In defence of jargon and corporate gibberish

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Copywriters — including me — prize the value of conversational copy, clarity of message and engaging our readers. We raise our hands in horror at examples of corporate gibberish. We encourage people to cut jargon from their copy. We praise informality.

But I think we’re sometimes wrong. I think things aren’t as black and white as we make out. I think there’s a place for corporate gibberish, for jargon and for formality.

However, I’m not trying to pick a fight with anyone (as an inveterate conflict-avoider, the thought brings me out in a cold sweat). So let’s just say I’m putting forward some food for thought.

The golden ‘rules’ of copywriting

We celebrate Plain English as the best way to express ourselves, pointing out that it’s smarter to express ourselves clearly. Here’s an extract from Monzo’s tone of voice guidelines:

Sometimes we worry that writing clearly and simply can mean we lose authority, especially when we’re dealing with serious topics. That’s largely because of how business English has developed, and it’s just what we’re used to. When companies get serious, their language gets formal. It’s how you know this is A Big Deal.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Being serious isn’t the same as being formal. That’s the crucial difference between content (what we say) and tone (how we say it).

In 2010, US attorney Sean Flammer ran an experiment. He asked 800 circuit court judges to side with either a traditional ‘legalese’ argument, or one in what he called ‘plain English’.

The judges overwhelmingly preferred the plain English version (66% to 34%), and that preference held no matter their age or background. Here’s an interesting extract from Flammer’s findings:

The results indicate that the participants found the Legalese passage to be less persuasive than the Plain English version. The respondents also believed the Plain English author was more believable, better educated, and worked for a prestigious law firm.

So it’s not just about credibility. Explaining yourself clearly makes you look smart, too 💅

Every copywriter ever (including me) advocates conversational copy, as it’s known.

As Belinda Weaver describes it well:

Conversational copywriting is what it sounds like it is. It’s copywriting that feels like a conversation. A conversation between real people. It might not be exactly like a transcript of a real conversation (because most of us tend to waffle and stammer a bit) but it has the same rhythm and the same sense of intimacy.

She also describes why it’s so valuable too:

The truth is that when you write as if you’re talking to someone, it’s reads just like you’re talking to someone. Me. And when you’re talking to me (not at me), a lot of subconscious barriers I have to your message are broken down. I’m more receptive to what you have to say and I’m much more likely to act on it.

In our love for Plain English and the conversational we laugh at ‘corporate speak’.

No one talks like that, we say. You sound foolish when you do. The impenetrability of the words you’re using takes away all the power of what you’re trying to say. We’re right — corporate speak is a deadening language.

And as well as the ‘big picture’ rules, we also have lots of little rules as well. The fact it’s OK to start a sentence with ‘and’ is the perfect example. How many times have you seen a copywriter sigh on [insert social media platform of your choice] about the client who’s just told them you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’? We’re seemingly on a mission to correct everyone’s misconception. There’s even an entire website devoted to examples of why it’s OK to start a sentence with ‘and’. (It’s www.andyoucanstartasentencewithand.com, in case you’re wondering.)

Again, we’re right. You absolutely can start a sentence with ‘and’. Personally, I love doing it — it adds emphasis like no other construction can.

Are all these ‘rules’ wrong?

Now, as I say, I think all these ‘rules’ are right. I love reading conversational writing. Plain English is much easier to follow and sounds much less pretentious. And I love starting a sentence with ‘and’.

But here’s the thing. I think we’re *way* too prescriptive about these things. Worse, we’re also often wrong about what we say.

Let me show you what I mean.

The power of corporate gibberish

‘No one ever talks like that!’, we exclaim at the latest example of corporate gibberish.

But in professional contexts, we very often do.

Take the introductions from these speakers at a conference for example.

It isn’t just formal settings like conferences either.

Here’s one person’s recollections of the language used in a previous job:

The language warped and mutated at a dizzying rate, so it was no surprise that a new term of art had emerged during the year I spent between jobs. The term was parallel path, and I first heard it in this sentence: “We’re waiting on specs for the San Francisco installation. Can you parallel-path two versions?”

Translated, this means: “We’re waiting on specs for the San Francisco installation. Can you make two versions?” In other words, to “parallel-path” is to do two things at once. That’s all.

And I’ve loved the horror people have expressed on Twitter when they’ve heard their ‘other halves’ in work mode for the first time during lockdown.

Now, there’s research to suggest that the reason we use language like this is because we’re insecure about the value of the work we’re doing. (I wrote about the topic here.)

But there’s something else worth considering too.

A few years ago, I came across research that suggested people were impressed by impenetrable, technical-sounding language.

It was in the field of neuroscience. The authors wanted to understand how people were affected by the way neuroscience was explained to them. In particular they wanted to understand how people reacted to explanations in Plain English and in Plain English with additional ‘neuroscience-y’ bits.

In the study, people saw four explanations of scientific phenomena. There were two ‘good’ explanations, one without neuroscience elements and one with. There were also two ‘bad’ explanations, one without neuroscience elements and one with. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of each of the explanations.

The good explanations in most cases were the genuine explanations researchers gave for each phenomenon. The bad explanations were circular restatements of the phenomenon, so they weren’t actually explanations at all.

Here is an example of one of the phenomena subjects were shown.

Researchers created a list of facts that about 50% of people knew. Subjects in this experiment read the list of facts and had to say which ones they knew. They then had to judge what percentage of other people would know those facts. Researchers found that the subjects responded differently about other people’s knowledge of a fact when the subjects themselves knew that fact. If the subjects did know a fact, they said that an inaccurately large percentage of others would know it, too. For example, if a subject already knew that Hartford was the capital of Connecticut, that subject might say that 80% of people would know this, even though the correct answer is 50%. The researchers call this finding ‘‘the curse of knowledge.’’

And here are the four explanation subjects were shown of this phenomena:

Good explanation without neuroscience:

The researchers claim that this ‘‘curse’’ happens because subjects have trouble switching their point of view to consider what someone else might know, mistakenly projecting their own knowledge onto others.

Good explanation with neuroscience:

Brain scans indicate that this ‘‘curse’’ happens because of the frontal lobe brain circuitry known to be involved in self-knowledge. Subjects have trouble switching their point of view to consider what someone else might know, mistakenly projecting their own knowledge onto others.

Bad explanation without neuroscience:

The researchers claim that this ‘‘curse’’ happens because subjects make more mistakes when they have to judge the knowledge of others. People are much better at judging what they themselves know.

Bad explanation with neuroscience:

Brain scans indicate that this ‘‘curse’’ happens because of the frontal lobe brain circuitry known to be involved in self-knowledge. Subjects make more mistakes when they have to judge the knowledge of others. People are much better at judging what they themselves know.

The findings of the study were clear:

Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two nonexpert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on nonexperts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

I find this study very interesting. It also backs up our reasons for using corporate jargon to mask the simplicity or irrelevance of what we do. We might mock jargon-filled language, but perhaps it’s serving a purpose.

We could rewrite copy like this from Deloitte so it’s immediately understandable:

A thick strand of collaboration runs through our firm’s DNA. We’re powered by our alliance relationships. Being open comes naturally to us.

In today’s complex business environment winning involves seeing beyond your own walls and collaborating with the right team. That’s where Deloitte’s Ecosystems & Alliances can help.

By combining leading technology with our proven business acumen, we bring you complete, scalable, bespoke solutions like no one else can. And by tapping into the forefront of disruption, we can help you see years beyond today’s trends so you don’t just survive — but thrive — in a world of constant change.

But if we did, it would suddenly sound much less impressive, wouldn’t it? And when you’re about to pay thousands of pounds for some consultancy work, it’s very much more reassuring to read the jargon-filled explanation, isn’t it? It would make you feel as if you’re really getting something for your money.

And after all, ridiculous as content like the above might be, Deloitte isn’t exactly struggling for business, is it? (2020 financial year revenue: US$47.6 billion.)

In essence, I think opaque language like this taps into the persuasive power of authority. In Influence, Cialidini talks about the power of and value for obedience in our culture. He says: “We rarely agonize … over the pros and cons of authority’s demands. In fact, our obedience frequently takes place in a click, whirr fashion with little or no conscious deliberation. Information from a recognized authority can provide us a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation.”

He says: “There are several kinds of symbols that can reliably trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authority. Consequently, they are employed extensively by those compliance professionals who are short on substance. Con artists, for example, drape themselves with the titles, clothes, and trappings of authority. They … understand that when they are so equipped their chances for compliance are greatly increased.” With apologies for the con artist example, I’d argue that corporate gibberish is actually acting as a proxy for authority.

The place for jargon

Now let’s take a look at jargon, the enemy of Plain English.

If you think back to the Monzo example I gave above, you’ll remember that it cited research that said judges overwhelmingly preferred (66% to 34%) Plain English versions to ‘Legalese’ versions of text, and that preference held no matter their age or background.

I only came across this Monzo example a few weeks ago and it rather stopped me in my tracks. I’d been formulating my theory about the value of overly-complicated text for some time, so I was a bit alarmed to come across research that blew it out of the water. I decided to investigate further.

And I discovered that what lay underneath the headline about the use of Plain English was something very interesting.

Here’s the passage of ‘Legalese‘ that the researcher gave to judges:

Defendant Hineman is attempting to stay the force and effect of the remand orders entered by this court on February 25, 2004 (hereinafter the “Remand Orders”) under Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 8005 governing stays pending appeal because he believes that he will likely succeed on appeal to the District Court. Hineman, unlikely to prevail on appeal, cannot meet Rule 8005’s threshold inquiry which is a “strong showing”of the likelihood of success, and is, thus, incorrect in his analysis under Rule 8005. Furthermore, Hineman cannot make appropriate showings on the other three inquiries under the Rule: whether appellant will suffer irreparable injury absent a stay; whether a stay would substantially harm other parties in the litigation; and whether a stay is in the public interest. Hineman fails on all counts, and the request for stay must be denied.

Head-spinningly awful, I think you’ll agree.

So what did the Plain English version look like? Here it is:

This is a response to Defendant Hineman’s motion for stay pending appeal. Hineman seeks to stay the effect of the remand orders this court entered on February 25, 2004. Hineman is incorrect, however, in his analysis under Rule 8005 and he is unlikely to prevail on appeal for four reasons: 1. He has not met and cannot meet the “strong showing” of likely success threshold required under Rule 8005; 2. He cannot show that he will suffer irreparable injury absent a stay; 3. A stay could substantially harm other parties in the litigation; and 4. He cannot show that stay is in the public interest. A court’s decision to deny a Rule 8005 stay is discretionary. In re 203 North LaSalle Street Partnership, 190 B.R. 595, 596 (N.D. Ill. 1995). The first item, the likelihood of success, is a threshold inquiry, and if the threshold burden is not met, the court should not consider the other stay factors. Forty-Eight Insulations v. Smith, 115 F.3d 1301, 1304 (N.D. Ill 2000). This analysis addresses the threshold burden as well as the other three factors.

Is that your idea of Plain English? It certainly isn’t mine.

And what about the third example the judges were given? This was what the researcher called Informal. Again, judges preferred it to Legalese, although not to the same extent as they preferred the Plain English version.

Hineman seeks to stay the effect of the remand orders this court entered on February 25, 2004. But Hineman is incorrect in his analysis under Rule 8005 and is unlikely to prevail on appeal for four reasons: 1. He hasn’t met and can’t meet the “strong showing” of likely success threshold required under Rule 8005; 2. He can’t show that he will suffer irreparable injury absent a stay; 3. A stay could substantially harm other parties in the litigation; and 4. He can’t show that stay is in the public interest. A court’s decision to deny a Rule 8005 stay is discretionary. In re 203 North LaSalle Street Partnership, 190 B.R. 595, 596 (N.D. Ill. 1995). The first item, the likelihood of success, is a threshold inquiry, and if Hineman doesn’t meet the threshold burden, the court shouldn’t consider the other stay factors. Forty-Eight Insulations v. Smith, 115 F.3d 1301, 1304 (N.D. Ill 2000). My analysis addresses the threshold burden as well as the other three factors.

I mean, it’s hardly conversational, is it?

I think what this shows us is that it’s perfectly OK to use technical jargon when talking to people who’ll know what you’re talking about. I certainly don’t think the research is cast iron proof that people think you’re smarter when you use Plain English. Because what a lawyer would consider Plain English is very different to what an average person would consider Plain English.

But it isn’t just expert-to-expert communication where jargon is OK. Beauty adverts, anyone?

Discover our ultimate anti-wrinkle serum, charged with 1.5% pure Hyaluronic Acid to intensely hydrate skin, smooth and replump wrinkles.

Can you honestly tell me you know what Hyaluronic Acid is?

But I think the effect we see here is the same effect we get from corporate gibberish. When something’s got unheard-of compounds in it, you feel much more comfortable spending sizeable sums on it, don’t you? And again, L’Oréal is doing OK. It’s the biggest cosmetics group in the world and its 2019 revenue was €29.87 billion. They probably know what they’re doing when it comes to putting jargon in their copy.

The number one rule: writing for your reader

In spite of saying that all the rules we hold so dear are wrong, I actually think there is one rule that trumps all the others — writing for your reader. And I think that’s when everything comes together.

It means that when you’re Monzo writing for non-banking people, you should write in Plain English (that is, Plain English in the way you or I would understand it, not Plain English as in the legal examples as above).

At times like this, clarity is key. (I’d also say it’s also about far more than just writing elegant, relatable copy. One in seven adults in England have literacy levels at or below those expected of a nine to 11-year-old. It means choosing your words carefully. Sentence length is also critical. Research by the American Press Institute found that when the average sentence length in a piece was fewer than eight words long, readers understood 100 percent of the story. At 14 words, comprehension was more than 90%. At 43 words, comprehension was less than 10%16 This is the research banks should really be looking at if they want to reach out to their customers.)

On the other hand, if you’re Monzo writing to another bank, for example, jargon is going to be much more acceptable.

Next, let’s consider when there’s a place for using corporate speak or jargon. When you’re writing to impress people and maintain a sense of value, as Deloitte does, as beauty adverts do, indeed even, as people in our own industry do:

We provide an integrated marketing service, which means we offer a media-agnostic one-stop-shop marketing solution.

then jargon, corporate-speak and language that dresses up the obvious as the far-from-obvious is absolutely fine — it’s to be welcomed even.

As well as your reader, you should also consider the type of brand you’re writing for. If you’re writing for the sort of brand who revels in being relaxed and conversational and you’re talking to people who are similar, then adopt a relaxed and conversational style. On the other hand, if you’re writing for a brand that’s a bit more ‘shirt-and-tie’ and your audience is the same, then language that’s a bit more formal is probably in order. And that’s OK.

Perhaps slightly more controversially, I also think it means you should probably steer clear of starting sentences with ‘and’ in many places. Yes, it’s an OK thing to do, but the fact is, plenty of people think it isn’t. And Nick Parker is right that “…it’s fascinating because the fact that this absurd bit of grammar pedantry holds such strange power tells us something interesting about how the way we write is so inextricably linked to our confidence and our sense of self.” But do you really want your reader to get distracted by something they perceive as an error, even if it isn’t?

Ultimately, we aren’t on a mission to teach people the rights or wrongs of grammar or to preach about the ‘best’ way to write. We’re on a mission to sell people things. And sometimes that means breaking the rules we set ourselves — and even following rules that aren’t actually rules at all.

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