01 August 2013

Speaking in Plain Language

Ready for some straight talk from your boss? Politicians? The educational system? Anyone?

Here's what happened recently in a New York City courtroom:

"Have a heart," said U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest, as she warned the lawyers at the beginning of the Securities and Exchange Commission civil trial of former Goldman Sachs executive, Fabrice Tourre. The federal jury is hearing a case that involves nearly $1 billion lost by investors tied to housing loans ahead of the 2007 financial crisis. 

Due to the complexity involved, Judge Forrest told attorneys representing both sides in the case that they should avoid industry "lingo" (group jargon) that might confuse the nine-person jury.  

After all, she said, "These people had the misfortune to have jury duty during the summer." 

Maybe Judge Forrest, herself a straight-talking jurist with an obvious sense of humor, should issue that same "lingo" warning to organizations everywhere as employees are often required to put up with a steady diet of "babble" (incomprehensible sounds) to get their paychecks.

Who's responsible?

Groups are groups because they share something. Mission. Values. Processes.Policies. Stories.  Myths. Goals. These areas of organizational life, and others, hold together by common language and understandings. All contribute to and help create corporate cultures. 

From start-ups to centuries-old companies, organizational systems come apart without the glue of shared meaning.  

The problem arises when those in positions of influence start importing and using catch-phrases (core competency, deep dive, game changer) as a substitute for simple and culturally meaningful language. Some feel pressure to join in the fray since not using a similar vocabulary sounds as though you are outside the inner circles. 

It's at this point distinctiveness starts to melt away as one group, uniquely formed, begins sounding similar to others who are using the same language, but often with different contexts and interpretations.

Without meaning

While it's easy to use buzzwords and slogans, it's hard to articulate a cause or vision in a way that motivates people to give their lives toward its fulfillment. This may explain why there tends to be so much glibness (fluency with insincerity) when leaders speak or write.

The list of buzzwords (fashionable terms) is long and getting longer (alignment, big data, collaboration, sustainability, downsizing). 

Incorporation of new terms can sometimes be placed at the feet of consultants and the publishing industry pushing trendy ideas or theories to sell books (excellence, best practices, incentivize, low hanging fruit). 

Does any one really know what buzzwords mean? Do prospects and customers understand what is being said?

Businesses, nonprofits, higher education, the military, and government agencies create "shorthand" to communicate internally--a widely accepted efficiency. Buzzwords become an expedient way to expand an organization's lexicon but often without adding any contemporary meaning to the purpose of the enterprise (benchmarking, empowerment, value proposition). 

What's annoying is how empty words and phrases become with indiscriminate use (granularity, bandwidth, team, at the end of the day).

Do executives go home and talk like this around the dinner table or while on vacation (pre-plan, going forward, brain shower)?

Benefits of plain language

In the book, Why Business People Speak Like Idiots, published by Free Press, Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky, come right to the heart of the matter by identifying "fear and peer pressure" as the main reasons employees get into this habit. The need for clarity gets pushed aside for a corporate trendiness that has little long-term value. 

The authors suggest that a way out of this trap is by:

-Standing for something and telling co-workers what that is

-Being imperfect since overly scripted messages often fail

-Avoiding the tedium trap with something different

-Using simple stories to underscore your message

On that last point, the authors remind us that 
Leading Change by John Kotter sold 210,000 copies--theory. Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson sold 14 million copies--story.

A paradox

Some additional thoughts from a Wiki post on Plain Talk: 

-Plain talk does not forbid jargon

-Plain talk allows for the expression of complexity

-Plain talk does not have to be rough, or rude

-Plain talk does not have to be understandable by everybody

-Plain talk does not have to be condescending

An example

The goal of plain speaking is being understood.

Here is an illustration. It comes from the farewell of Lou Gerstner, ending his time as Chair and CEO of IBM in 2002, expressing his gratitude to everyone during an extremely difficult time in the life of this historic company:

"Thanks--320,000 thanks--to all my colleagues in this magnificent company.  No matter what the challenge--from IBM's own near-death experience, to Y2K, to dot-com mania, to recession, to 9/11--IBM employees blessed all of us with their grit, their passion, their compassion and their class.  I'm proud to have served with all of you.  I'm grateful for all that you've taught me, and for sharing with me the business opportunity of a lifetime."

Words are plentiful

Writing in "Psychology Today Online," Donna Flagg makes this observation:

"I find it fascinating that of all the words we have to choose from, we make up even more ... it seems that what we have just isn't sufficient to convey the dynamics of this thing we share called work."

Simple is good

Have sympathy for the jurors in the Goldman Sachs trial in lower Manhattan.  Even though Judge Forrest admonished against "lingo" the opening statements by the lawyers used jargon at times in an attempt to explain to jurors the terms in the case.

If defining terms were a requirement for using buzzwords (which itself is a "buzzword"), maybe there would be less jargon and more plain language in our communications. 

That, in turn, could improve working relationships, productivity, and results as everyone would be "on the same page."  

This, of course, would be a "win-win" for all concerned.  


(C) Bredholt & Co.