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.)