19 March 2009
Anyone who runs courses on presentation and communication skills will be all too familiar with the problem of jargon and gobbledygook that was highlighted by yesterday’s announcement that the Local Government Association has published a list of 100 words that it wants to see banned (for news story see here and, for the complete list, see here).
Until last year, I’d never tried my hand at writing anything other than non-fiction, but my wife and I had been finding it difficult to find a double act on the internet that we could perform at an annual event in our village hall – previous years efforts had included a politically correct version of a conversation between Nelson and Hardy before the battle of Trafalgar and one about gardening between God and St Francis of Assisi.
So we started playing around with jargon and gobbledygook, both managerial and youth-speak, and came up with a visit to a clinic by a young woman who was having trouble making herself understood.
The most difficult part was finding a suitable way of bringing it to an end, but the Archbishop of Canterbury came to our rescue with his widely publicised lecture about Sharia law that had happened about a week earlier.
Sad though I may be, I had read and watched the whole speech and had been appalled by the incomprehensibility of his language, and, in particular, by the discovery that one of his sentences was made up of 149 words (i.e. more than nine times longer than the 16 word average sentence length in effective speeches).
High risk though it may have been, I decided to read the whole sentence out and, in Basil Fawlty's immortal words after mentioning the war to the German guests, I think I got away with it.
Anyone wanting to use the following is welcome to do so, but will probably need to modify the ending with a more topical role model than the Archbishop of Canterbury – Robert Peston, perhaps?
THE COMMUNICATION CLINIC
by Max & Joey Atkinson, 2008
(CONSULTANT RINGS BELL)
(ENTER CLIENT CHEWING GUM, MUTTERING TO SOMEONE ON MOBILE PHONE)
Ah – hello Miss Fitt.
How are you today?
I’m good – and yourself?
Very well thanks. And thank you for filling in our psychometric inter-cognitive transactional protocol – from which it looks as though you may be having problems making yourself understood.
You’re so not wrong there.
And that it may be interfering with your social life.
Tell me about it.
No - you’re the one who’s supposed to be telling me about it.
Well at this particular moment in time, I want to address the issue ahead of it getting any worse going forward.
So how often would you say people are having trouble understanding you?
OK - and what’s made you decide to do something about it?
Well like because I so want to play on a level playing field, and like sing from the same hymn sheet as everyone else.
Hmm – and how does it actually feel when someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying?
Well, like, I mean to say, and to be quite honest with you, it’s literally surreal – and whenever it happens I think: “don’t go there” -- End of.
But you are still going there, aren’t you?
Yeah, but – like - if you’ll just bear with me, the bottom line is that it’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
And, to be quite honest with you I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been there, done that and got the T shirt.
I mean how weird is that?
And how are you coping with it?
Well, it’s like doing my head in.
Have you tried to do anything about the problem before coming here today?
I’ve tried doing some blue sky thinking, but it – like - wasn’t actually rocket science -- and I just so couldn’t get my head round it.
I’ve had a go at thinking outside the box and running a few flags up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes.
And did they?
No, I never seem to get past first base, because in actual fact and to be perfectly honest with you, someone keeps moving the goal posts.
Have you ever thought about moving the goal posts yourself?
Ever thought of moving the goal posts your self?
No, cos I’m not empowered and don’t have ownership of them.
Ahhh, you see this is almost certainly why you’re finding things so difficult -- because really good communicators – the really effective ones -- like the Archbishop of Canterbury, aren’t afraid to own the goal posts and move them wherever they like. Your problem is that you speak in shorthand, whereas he speaks in long hand.
The point is, Miss Fitt, that if you’re going to get through to people, you need to start using the likes of him as a role model, and that means making your sentences more like this one, which I’ll read you from the text of the lecture he gave last week.
“The rule of law is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of a space accessible to everyone
(MISS FITT STARTS TEXTING ON MOBILE PHONE)
"in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity as such, independent of membership in any specific human community or tradition, so that when specific communities or traditions are in danger of claiming finality for their own boundaries of practice and understanding, they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity...
(CONSULTANT NOTICES MISS FITT ISN’T LISTENING AND COUGHS LOUDLY TO GET HER ATTENTION BACK)
"… they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity and that the only way of doing this is to acknowledge the category of 'human dignity as such', a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations)
(MISS FITT YAWNS)
"could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a human group.”
So there you are Miss Fitt -- see what I mean?
(LONG PAUSE – MISS FITT LOOKS BAFFLED)
Well, I hear what you say.
I think he’s completely out of order.