Alphabet stew

Lina Saigol, Director at Bladonmore, looks at why too many industries are still hiding behind jargon and how it distracts from the real message

“Savings on the core grant-in-aid delivering the Change-Up programme, against the counterfactual of an inflationary increase and reprioritisation of the OTS budget to fund a wider range of investment programmes from the 2007-08 baseline amount to around £4.8m realised in 2008-09.”

Say what? That’s an actual extract from the UK Cabinet Office’s annual report back in 2009.

Sentences like this are now the target of a global movement among governments and some of the world’s biggest financial institutions as they seek to purge unnecessary jargon from their communications.

Last month, New Zealand passed the Plain Language Act, requiring the government’s communications to the public be “clear, concise, well-organized, and audience-appropriate.”

Comprehensible information from government organisations, it argues, is a basic democratic right.

Britain’s Local Government Association reached a similar conclusion back in 2009 when it drew up a list of 200 words it said should no longer be used by public bodies when communicating with the public.

Still rife
But fourteen years later bureaucratese and jargon are still rife in a wide range of industries and professions. It leaves consumers and stakeholders frustrated by the bewildering array of unfamiliar terms, acronyms, abbreviations used in the daily dissemination of important information.

One of the biggest culprits is the financial services industry. Bankers are notorious for cooking up alphabet stews of jargon. From CDOs and CoCos to TLTROs and HQLAs – the industry is awash in a sea of insider vernacular, impenetrable to most outsiders. Indeed, many investors who bought complex financial instruments during the financial crisis of 2008 did not realise what they were buying, let alone how these were valued.

Plain English improves investor understanding. The same goes for consumers of financial products, which anti-jargon campaigners claim means they can miss out on certain benefits when explanations become too technical to absorb.

Central bankers have also cottoned on and are also looking to improve their clarity. In today’s inflationary environment, clear central bank communications are critical – a single word can move markets, but they are often incomprehensible to the public. As ex-Bank of England Chief economist Andrew Haldane noted in a 2018 speech, “around 95% of all the words central banks utter are inaccessible to around 95% of the population”.

ECB President Christine Lagarde has also vowed to bring the bank closer to the public by ditching some of the bank’s seemingly impenetrable jargon.

Her reasoning is sound. Research analysing ECB speeches, press conferences and tweets has shown that the use of complicated language limits how much media report on the bank’s actions and, by extension, its ability to influence public expectations and behaviour.

Shorthand needed
Defenders of industry jargon argue that it is a necessary professional shorthand – a quick and efficient way to convey complex ideas. Others mourn the loss of nuance and creativity in the quest to be clear. But being simple is not the same as being superficial, and plain isn’t a synonym for boring. When used outside of an organisation, specialised language and jargon can quickly spiral into a meaningless jumble of words.

Yet many executives and company employees find it hard to stop using their internal lingo. They’ve been steeped in their own alphabet stews for so long that they don’t even notice their ‘spectral perturbation analysis frameworks’ from their ‘synergistic cross-pollination of innovations.’

Critics of industry jargon argue that it is a lazy substitute for clarity of thought. It also assumes a level of pre-existing understanding from the audience. Worse, it can be a sign of pretention.

It’s a sentiment Warren Buffet would agree with. The billionaire investor has famously renounced jargon in favour of plain speak. When writing the highly-anticipated Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder letter – Buffett says he pictures his sisters as his audience, who are “highly intelligent, but not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.”

Command authority
Plain language does not mean dumbing down or glossing over more important details. Nor does it have to be colourless. Clear communications commands authority of subject and an inherent understanding of intention and risks. This was evident during the Covid pandemic when scientists and health authorities needed to communicate the almost-daily deluge of complex and abstract information to the wider public.

As the business world continues to grapple with macroeconomic uncertainty, the need to use plain language is ever more important to improve both accountability and credibility among investors, employees, and other stakeholders.

If you would like to speak to someone at Bladonmore about improving the clarity and authority of your communications, please get in touch.

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Lina Saigol

Director, Coaching

Lina delivers executive media and presentation coaching.

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