the daddy won’t stop talking in the monster voice.

  7. Andrew Philip said

    Just getting my head back into the right place for next week’s resumption of proceedings … 😦

    Crystal is great fun and a sharp mind. I’ll never forget his description of the occupational hazard of being a linguist: “you stop listening to people and start listening at them”. He has a blog.

    • Andrew Philip said

      See how much a creature of cyberspace I am these days: I’m using smileys regularly. That’s worrying …

      • msbaroque said

        Me too. How I used to sneer. I’ll look at that blog.

        Oh God. You have to wonder if he has a CrystalMark!!!


        And hey, how are you all doing? How’s the babby?

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