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07.01.2016

This is a blog about communicating simply and clearly.

by Judy Kuszewski

Happy new year! I hope the recent festivities have been joyous and relaxing. As I write this, the sun is coming through my window, across the front lawn where the grass hasn’t stopped growing this winter, illuminating the buds that will soon come into leaf far earlier than they should – and all of a sudden, I wonder where has the time gone! This may be a bizarre El Niño-influenced season for us, but nevertheless, spring feels so close I am anxious to take down the tinsel and winter fripperies and embrace the change.

And, of course, it is time to look forward and make some plans for the coming year. It may be a cliché – and January 1st is just a date like any other, after all – but we may as well make the most of a fresh start. So I have a proposal for anyone working on 2016 sustainability resolutions: make this the year to quit the jargon habit.

Sustainability is complicated enough without the fancy language.

I was particularly inspired to write about this by one of my top Christmas presents this year: a new book from Randall Munroe, creator of the webcomic XKCD, about the world of science and technology, populated by faceless stick figures with hairdos. Thing Explainer is a work of genius: The book is filled with detailed diagrams of natural phenomena and marvels of technology, but the accompanying descriptions use only the one thousand most commonly used words in the English language. Thus a jet engine is described as a Sky Boat Pusher, tectonic plates are Big Flat Rocks We Live On, and a nuclear bomb is a Machine for Burning Cities. What I like about the book is that it is equal parts farce and deadly serious project. It shows that it is both possible and extremely desirable to use language that makes complicated stuff accessible. It’s also funny to describe, say, picking a lock as ‘lying to’ it.

Thing Explainer – Diagram of Nasa’s Saturn V Rocket

Just say what you mean.

This resolution might well be the sustainability world’s equivalent of ‘lose ten pounds’ – the one we all pledge every year, then fail to achieve – but I would really like to challenge everyone involved in sustainability communications to drop the sustainability-speak.

The sustainability world is famously laden with jargon, technical terminology and insiders’ language. There is no getting away from this fact entirely, as the actual practice of sustainability brings us into contact with chemicals, natural habitats, physical materials and trust – and we must be careful to make the ideas accessible and to avoid patronising people in the process.

Examples of gratuitous jargon and meaningless sustainability guff are so commonplace it’s almost beside the point. But let’s go there anyway: I’m going to strip out the identifiers, because I’m not doing this to embarrass anyone. Here are a few choice cuts, randomly taken from sustainability reports in GRI’s sustainability disclosure database:

[L]et’s talk about protecting. In many ways, [our company] is in the business of helping protect dreams – those of our agents, our employees, our policyholders and the accounts we do business with. That’s a good thing, because as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

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Heavy ordering, especially toward the end of the year, threatens once again to create surplus capacity, with growth of the fleet outpacing trade demand. This imbalance looks to continue through 2015, with the effect that both newbuilding prices and freight and charter rates will remain depressed, continuing the competitive pressure on all of the industry’s service providers, including classification societies.

.

[Our company] has always believed in genuineness, rectitude, courage and the power of doing things together. [Our company]’s personnel are capable, creative and extremely committed. These are the ingredients of a strong corporate culture and team spirit, which are important pillars in the company’s strategy. In recent years, [our] employees have been offered ever-increasing opportunities to work in a multicultural business environment. At the same time, a change in the business environment has also demanded operational streamlining and reorganisations.

These few examples are just scratching the surface, and the brilliant Guffipedia  archive of egregious corporate nonsense, curated by the FT’s Lucy Kellaway, has preserved many other examples for posterity. Let’s keep in mind such gems as ‘corporate family’, which Kellaway includes as ‘the idea that employees are somehow part of the family is one of the most delusional metaphors of modern corporate life’; and ‘sustainable mobility solution,’ honored with the Gold medal, Daft New Names for Common Nouns category, 2010 (the common noun in this case being ‘car’). ‘Ethical’ also makes it into the Guffipedia for being meaningless – as no one would stake a claim to being anything other than ethical, so it expresses nothing useful on its own.

A jargon-busting action plan

What could we do with some of the best established – yet stubbornly insiders-only – terms in sustainability comms? A few suggestions:

These examples may work well or not, depending on the needs of your audience and the situation. But they do at least illustrate that specialist terminology is not necessary to make your point.

The diagrams in Thing Explainer, marvellous as they are, will never replace what’s in more traditional textbooks or user manuals. They’re too imprecise, with too much potential for misunderstanding (it took me a minute to work out that the Big Tiny Thing Hitter was in fact a diagram of the Large Hadron Collider). But the exercise of creating them – and of reading them – is instructive.

It is plainly crazy to substitute ‘sustainable mobility solution’ with ‘making cars go with less fire water, so they put less bad stuff in the sky’ – as Thing Explainer might suggest – so I won’t. But think about what you can do to lose the jargon in 2016. Take that section of your website on customer service and completely rewrite it, with no jargon at all. It will sound silly at first, but you can then re-introduce the more specialist terms one at a time, asking all along the way:

I guarantee you will find many opportunities for simplicity, and the results will be worth it.

Stop worrying, and learn to love simplicity.

In the end, the most important thing that Thing Explainer explained to me is that these seemingly ridiculous drawings have an important point, one made most eloquently in the book’s foreword (Page Before the Book Starts). Munroe – a former Nasa robotics engineer – explains:

‘I’ve spent a lot of my life worried that people will think I don’t know enough. Sometimes, that worry has made me use big words when I don’t need to.

…I liked writing this book because it made me let go of my fear of sounding stupid. After all – when you’re saying things like “space boats” and “water pushers,” everything sounds stupid. Using simple words let me stop worrying so much.’

I think at some level, we all find comfort in using jargon, and this is why it’s so hard to quit. Speaking plainly leaves us ‘naked’ with our ideas, subject to scrutiny and liable to be found wanting. At the risk of drawing out the weight-loss analogy too far, perhaps sustainability-speak is the comfort eating that keeps our communications, er, bloated … you get the idea, I think.

But cutting the jargon could have a more profound impact, beyond the cosmetics of language. Stripping away the obfuscating big words can also help signal how to change deeds, ensuring the substance behind the communications is real and robust.

Join me in the pledge to make 2016 the year to be lean and meaningful. They say if you have a weight-loss buddy you’re more likely to succeed in dropping those ten pounds – so let us offer to be your jargon-loss buddy: share your challenges in the comments section, and let’s lose the excess together!