"Let's run this up the flagpole and see who salutes"

A guide to defeating PR jargon, gobbledegook, buzzwords and clichés

By Simon Titley, Burson-Marsteller

The King James Version of the Holy Bible is widely recognised as one of the finest pieces of writing in the English language. It begins like this:

GENESIS

CHAPTER ONE

  1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
  2. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
  3. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
  4. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
  5. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
  6. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
  7. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
  8. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and morning were the second day.

If King James had given the drafting job to a PR agency, it would probably have read like this:

'GENESIS' - AN APPROACH TO PLANETARY CREATION

SECTION ONE

  1. At the outset, God's agenda was to basically focus on his core deliverables, namely two leading-edge products, (a) heaven and (b) earth.
  2. However, the earth lacked an overall concept, and had a low profile in terms of its key audiences. Obviously the Spirit of God had to step back and benchmark the existing waters before his game plan could get the green light.
  3. And God's key message was that light was a strategic objective, and it was covered-off.
  4. And God's perception of the light was that it was fit for purpose. However, his desired goal was that light and darkness should be differentiated in the marketplace.
  5. So God branded the light 'Day', and the darkness he branded 'I Can't Believe It's Not Light'. And the evening session and morning session made up Day One.
  6. Then God set out with the object of factoring-in a firmament to interface with the existing generic waters, to bring to the party two segmented brands.
  7. So God tasked himself with the job of rolling-out a firmament, to supply a proactive vehicle for launching his two distinct waters products, and it was up and running.
  8. And God branded the firmament 'heaven'. And at close of play, the prioritised actions for Day Two were ticked off.


We're all using jargon and gobbledegook - you, me and our clients. It's infectious. And we've got to stop it now, before it gets out of hand.

Before I began writing this paper, I sent an e-mail to my colleagues asking them to submit jargon words and phrases that were annoying them. The response was remarkable. Within 24 hours, I received about 40 replies, listing some real horrors. This document is partly the result of that survey, and all of my colleagues' grim contributions are reproduced in the list below.

Meanwhile, the problem persists. For example, a recent press release used the phrase "the fallout of this reality is that" when a simple "so" would have sufficed. This sort of ugly, pseudo-technical, verbose prose sits dead on the page. It betrays a total lack of consideration for the reader. It fails to accomplish the basic task of language, which is to communicate.

Nor is this a new problem. Following Elvis Presley's death while sitting on the toilet, the Memphis medical investigator who examined the corpse issued a press statement, saying that Elvis "underwent his terminal event while he was on the commode".

We can have a good laugh about some of the dreadful words and phrases we hear every working day. But behind this bit of fun is a serious point. We are in the business of communication. Jargon gets in the way of effective communication because it makes us sound pompous, silly or unintelligible. Disciplining ourselves to use plain English makes us better communicators.

All professions develop their own terminology, but it's valid only when it genuinely provides a useful form of shorthand among insiders. Words like 'mindset', 'networking', 'parameter', 'proactive', 'scenario' and 'synergy' - however irritating they may be - encapsulate a useful meaning (provided they are used properly). But even where these words are legitimate, they are easily devalued through overuse. In particular, we should never use jargon and buzzwords to communicate with the outside world, because these words are not a universal language.

Using plain language is a question of practical thought, not abstract grammatical rules. Clear language is evidence of clear thinking. When writing fails to convey a clear message, it is often because there is no clear thought behind it.

"The key test for jargon is the question: 'Could this have been expressed more simply without communication suffering in the process?' If the answer is 'Yes', then the probability is that one is faced with a piece of jargon."
[Kenneth Hudson, The Jargon of the Professions]

"Good prose is like a window-pane."
[George Orwell, in his essay Why I Write]


The Guide

The jargon word or phrase is in the left-hand column, plain English substitutes are suggested in the right-hand column.

Buzz-verbs: Plain English alternatives:
'benchmark' establish a standard/criterion
'capture' note
'connect' understand, communicate
'cover-off' do
'de-emphasise' play down, minimise
'dialogue' talk, discuss
'diarize' make an appointment
'do lunch' have lunch
'down-numbering'/'decruiting' firing, sacking
'down-sizing'/'right-sizing' firing, sacking
'execute' carry out, implement
'factor-in' include, incorporate
'flag up' announce, remind
'heads up' leads/is head of, summary
'input' add
'leverage' influence
'outsource' contract out
'strategize' plan
'task' ask
'touch base' contact
Buzz-nouns: Plain English alternatives:
'acid test' test
'ball-park figure' rough estimate
'baseline' base
'bottom line' profit, essence, main objective
'broad concept' concept
'buy-in' acceptance
'cash cow' profitable account
'deliverables' what we/they can do
'disbenefits' disadvantages
'facetime' meeting
'game-plan' plan
'hot shop' small agency we imagine is better than us
'interface' liaison, meeting point, co-operation
'mechanic' device
'-situation' [a superfluous suffix - delete]
'timeframe' time
'turf' territory
'window' opportunity
'window of opportunity' opportunity
Buzz-adjectives: Plain English alternatives:
'all-singing, all-dancing' all-purpose
'attitudinal' (of/relating to) attitudes
'client-focused' relevant
'-driven' propelled/directed by -
'global' overall, worldwide
'impactful' effective
'key' main, important
'left-field' bizarre, unexpected
'mediable' newsworthy
'multi-media' media
'ongoing' continuing
'seamless' co-ordinated
buzz-phrases: plain English alternatives:
'(I'll just see if I have) a window in my diary' (I'll just see if I'm) free
'ahead of the game' ahead
'are you comfortable with that?' do you agree?
'at the end of the day' eventually
'at the leading/cutting edge' innovative
'at this point in time' now
'best bang for the buck' value for money
'bring me up to speed' brief me
'bring to the party' contribute
'check for white space in the filo' see if I'm free
'ciao for now' goodbye
'close of play' tonight
'cover the waterfront' comprehensive
'does it work for you?' do you like it?
'fit for purpose' suitable, appropriate
'get the green light' get approval
'get this show on the road' start
'goldfish bowl effect' visibility
'has this idea got legs?' is it viable?
'has this story got legs?' is it newsworthy?
'hit the ground running' start immediately
'horses for courses' appropriate
'if we're going to make it past first base' if we're going to achieve anything
'in the fast lane' flash
'in the loop' informed
'in violent agreement' in agreement
'keep our powder dry' hold [something] in reserve
'keep this show on the road' continue
'let me get back to you on that' I'll speak to you later
'let me run this by you' what do you think?
'let's kick that one into touch' let's leave that on one side
'let's park that idea for a second' let's leave that on one side
'let's put it in a saucer and see if the cat laps it up' let's see if it works
'let's run this up the flagpole and see who salutes' let's see whether anyone else supports it
'let's suck it and see' let's test it
'let's take a step back' let's think about this
'let's take this idea out of its box and walk it around' let's try it out
'let's throw this at the wall and see if it sticks' let's see if it works
'level playing field' equal footing
'movers and shakers' important/influential people
'on the case' doing the job
'paralysis through analysis' dilettantism
'pushing out the envelope' expanding the scope
'pushing water uphill' difficult, frustrating
'putting/getting your ducks in a row' having everything in place
'raising the bar' setting a higher standard
're-inventing the wheel' unnecessary repetition
'run that past me' consult me
'singing from the same hymn sheet' in agreement
'some way down the track' later
'stuck up a gum tree without a paddle' totally fucked
'take a raincheck' postpone
'the name of the game' the essence
'to that end' so
'what's their comfort level?' what's congenial?
'whole egg approach' orchestrated


avoid:

The following words and phrases can usually be removed from your writing without changing the meaning of what you say. They add nothing, so try giving them up.


Why people use jargon and gobbledegook

Jargon and gobbledegook are usually found when the writer has nothing to say or has something to hide. This language is usually a product of one or more of the following syndromes:

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink."
[George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language]

"It is difficult to be a regular user of jargon and to possess a strong sense of humour. Most addicts, in all fields, tend to take themselves very seriously, from which one may be permitted to deduce that jargon is to a considerable extent a matter of temperament. The irreverent are apt to find jargon funny, but those who live by jargon are usually unable to understand what the merriment is about."
[Kenneth Hudson, The Jargon of the Professions]

Learning to write well

People often claim they can read someone else's mind. If this were true, there would be less need for words. As things stand, we rely on words to convey thoughts from one person to another. In everyday speech, we value fluency more than structure. But written language requires more stringent standards.

"... bad English is far harder to read than to listen to. If you don't understand what someone has said, you can always ask for it to be repeated. If you don't understand what someone has written, you can only try to puzzle it out."
[Keith Waterhouse, English Our English (And How To Sing It)]

The two main components of good writing are clarity and imagery. Clarity means concentrating on the meaning of words and avoiding ambiguity. Imagery means choosing words and phrases with the power to evoke something in the reader's mind.

Think of your writing as a cruise missile. Clarity is the navigation programme. Imagery is the impact when it reaches the target.

The test for clarity is "does this make sense?" The test for imagery is "will anyone take any notice?" The overall test is "will this communicate effectively?"

Clarity and imagery both demand constant vigilance and hard work. It is relatively easy to fall back on vagueness and ready-made phrases.

George Orwell suggested the following six rules for good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
     
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
     
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
     
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
     
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
     
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

"A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?"
[George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language]

Simon Titley
March 1996 (revised October 1998)

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