I’m not one for emotional outbursts – just ask anyone I know – but if I ever see the words ‘presentment’ and ‘enablement’ in print again, I may scream. I know, I know, they’re just words. Why get upset about words used commonly in technical and marketing copy? The answer is more involved than one may think.
A common complaint I hear over and over again is how impenetrable and vague a large amount of business writing is. Most often, the charge is lack of clarity. Another is the overuse of buzzwords and jargon. Now, buzzwords refer to words or phrases used so often in business writing that they become a parody of themselves. Think ’50,000-foot view’ and you’ll see what I’m getting at. There is even a sarcastic little game employees play called ‘Buzzword Bingo.’ Jargon, on the other hand, refers to specialised vocabulary understood by those in an industry, but not the general public. Computer hardware and software documentation is most guilty of this linguistic sin, but it’s as common in contemporary political and literary circles, too.
When I first moved to Australia eight years ago, I kept hearing about a ‘fair go’ in political speeches. Now, the expression itself makes enough sense, even for an American, but politically it took on a not-so-clear meaning. Or how about ‘working Australian families,’ an expression used by a former Australian Prime Minister? I will grant that those two expressions are not, by themselves, odious misuses of the English language. They’re simply too vague to have any real meaning. Ask yourself a simple question: if two people with completely opposing views can use the same expressions in exactly the same woozy manner, aren’t you in the company of jargon?
Read a review of a contemporary literary novel (or the novel itself), and you’ll unearth all manner of jargon that the unwashed masses find indecipherable, but the lovers of such works relish almost as much as they enjoy their quinoa-kale smoothies. Intelligent readers don’t like the feeling of being snookered, and that’s precisely what all this jargon does: it replaces clear, simple communication with pedantic flourishes.
Fortunately, there is a real thirst for clarity in language. Otherwise, I’d have no reason to wax angrily about its absence in the business world. For example, insurance companies want to reach their customers by redesigning bills and statements, and rewriting letters so that they make more sense to the recipients of these vital pieces of information. An associate of mine has spent countless hours transforming jargon into plain language. Apple has cornered the market on simplicity when it comes to telling customers all about the myriad products it offers. People take notice by voting with their wallets.
I deliberately gave this article a title with two languages. The lesson here is businesses ought to speak one language when talking to customers: English. And so it goes for the all the technical, advertising and marketing copy currently held in such disdain by the very people who stand to benefit most from clearer communication.