When I Wrote "Awesome," Spellcheck Suggested "Formidable"
Read Time: 5.0 minutes
When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters...No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with “Dear Doris and Bertie.
— Warren Buffett, Preface to the SEC’s Plain English Handbook
Years ago, I (Douglass) wrote speeches for a CEO who believed that too many people came to work, having checked their humanity at the door. Too many people were communicating in corporate speak, "synergizing this and incentivizing that."
So, what did he do?
He helped create a culture, where more people brought more of themselves to work. One thing he advocated was using less jargon in both written and spoken communication. He liked to say that if your grandmother can't understand what you're talking about, chances are no one else will either.
He saw being more human as a competitive advantage...one that helped simplify strategy and clarify communication.
He was outstanding at both.
He was a daily masterclass in how to lead with your head and your heart.
No wonder, he was not only the CEO but also the storyteller-in-chief.
So, what can you do to bring more humanity to your day-to-day business communications?
This brings us to this week's tip. And, as you might expect, it has to do with jargon and using less of it.
What’s the Tip?
Use jargon less and your humanity more.
Here's the dirty little secret about jargon. And it's ridicuously simple.
Reducing jargon is the easiest, most effective way to differentiate you, your message, and your brand. And it doesn't require more money, more people, or a new strategy.
Think about it.
It's tough enough in today's marketplace to create separation for yourself and your brand. But it's even harder when you write and talk like everyone else in your industry.
And yet, people do it all the time. As a result, they're missing out on an easy, no-cost, no-stress way to differentiate themselves and create competitive advantage.
I just said "no-cost," actually, there is some cost.
You have to be willing to think a little harder and dig a little deeper to get beyond the surface phrase that comes to mind.
Reducing jargon also requires a little bit of courage.
Let's face it, there's great comfort in sounding like everyone else. And speaking or writing plainly with the goal of connecting with someone isn't easy.
How Do You Use It?
How do you go about ditching jargon?
Number one: identify and tag what you see as jargon in your own work.
If you start to write an email about "circling back with the team" around "synergies and touchpoints of success," stop.
Number two: instead of writing about something...write to someone...about your product, your service, your idea, or cause. And of course, write to one person. Remember in SD Issue #04, when we talked about how Warren Buffett writes his annual shareholder letter to his sisters Doris and Bertie?
What's an Example?
Below, check out how George Orwell makes the case for clarity and simplicity of expression as he satirizes the use of jargon in the 1940s.
In Orwell's masterpiece essay on writing well (Politics and the English Language), he walks you through an exercise where he takes a beautiful passage from Ecclesiastes and re-writes it, using the gobbledygook that he believed passed too often for writing circa 1940.
Here's the original passage from Ecclesiastes (King James version):
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here's the Orwell re-write:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
What’s the Benefit to You?
- People will be less likely to tune you out.
- You'll leave less room for misinterpretation by being direct and clear.
- You're more likely to stand out because you won't automatically sound like everyone else.
- What you write or say is more likely to be remembered.
- Dropping jargon can help signal respect for your audience and their time.
- Losing jargon can convey urgency and seriousness of purpose.
If the point you're trying to make is important enough to communicate, it's important enough to communicate it clearly and directly.
BTW...when I spellchecked this issue in MS Word...it suggested replacing "awesome" with "formidable." You can't make this stuff up.
- If you don't want to stand out, stay in the comfort zone of jargon.
- Be human. To borrow from Mark Twain, you'll gratify some and astonish the rest.
- Commit to using jargon less and it'll force you to simplify and clarify.
- Seek out leaders who do the above. They're likely leading better and worth learning from.