Plain language, dammit

March 14, 2013 § 9 Comments

I want to let you in on a little conversation I had on Friday evening on Twitter.

The conversation was, at first, between me and whoever does social media for M-Net Series. Later, Barrie Bramley joined in. (In case you want to look him up, Barrie is a keynote speaker on a number of topics, one of which is social media and its impact on how we communicate and engage with each other. You can view Barrie’s profile here:

Because I’m digitally inept and have no idea how to do screenshots, etc, I’ve retyped the whole conversation for you, and I’ve left in all the Twitter handles and hashtags so you can see who’s talking to whom, and exactly what it said. It went like this:

@MNetSeries: Please note due to #VampireDiariesSA being on hiatus in the US, the show will be pre-empted for two weeks.

@MandyCollins: Pre-empted? SMH @MNetSeries: Please note due to #VampireDiariesSA being on hiatus in the US, the show will be pre-empted for two weeks.

@MNetSeries: Hi Mandy this is only for two weeks.

@CollinsMandy: I don’t watch the show. It’s your choice of words that bothers me.

@BarrieBramley: @CollinsMandy @MNetSeries ‘pre-empted’ is Twitter speak for… ‘we gonna play old episodes for the next two weeks’. #140characterconstraints

@CollinsMandy: @BarrieBramley No, it’s meaningless corporate speak. There’s always a way to be simple and clear. @MNetSeries #140characterconstraints

@BarrieBramley: @CollinsMandy @MNetSeries you feel strongly about this 🙂

@CollinsMandy: @BarrieBramley I do. Assuming the point of having a presence on social media is to build your brand and talk to clients… @MNetSeries

@BarrieBramley: but it’s such a fancy big word. I’m not sure you fully appreciate how long they’ve wanted to use @MNetSeries

And then, two days later, on Monday:

@MNetSeries: Hi your concern is noted, however these are television terms most fans are familiar with. Thanks

Okay, so perhaps I was a little grumpy, and perhaps I shouldn’t have picked on this person. But I had spent the morning running a business writing course at a big company, a course that covers plain language and clear writing as well as using social media effectively, so this rankled somewhat.

Frankly? This kind of thing is a problem in all forms of business writing – people have forgotten how to use simple, everyday language, and seem to think that business writing must be peppered with big words, jargon, and technical terms. We utilise instead of using things, we talk about competency and skillsets and critical mass, and nobody honestly knows – least of all the writer themself – what the hell anyone is on about anymore.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider this tweet from one of my favourite Twitter editors, Patrick Neylan, on March 6 this year. His droll comments on writing often have me rolling in the aisles:

“@AngrySubEditor: I’ve just saved our readers from “hires evidencing illiquidity”. Think of it as reductive syntactic philanthropy.”

Meaningless phrases are everywhere; you really don’t have to try to hard to find examples. And in a world where we have less and less time to read the deluge of information that comes our way every day, simple, clear communication is a must.

But back to my little Twitter conversation. I’m sorry, @MNetSeries, but I honestly don’t believe that ‘pre-empted’ is a term that “most TV fans are familiar with”. I am a huge TV fan. I used to write about television for a living. I had never come across the term in this setting until you used it.

Besides, do you even know what ‘pre-empt’ means? It has a few meanings – to take action in order to prevent an anticipated event from happening, or to acquire or appropriate something in advance, for example. It does not mean ‘we will screen repeat episodes until such time as we have something new to show you’.

I’m convinced this is a classic example of industry jargon (and really meaningless jargon, at that) being communicated to entirely the wrong audience.

Imagine if your doctor told you with a grave face, that you had severe pharyngitis and he was sending you to the otorhinolaryngologist – how would you feel? But if he said: “It’s a bad throat infection, and I want you to see the ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT),” that’s an entirely different story.

I think there’s a lesson in there for companies and brands in the way they communicate with clients. They should always be aiming to use ordinary, everyday language, not the corporate language they use around the office. As I said in the tweets, surely the aim of brands or companies using social media, is to connect with clients, to engage with them – to get a conversation going? Using jargon and overly complicated language, as some do, has quite the opposite effect. It alienates, confuses and obscures rather than encouraging people to engage with you. And therefore, I think, it does your brand no favours.

And please don’t confuse using plain language with dumbing things down. They are not the same thing. You can use plain language simply and elegantly without having to resort to words of one syllable. All you have to do is say what you mean and mean what you say – it’s not complicated, really.


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§ 9 Responses to Plain language, dammit

  • Tania says:

    LOVE this and I couldn’t agree more! Back in my days of writing proposals for clients I could never understand why I was told to include so much jargon and fluff that took a simple 2 page document and turned it into a 10 page monster that I felt would only irritate prospective clients. At the time they made me feel stupid when all I wanted was to give the client something that made practical sense.
    Thank you for letting me have a little smug moment.


  • charliesbird says:

    At medical school I was always told I was too concise, and needed to fill things out a bit. Since I seem to get my point across, I’ve always ignored them.


  • samwilson1 says:

    I do find though (and maybe I’m just a douche) that – especially online – it’s really hard to not use the jargon, as you’re kinda making up what you do as you go along and you are trying to describe it.

    or am I just making excuses for my wank bullshittery?


  • samwilson1 says:

    Oh God. I just split an infinitive.


    • Oh Sam, I had a good laugh at this comment. I’m just not sure if wank bulshittery qualifies as jargon on its own! I think the danger of writing online is that it’s too easy to publish; there are fewer checks and balances. So we tend to write and send, without necessarily taking a minute or so to check what we’ve written. And there is jargon in any industry, as you know, and when you’re using it all the time, you tend to forget that other people don’t know what you’re on about. So it’s really just something to be aware of, methinks. And I wouldn’t worry about that split infinitive – they’re not really frowned upon any more. You have permission to boldly go!


  • Lili Macklin says:

    Here’s to plain language! Fluffy, empty words often showcase similar minds. Just because you have the ability (and chance) to use a word like perspicacity, doesn’t mean you should.


  • Jules Hopkins says:

    I didn’t just like this – I loved it – I actually howled with laughter in the middle of my (very) open-plan office. As a plain English fanatic working in the nuclear industry, I wholeheartedly support your stance Mandy…and wish you the very best of luck with the fight your end!


  • Gerry says:

    Jargon is not even necessarily long, it’s just messy. Around budget time in the Government of Canada (meaning right around now), funding requests are known as “asks.” Makes me want to stick my finger down my throat.


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