If we’ve worked together (or you’ve read my bio page), you’ll know about my persona vendetta against unnecessarily complicated language when all that’s required is a bit of straight-talking.
So jargon has been a pet-hate from day nought of my career as a freelance copywriter in Leeds. Yet I’ve rarely paused to philosophise on what’s so wrong about jargon. Yes, there’s the deliberate obfuscation and confusion for readers, but what about the reasons why people have this tendency to use such complicated language?
It’s an interesting topic explored in a neat little article written by Steven Poole in the excellent New Philosopher magazine. In his article ‘The thieves’ code’ he considers the case that perhaps our blanket rebuke of all jargon as bad isn’t right or just.
Jargon isn’t all needlessly complicated says Poole, for example, two specialists might talk about their subject in highly technical language, that to the bystander sounds like jargon. So in this context, it’s the most effective way for the specialists to quickly convey complex ideas, but to the uninitiated bystander it’s downright frustrating.
Yet this is the most populist criticism of jargon
And it’s a flawed one, argues Poole.
From a moral standpoint, just because you don’t understand something, doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. That isn’t a valid criticism. To continue our example above, the jargon isn’t meaningless, nor is it unnecessary. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.
Fair point, wouldn’t you agree? Context is everything.
Then Poole comes to the meaty bit – office jargon:
“the cliches of business-speak that everyone loves to hate such as going forward, reach out, touch base… its own users sometimes admit that this lexicon is unnecessary, and constitutes simply a futile arms-race in which everyone understands two things: one, the jargon is linguistically pointless; two, you have to keep using it because everyone else does.”
This struck a chord with me because that belief sits at the core of my copywriting art. I’m in the business of helping exchange ideas and persuading fair-minded people (what’s called responsible sales and marketing). And the best way to do that is to furnish them with an honest representation of reality.
To be unnecessarily complicated about that strikes me as dishonest and deliberately deceptive, because I believe words should be effective, especially when you want to connect with outsiders and win them over to your way of thinking.
Poole says that business-speak is actually a social tool – to share privilege, status and tribal loyalty. And what’s wrong with that? he asks. And he’s right.
But let’s keep this kind of speak to the boardroom. There’s no place for it if you want an idea to spread beyond the realm of empire-building specialists. Needlessly complex copywriting simply cheats a reader out of the facts they need to make informed choices – the gold standard of responsible sales and marketing.
Another interesting point Poole makes is the subtle distinction between medium and message, and here we find common ground. It’s that business jargon has the effect of dehumanising workers e.g. bandwidth as if they were computers, and downsizing for sacking people.
Again, we come back to a core value of honesty in my copywriting – this sort of language masks the truth. But there’s a genuine moral concern here too, especially when language like this is paired with a passive voice (e.g. ‘it has been decided that the organisation must downsize to streamline headcount…’). Language like that alienates and shirks responsibility, as well as dehumanising its victims.
Copy like this is problematic because it indicates unsustainable practices, not just in communication, but culturally, and how you run a business. It’s a symptom of larger structural problems at worst, or at best, unthinking adherence to writing conventions that aren’t very helpful.
All this philosophical navel-gazing helps explains why the copywriting process can be so immersive and enlightening. When I challenge the way a client wants to speak to people, I’m effectively bringing into the cold hard light of day their attitudes, and forcing them to ask ‘how well do we know our readers’ and ‘is there a better way to do this?’.
This kind of copywriting can be deeply rewarding when the process doesn’t just result in better copy, it improves the way my clients’ business works too.
Poole’s article really helped crystallise what I find so troubling about unnecessarily complicated copy. Context is one thing – I get that technical language has its time and place amongst specialists. What really irks me is dishonesty in communication when it needn’t be so; the unnecessary and the meaningless.
Poorly executed copy doesn’t just fail to get a point across to readers, it’s also a clear indicator of more sinister forces at work; forces that isolate and alienate the very people we’re meant to serve. Better to question, analyse and experiment with ideas, until you finally reach that sweet spot when you’re saying what you really mean. At that point, people not only understand where you’re coming from, they want to get on board because of it.
Perhaps that’s why it pays to hire a fastidious and principled freelance copywriter.
Some parting advice from Poole, which I’ll certainly bear in mind for future copywriting:
“if something is bugging us about a word or phrase, we’d do better to make a more sincere effort to understand it and uncover its buried semantic and rhetorical associations. That way we could really have a constructive conversation about the way we speak.”