There’s nothing impressive about jargon-laden, incoherent babbling.
By Roy Harryman
Principal, Roy Harryman Marketing Communications
In the 18 inches between the brain and the keyboard, a terrible thing happens.
There’s something about the act of writing that creates a disconnect between the way we normally communicate and the way we create text. The result: mind-numbing incoherence. That means your customers don’t get the message you intend for them to receive.
For some reason, many of us take on a dual personality when we write. People who are clear communicators in person turn into acronym-spewing, jargon hawking bureaucrats of the worst order when they use the keyboard.
I don’t know where or how it started. But if I did, I’d hop in a time machine and snuff it out.
I vividly remember experiencing this phenomenon with a colleague. In person, he was crystal clear and the opposite of stuffy. However, his public speaking and writing personas were completely different. He used words and phrases he would never drop in a conversation. It was an impenetrable block of text.
Let me give you an example from a Monty Python skit. In it, John Cleese enters a cheese shop and says:
“Well, I was, uh, sitting in the public library on Thurmon Street just now, skimming through ‘Rogue Herrys’ by Hugh Walpole, and I suddenly came over all peckish. And I thought to myself, 'a little fermented curd will do the trick', so, I curtailed my Walpoling activites, sallied forth, and infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some cheesy comestibles!”
“Come again?” the shopkeeper responds.
“I want to buy some cheese,” Cleese replies.
This is not a far cry from many blog posts, press releases and copy for websites. They are simply indecipherable.
Higher education is partly to blame. Many highly educated people write like this (although they generally don’t speak like this). The idea may have trickled down that we must be unintelligible to sound impressive.
However, it’s actually much more difficult to write simple, clear prose than to grandstand with acronyms, arcane vocabulary and other gibberish.
There’s much that could be said. But for the sake of a short post, here are some correctives.
1. If you would not speak it aloud, do not write it.
If you would say, “I’d like to buy some cheese,” then do not write “I’ve infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some cheesy comestibles.”
2. Write like you wish you could speak.
We shouldn’t try to write exactly like we speak because our spoken words are imprecise. They are interrupted by rabbit trails and our thinking process is compressed because of time demands. However, if you had the luxury of formulating each spoken sentence, you would probably say things differently than you do. When ordering food, you’d likely say, “Um, I guess I’ll have the chicken sandwich with the – can I get curly fries with that? – OK, with the, um, curly fries.” In a perfect world you would say, “I’ll have the chicken sandwich with curly fries please.” But you would not say, “I humbly request a poultry-based menu item carefully placed between two square-shaped products of the Kansas wheat field including the condiment that comes from the seed called mustard.”
3. Write for your audience. That means you have to know who your audience is. Are they lay people? Or are they industry insiders? That makes a world of difference in what and how you communicate. Give them what they need, not what you want to give them.
Thus concludes today’s lesson.
Roy Harryman is a former journalist who is thankful for the excellent editors who have helped him keep growing as a writer.