You are what you speak

You are what you speak.

The art of communicating succinctly and how it affects business.

A strange thing happened to me 4 years ago. I arrived back in the UK to work after having spent 13 hears living and working in France, to find I didn’t understand half the things that were being said at work. No, I hadn’t lost the ability to speak English, but I was lost in a sea of marketing and business speak that left me feeling slightly out of it. I had left France, and its obsession with Anglicism’s in business – where “les next steps” are defined after “le brainstorm” – only to be confronted by a similar situation. But this time it felt worse because this was my language.

My team would “reach out” in order to “align”. We would discuss how to “engage” our audience, “grow awareness” and occasionally we would take a “deep dive” into a particular topic, “utilising” our strengths. We talked about “females” and the importance of “gen z”. But the more I heard these terms the more it grated on me, and not just because I felt out of it, but because the more questions I asked, the more I realised that these words were getting in the way of doing business. They lacked clarity in an environment that screams the need for it. Some of these words were simply irritating, but others genuinely got in the way of understanding.

As a manager, I felt that we had lost the art of communicating simply, in favour of over complicated language. As a marketer, it felt as though we had distanced ourselves from the very people we were trying to reach, by using words that sounded intelligent, but had little relevance outside of our office walls. I never refer to myself as a “female”, but here I was getting fired up about how to reach more of them.

Simple and straightforward.

And so I became obsessed with specifics (pedantic some might argue). I asked my team to take me through their business plans and had them review and simplify the language so that every initiative had a clearly written objective devoid of any unnecessary jargon. As their manager I encouraged simplicity and direct contact. When a team member promised to “reach out” to so-and-so after a meeting, I wanted to know who they intended to speak to, how – email, phone, text – and when. What would they be asking specifically of that person, what parameters would they be setting to respond, and what would “alignment” mean for everyone involved?

When business plans talked about “growing engagement” via a particular initiative, I wanted to know specifics; how did we define engagement (attending an event, watching the post event edits online) how was this going to be measured, if it needed to be measured? This became important once we had delivered on some of our campaigns and projects, and we started to look at the results. Loose language at the planning stage created ambiguity in how success was defined post campaign and to be honest, prevented teams from carrying out objective reviews as to the relative effectiveness of the initiative.

So what did I learn?

Did slopping thinking lead to sloppy language, or was it the other way around? In this instance, I had an intelligent team but their choice of words was affecting their work. As a colleague and manager, I witnessed numerous communication breakdowns due to language that wasn’t specific enough, and huge success when teams communicated clearly and in simple terms. As a marketer and businesswoman, I noticed that the more simply we spoke, the better we were understood, and the more impact we had in our work. George Orwell said that “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well”, I would adapt this quote for the purpose of this article and say that if people cannot speak well, they cannot think well. 15 years working across French and English has taught me the value of choosing my words carefully, and the value in doing so.

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