Isn’t it remarkable how differently our children speak to the way we did? In this era of YouTube, it is impossible to place a young person geographically by their speech. I caught my British-born-and-bred son saying “elevator” the other day. “It’s a LIFT!” I expostulated. Yes, yes, language and speech are constantly evolving, but it does seem like recent years have seen American English completely take over British English. It’s mildly irritating but I have adapted, although I roll my eyes when I hear my children say “poop” and “pee” instead of “poo” and “wee”.
Away from “pee vs wee”, evolution of language is nowhere more pervasive than in business circles. The use of jargon and cliché is ubiquitous, with phrases that are too clever by half and seem designed to obfuscate meaning. “Data-driven solutions”, “open the kimono”, “baptism of fire” and “low-hanging fruit” are some that test my patience and trigger nausea.
Clichés are a barrier to communication and clear expression. Sometimes we just switch our brains off when we hear well-worn phrases and hardly ever interrogate the meaning of what is being said. However, there is a point at which certain phrases become so embedded in our language that we need to accept that, for some audiences, these are a shortcut to understanding. An example of this is “think outside the box”. Much as it makes me cringe a little, I acknowledge that I understand the meaning and therefore the communication job has been done.
I was giving a training presentation to a group of in-house lawyers this month. The key skill of a business lawyer is the ability to extract and digest complex ideas before conveying them to business people, especially those in sales and commercial roles. Lawyers will sometimes resist simplification because they think that everything they are saying is hugely important. It probably is, to some degree, but there is nothing worse than a speaker who has failed to judge correctly the boredom threshold of his or her interlocutor. Our great challenge is to find fresh ways to deliver dry information. For example, compare these two ways of introducing T&Cs:
Google – “Please read this carefully, it’s not the usual yada, yada.”
Microsoft – “This software is licensed under the agreement below.”
Which one gets your attention?
I stress to young (and not so young) in-house lawyers to remember these points when writing or speaking to business colleagues, :
Who is my audience? Speak their language.
- What is my key message? Make that short and snappy.
- Is there a decision to be made? Give 2 or 3 proposals
- Is there more background detail? Tell them after satisfying points 1-3 above.
- Use short sentences and avoid cliché.
Finally, attention spans in business are short. If it is possible to cut words out without affecting the purpose, always cut. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”