Jun 13 '14
Earlier this month the BBC reported on a speech given by Pfizer chef executive Ian Read about the proposed takeover of AstraZeneca in which he described it as ‘putting together the pipelines’. In this report by Howard Mustoe, the BBC business reporter looks at the frustration caused to the committee of MPs receiving the speech over Read’s incessant business jargon that was almost, at times, incomprehensible.
As a former journalist, and now PR associate for Elephant Creative with a passion for plain English, I’m disappointed but at the same time not in the least bit surprised. I spent the first five years of my career as a newspaper reporter deciphering marketing or business speak from spokespeople, or business owners, and trying to turn it into something that made sense to the ordinary person.
I’m not talking about dumbing down information for the general public – I mean actually trying to find some sense, and portray the actual meaning of all their bumph and meaningless words and phrases.
Amongst Read’s finest phrases when he stood in front of MPs were: “Let’s make sure we get good capital allocation… build a culture of ownership… flexible use of financial assets… productive science… opportunity to domicile… putting together the headcount.”
Committee chairman Adrian Bailey (quite rightly) said at one point “I asked a simple question.”
But he never got a simple answer.
Quite often the reason for this is – there isn’t a simple answer, or even more likely there is no answer at all, and so instead the strategy is to baffle with senseless jargon until quite frankly we give up listening – or caring.
Within some organisations business jargon has somewhat taken hold, and in fact is used by all staff, therefore everyone knows what everyone else is talking about. However this is dangerous when it leaks over into your marketing material and direct contact with clients.
Talking to one another using industry acronyms and phrases is one thing, but doing the same on your website, in your literature, on social media and face-to-face with customers and clients is not useful, and will almost certainly put people off.
Here are some useful tips to think about when copywriting for marketing material:
1. Why use 10 words when you can use five? This was our mantra when I was a journalist. Space was precious and stories were nearly always ruthlessly cut from the bottom if they were too long, therefore staying succinct was crucial. Read the paragraph back and think about whether you can take out some of the useless words – you must remember that people’s attention spans are short and you want to try and get your message across in as shorter space as possible. Former Times editor Harold Evans wrote in ‘Essential English’ that editors should ‘prefer the short word to the long, the simple word to the complex, the concrete word to the abstract.’ Excess words for example include; ‘in conjunction with’ (meaning ‘and’), ’is of the opinion’ (believes) ‘less expensive’ (otherwise known as ‘cheaper’) and so on…
2. Always spell out industry acronyms: You may well know what ROI or SME means, but some people won’t – it doesn’t take you long to write Return on Investment (ROI) or Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SME) – from then on you can simply use the acronym throughout the text – but it leaves the reader in no doubt from the start.
3. Outsider opinion: Get someone from outside of your organisation or industry to read it over and give their opinion. Those from outside the circle of your common, everyday jargon, will be able to point out the phrases and sentences that don’t make sense.
Above all, be clear and say what you want to say in the simplest way possible – there is no shame in doing this.
In Mustoe’s BBC article he mentions an excellent anecdote, as follows:
“BBC journalist Alistair Cooke, broadcaster of Letter from America, remembered a choice phrase from World War Two, during a meeting of commanders in General Eisenhower’s headquarters in London.
An American colonel said: “How many ICPs have been counted?”
“What,” asked Winston Churchill, “are ICPs?”
“Impaired combatant personnel, sir.”
“Never let me hear that detestable phrase again. If you’re talking about British troops, you will refer to them as wounded soldiers.”
And I will leave you with a quote from a Forbes article written a while back about the worst business jargon: “The next time you feel the need to reach out, shift a paradigm, leverage a best practice or join a tiger team, by all means do it. Just don’t say you’re doing it, because all that meaningless business jargon makes you sound like a complete moron.”