THE PLAIN TEXT GAZETTE – Issue 10, June 2004
* Bad language in the public domain
* Phrases we’re not terribly keen on
It’s been a while since the last Gazette, and we’d been ruminating quietly about what to put into the 10th edition until I heard the UK secretary of state for health on the radio the other week. “What we are talking about here is a fully engaged scenario.” said Dr Reid, to conclude a radio interview in which he attempted to describe the government’s approach to improving public health, specifically towards tackling obesity. You could almost hear the famously jargon-phobic presenter John Humphrys spluttering into his tea.
What on earth is a ‘fully engaged scenario’? Perhaps it is an analogy related to human birth, describing a policy that is on the point of entering this world. Quick web research reveals that it in fact describes the strategy of involving the populace in improving public health by avoiding getting ill in the first place.
To me — and doubtless to many other jaded citizens — such a term could better be described with a celebrated quote of former UK government communications director Alastair Campbell: “bollocks on stilts”.
Don’t worry: the Plain Text Gazette isn’t getting political. What this ghastly jargon has done, though, is to remind us that meaningless management-speak is not the sole preserve of the private sector. Government and the public sector seem to have caught the bug in a big way. So in this edition, we’re going examine random samples of public sector communications and see what could possibly be done. We’re also moving on from the harsh, simplistic ‘words we hate’ feature to the more complex and subtle ‘phrases we’re not terribly keen on’.
And an apology masquerading as a shameless plug: this Gazette has been so long coming because two of Plain Text’s writers have been writing books when they haven’t been writing for businesses. Paul Waddington’s book Seasonal Food is published by Eden Project Books/Transworld on September 1 this year; and Paul Nero’s Blagging it is out on October 14 through Michael O’Mara. If you like the jargon-free Plain Text style (and you’re interested in food or getting something for nothing) then hopefully you’ll like these books.
A final note on paper publications: we still have beautifully produced printed copies of the ‘A-Z of Plain Text’, free to Gazette subscribers: if you’ve signed up recently, decided that now is the time finally to ask for one, or asked for one and not received it, just email [email protected] with your details (which we won’t retain unless you want us to) and we’ll send one out forthwith.
Keep it plain,
Bad language in the public domain
The public sector has long provided rich seams of tortured language. Trade union leaders in the 1970s were mercilessly mocked by middle-class comedians for their use of overcomplicated words and sentences, a legacy, perhaps, of organisational bureaucracy and hierarchy.
John Reid’s ‘fully engaged scenario’ is merely the latest in a long line of famous obfuscatory phrases from the public sector and government. People are still puzzling over its predecessor ‘neo-endogenous growth theory’, employed by UK chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown to ‘explain’ his finance policy. The US military invented a new verb ‘to attrit’ as an alternative to ‘kill’ to describe action in the first Gulf War: for obvious reasons, military public communications are a minefield of allusion.
But some of the most startling examples of bad language in the public domain can be found in public sector recruitment advertising. ‘Change agents’? (see below) They’re on every page. It is here that a confluence of two malign linguistic influences has created a torrent of verbiage. The first is the culture of management consultancy, whose institutional fondness for obfuscation has been taken up with enthusiasm by local authorities and others who now engage such services. The second is the language of politically correct academia, whose pressing need to avoid giving offence often results in their saying little that can be genuinely understood.
Open the job ad pages of the UK’s Guardian newspaper on a Wednesday and almost any advertisement will greet you with phrases like this: “Your role will be to act as a key point of contact for stakeholders and to develop an effective communication and local management network”. Or this: “Your role will be to lead the strategic development of new engagement services….advocating the use of participatory approaches..” It is possible to read some of these ads without becoming any the wiser at all about what the job would entail. Is this style of writing perhaps a secret code, only understood by the finest candidates?
It’s unfair to charge the whole sector with offences against clear and compelling language. There are many examples of powerful, creative writing in job ads and elsewhere. But even though it may not be exposed in the same way as the business sector to the cleansing fire of competition, the public sector surely has much to gain from better attention to language. So here’s a (slightly whimsical) checklist from Plain Text to get things going.
Seven habits of effective public sector communicators:
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
- Tell the management consultancies to go away and not come back until they can talk to you in enlightening sentences, without the help of Powerpoint
- Ban Powerpoint, completely. You won’t miss it.
- Imagine that a grumpy, sceptical grandmother is your target audience at all times
- Don’t assume that the private sector always sets a good example in written communication
- Threaten your internal customers with random ‘fog index’ tests on material they submit; reject stuff that fails to pass muster
- Scythe down syllables and sentence length, unless the material is aimed at post-structuralist academics or economists
- Never say ‘stakeholder’, ever again. Ever.
Phrases we’re not terribly keen on
Sometimes a phrase jars so violently with one’s sense of reality that it leaps at you from the page, powered by its own awfulness and incongruity. ‘Change agent’ did this to me when I first encountered it. Perhaps it would have been less shocking in the context of an article about obtaining smaller denomination currency; or about people who help you to try on new clothes. But no: being a ‘change agent’ is in fact a key desirable characteristic in applicants to senior — and not-so-senior — posts in all sorts of public- and private-sector jobs.
Leaving aside the question of whether perpetual change is a prerequisite for business success and happy employees, the term ‘change agent’ itself deserves closer inspection. Where does it come from? Are traditional job titles failing to tempt candidates in an overheated job market? (Which prompted ads like ‘Evangelist wanted’ during the dotcom boom). Do the hottest business people see themselves that way? “Good to meet you. What do you do?” “I’m a change agent.” “How interesting. Oooh — can you break a fifty for me?”
There’s a job advertised whose actual title is ‘Senior Change Agent’. There are, inevitably, seven characteristics of effective change leaders. On what is an otherwise well written website, the UK Department of Health’s Change Agent Team announces that it will help you “work to implement the National Service Framework for Older People”. I can imagine what my mother would have to say about that. And there are courses to help you be a change agent (although Surrey University has just cancelled its ‘Change Agent Skills and Strategies’ course, perhaps to illustrate that even the world of change is not immune to change).
Put a nice hot flame under the many definitions of ‘change agent’ and even the most flowery and evangelical reduce down to ‘doer’: someone who makes stuff happen. I suspect most people would rather see themselves that way than adopt a daft title that should be put back in the chemistry lab where it belongs.
That’s it for this issue. As always, your comments, suggestions and rants are welcome.
Paul & Paul
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