It’s okay to take the pith

Words mean what we want them to mean


If you have any interest in words you probably know the work of Lucy Kellaway, a management columnist for the Financial Times. Her caustic, wry look at business fads and jargon is in the same slightly subversive spirit as cartoons like Dilbert and Alex, dissecting the silliness of the working world.

Much of Ms Kellaway’s wit is about the daffy ways we communicate at work. The problem and the beauty of words – and especially words in business – is that they’re never static: just as neither the best nor worst of times is permanent, so the nonsensical “going forward” will one day do just that. It’ll quietly fold its tents like the Bedouin, and slip away into redundancy.

Just as “haters” is the millennials’ lazy shorthand for anyone who doesn’t applaud every aspect of your being, so “taking your (insert campaign/business/brand) to the next level” is so imprecise that it’s pointless. Which level are we talking about? The ’80s jazz-funk band, Level 42? The mezzanine level at your offices? A bright-yellow spirit-level from Builders’ Warehouse, used to calibrate Donald Trump’s hair? People have a right to know these things.

One reason words and phrases orbit in and out of vogue is because the very society in which we communicate is itself always in flux. In primary school we wrote tests on idioms: “as wise as an owl” and “as sober as a judge” and so on. The problem with that is that David Attenborough tells us in his unmistakeably enthralled whisper that owls, while good at being owls, have tiny brains because of their very big eyes. So, not the sharpest crayons in the owl-box. And sober judges? High Court Judge Nkola Motata crashed his Jaguar into a wall while tired and emotional from whisky, Scotching that idiom for good.

Most people in business don’t work with words for a living: they sell forklifts or insurance, or make apps or boots or deals. But it’s hard to imagine that any of them wouldn’t be better at what they do if they communicated better.

Even the cast of the Expendables franchise, who get paid to hit people on camera, must at some stage have to speak, even if it’s just to their agent. And who knows, perhaps they’re better at that than acting. It wouldn’t take much.  

But a lot of people who work with things other than words – steel, algorithms or unit-trusts – have an uneasy relationship with words.

Part of the problem is that English is a wonderful, versatile, fiendishly complex and challenging language. It enables schoolboy sniggers about nominative determinism, double entendre and puns. But to second-language speakers in a nation of nine official languages, it’s relatively easy to be understood, but speaking or writing it well is incredibly difficult.

Partly as a result, a lot of us – first– and second-language speakers – pad our communication, in the subconscious hope that more equals more. And soon we have conversation, proposals and the dreaded vision- and mission-statements that say a lot but mean very little. We end up with “as a matter of fact” and “actually” and the other horsemen of the tautology apocalypse, turning the once-clear seas of conversation muddier than an Nkandla investigation.

The crux is that you can’t explain something clearly if you don’t understand it clearly, and relying on the business buzzword of the day to fill that gap in understanding just makes things worse.

There’s no rule that says you have to waffle when pith will do. The best way to avoid gasbagging is to consciously use fewer, shorter words. Mark Twain apologised drily to his editor for filing a 1000-word report because he didn’t have time to write just 500. Brevity is an art.

* William Smook is with Meropa Communications in Cape Town. He doesn't surf enough.


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