Communication Nazis: A Term of "un-Endearment"

A guy I know met me in the mall a couple weekends ago and as he kept me back from perfume shopping, he told me about his plans to visit the UK soon.

Him: Going to help my cousin with his business for a little while. He does exonerations.
Me: (utter bafflement)
Him: You don't know what exonerating is?
Me: (utter bafflement, followed by reflection, then by more bafflement, then more reflection and mind searching: Exonerate means, ummm...to free from blame or guilt, right?)

I was baffled because I knew what I thought exonerating was, but the dude clearly was not in the legal profession, nor was he a P.I. but I could have been wrong!

Him: He digs up dead bodies so they can do autopsies.

It took everything in my physical and mental being to not laugh, and I feigned edification, with an "Ohhhhh". Poor guy was so confident in what he was peddling, and so pleased that he taught me something, that I did not have the heart to tell him the word was exhumation, from the word, exhume. Maybe next time.

As confused as I was during that brief conversation, so too are some of the people we write for. Show of hands if you have started reading something that just went right over your head because it was either chock full of jargon, or just written with the simple objective of baffling you. A gentleman I do not even know this week, accused people like me, communicators working in finance, of being Nazis when it came to communications. Now the dude does not know me or what I do or even how I do it, and calling me a Nazi was not going to get you listed in my good books, but sadly, dude has a general point. Some of these financial documents you pick up in a bank can just turn your grey matter green, and while there is an audience for that hardcore communication, not all clients are the same.

Now to be honest, when I write for work, I am also learning because I hardly know what these people are talking about when they start to get all technical with the financial terms and jargon. The extent of my money vocab is "pay me" (kidding kidding). But again, it comes down to knowing the audience I am trying to write for - people who are probably just like me or worse, and don't quite get the really hardcore moneyspeak. I am a purist writer at times - anal about spelling, grammar and abbreviations, but over the years I have come to grips with my reality and the reality of the different audiences I have had to communicate with in various roles. So...


1. Think of the audience and not yourself when writing. You may enjoy writing with lots of colloquial terms or use a lot of big words, and that may work for you. It may not work for your audience. And ask yourself, what is it that THEY want to know about this topic, not what I want to write. Don't be so self absorbed that you miss the point of who you're trying to reach. Think of them sitting in front of you, because you are indeed writing directly for them. If you don't approach it this way, you can very easily lose them before they even hit the second sentence.

2. Use simple language. Don't be a Nazi. That is not even a cute term (take note, don't ever use it), so don't force the technical terms down the consciousness of your readers. Sometimes even if the audience is very savvy, simple is still always better. Simple works. Less is more. The writing is clearer and to the point. It was @Trini_Mitz who pointed out an example in a local media article where the journalist used a huge word and then put the meaning in parentheses (brackets). I mean, if you know the word may not be understood, why use it?

3. Be correct. Get both your facts and your language straight. Good articles are well researched and structured, and reflect on you.The dictionary and thesauraus are your friends. Use them. Please.

Please.

3. Don't be daft. If you write for your pleasure, chances are you're writing about something you're passionate and knowledgeable about. However, if you're part of a comms team somewhere in some place where you don't know what the heck they're talking about half the time, wouldn't it be super if you actually started reading and learning about the industry you're now in? Don't let your writing come off as ignorant or fluffy. I still grapple with some of this dry financial stuff, but I read a lot (a lot!) and ask questions if I am not too sure and of course, you can let a subject matter expert review it and contribute. I mean, what's the worse that can happen? You learn something new? The horror!

4. Edit. If your subject matter expert is doing the writing and we know sometimes they can do the whole jargon thing, because they are not thinking like a communicator, then do the needful and apply the first two tips when editing the article cause most times it will need that human touch. Lend YOUR expertise to theirs.

So next time you're writing for Jill or Jack Brown, don't take it for granted that someone out there REALLY wants to read your stuff just because you're writing it. It's a bit more involved than that. Aim for more head nodding as opposed to blank stares of confusion.

Photo credit: http://fysop.wordpress.com

6 comments:

kramtt said...

In general I could not agree more with the post today, except that I would be far more disapproving of the description of "Nazi".

It is so important to remember that when you write, unless you are doing a dear diary entry, you writing for yourself. If I am writing something for people not in my profession, which t's nature is full of jargon, I try to give to someone who is not in the profession... a Joe (Jane) Schmo to see if they understand. I have found that it has helped me write better.

The thing is that if you are immersed in a profession, you take it for granted that there are certain things that everyone knows, because that is what you are exposed to. You may appreciate that some jargon is not widely known, but what to you may seem to be simple language or concepts is completely alien to people on the outside.

With respect to the big word with explanation in brackets, I don't know the context in which the word was used, but I can think of some occasions in which you would want to use the correct name but which you recognise that it may not be well known (for example "prima facie" whose definition would take a sentence or two), so a one time bracket definition may be appropriate.

I think it is important for our institutions (financial, state etc) to make their operations more understandable (and not in the absolutely foolish way that many state enterprises do it.) The ODPM's series of ads with errol fabien Nikki et al were really clever, but I cringe whenever I see the Ministry of Consumer affairs ads with the superheroes.

Great post as usual

trinidarlin said...

I used to work with men who thought their engineering speak was the normal thing, and it was really like pulling teeth to get them to understand that not everyone knows what they are trying to say. In the case of the media article, I cannot recall the word now but it was not an example like "prima facie" which is a legal term with a specific definition/purpose. In the media article, it was something like saying "That guy was so platitudinous(boring)."

I mean, it was not necessary. lol. Just say BORING. That was the context and that was just how it was printed. So extraneous (unnecessary). lol.

semantixx said...

Thanks for the crash course - it is all to easy to forget that your reader may not understand your topic matter to the same extent that you do.

That being said, it is also important to find a balance that keeps people on their toes educationally. I've noticed that people's vocabulary is generally on the decline thanks to a combination of convenience and culture. So I would argue that we should continue to publish prose that prompts the reader to look up unfamiliar words every now and then.

That's my two cents.

trinidarlin said...

I agree with that as well. The balance I believe lies in the fact that we are aiming to educate as well, in some cases not just via a hard sell of a company's products or services but also via related issues which affect them daily. So a financial company for example will not only sell its products but will encourage greater financial literacy as well, which focus more on explaining some of the terminology and jargon. But we cannot teach if we go above their heads in the first place and the responsibility, still to a large extent, lies with the reader and is determined by how much he/she wants to learn and how far that learning will extend.

Generally though, I am with you 100%. Reading on the whole seems to be a lost activity among some, and not just reading for work or school, but just reading a good book for reading sake. Sad.

kramtt said...

A little off topic I know, but I want to bat for those people in professions like mine, in which reading is a large part. who do not do recreational reading. The thing is that when a large chunk of your daily routine involves reading... and reading heavy, detailed documents, your idea of fun recreation is not going to be reading some more. I of course am different, but that is because I could read a phone book and find it interesting...

trinidarlin said...

Point taken. I know I don't read as much as you so I can still pick up a novel and read the day away.

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