Here’s a quick tip to cut the jargon factor in your presentations. Drop the word “offerings”.
Personally, it makes me squirm whenever I hear some marketing manager presenting their “class-leading range of product offerings”. It makes me think of their product being plucked, still pulsing with warm blood, from some unfortunate’s chest on an altar high above a volcano by men with sinister feathered masks, to encourage the gods to deliver another year of abundant rainfall.
Here’s what to replace it with: nothing. Instead of ‘product offerings’, say ‘products’. Ditto for ’service offerings’. If you can make something shorter, then you should do it every time.
Legendary circus hustler PT Barnum used to put a sign at his overcrowded American Museum: This Way To The Egress.
Visitors would assume that an egress was some kind of amazing creature, like the Bearded Lady or Iguana Boy, so they’d flock through the door and find themselves out in the street. Because ‘egress’ means ‘exit’, and if they wanted to get back in, they’d have to pay ol’ PT again.
That’s the only use of ‘egress’ I’ve ever heard until this week. I’m involved with organising a school rowing regatta, and the local council has forced us to hire Certified Parking Managers to manage the small car park. They sent us a 20 page form full of ‘event impact statements’, ‘parking needs analysis’, ‘incident risk chain of command’ and so forth.
In their ’scope of operations’, their mission ‘covers the ingress and egress of spectator and competitor vehicles.’
What strange urge makes people say things like ‘ingress and egress’, when there are perfectly good words like ‘entry and exit’?
It’s the need to show that you’re the Custodian of Special Secret Knowledge that others cannot hold, thus proving that you are Cleverer and More Important Than Them. So you can exercise power over others! Otherwise, any hillbilly in a fluorescent vest could watch cars drive in and out of a carpark.
Which brings us to today’s Writing For PowerPoint lesson: using shorter, simpler words.
Because in presentations, using long words and sentences is not grown-up or clever. It makes you come across like a puffed-up petty bureaucrat.
There’s a justification for using long words, and that’s if you’re a scientist, where specific things have names like Xylomatophangalaceous and there’s no substitute.
But most corporate PowerPoint writing is puffed-up with words like:
In our estimation instead of we think.
Service users instead of customers.
Implement instead of do.
After you write a line, read it out aloud.
Does it feel natural, or kinda clunky?
Now imagine you’re at a barbecue, on a Sunday, with a friend who doesn’t work in your industry or understand your jargon.
How would you explain it to them? Imagine them saying “Sorry, I still don’t understand.” Keep saying it aloud until you sound like a normal human talking, rather than a lawyer dictating a brief.
Now write those words down on your slide. That’s clearer, isn’t it?
Ever wondered why some quotes live on for decades?
The great ones use clear, vivid words. Words everyone can understand and relate to.
Just because you’re in management doesn’t mean you can’t aspire to greatness in what you say. Every jargon word you add dulls your message and acts as a barrier to understanding.
Just one can be enough to kill a sentence stone dead.
Let’s take 10 immortal lines and add a single phrase from the MBA phrasebook. You be the judge.
1. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant positive outcome for mankind.” Neil Armstrong
2. “Beware the Ides of Q3 going forward.” William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
3. “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can action for you - ask what you can action for your country” John F. Kennedy
4. “I may be drunk, Madam, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be attractiveness-challenged.” Winston Churchill
5. “I have a vision and value statement… that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” Martin Luther King
6. “In this country, first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the persons.” Al Pacino, Scarface
7. “Government: of the stakeholders, by the stakeholders, for the stakeholders, shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln
8. “You engagin’ with me? You engagin’ with me? Well, who the hell else are you engagin’ with?” Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver
9. “Imagination is more important than key learnings.” Albert Einstein
10.“You’re rightsized!” Donald Trump
“You want a robust dialogue? YOU CAN’T HANDLE A ROBUST DIALOGUE!”
Imagine you live in an area that’s about to consumed by massive, fatal bushfires. Now compare these two calls to action:
“There will be signficant fire activity with potential to impact.”
“Your house will face unstoppable fires with flame heights up to 35 metres high, moving at speeds much faster than your car’s top speed.”
Which one is going to make you leave your house?
This comes from Don Watson’s depressing analysis of how some fire authorities handled the massive Victorian bushfires earlier in the year, and how managerial language can completely fail to communicate, even in situations that are literally life or death .
These were people doing their heroic best in a terrible situation, but they were mired in the swamp of ‘key learnings’, ‘weather events’ and ‘iterative documents’ that they speak of every day at the office. When the time came to say ‘Run for your lives!‘, they didn’t have language vivid or specific enough to do it.
Another alleged ‘Call To Action’ popped up over the weekend, for the information of our international visitors. Kraft Foods, owners of the iconic Australian yeast spread Vegemite that has terrified the rest of the world for decades, have released a new product - Vegemite blended with cream cheese.
They decided to get their creative done via a contest, an approach that has won a lot of fans in corporate finance departments the world over. From 48,000 contest entries, the winner was announced:
According to a Kraft spokesperson, it was chosen for “its personal call to action and clear identification of a new and different Vegemite.”
We’ve been staring at it for a couple of days now, and if anyone can spot a call to action in there, please let us know.
It’s an interesting choice. For consumers who don’t know much about the web, it makes no sense applying that sort of unappetizing imagery to food.
For consumers who understand the web, it’s like seeing your Dad at the disco wearing a backwards baseball cap.
Kraft are not renowned for their understanding of the web. Their web site’s hyper-lawyered terms and conditions forbid anyone from linking to their site, as well as this chilling message:
“You may not redistribute or sell the material (web site photos and copy), nor may you reverse engineer, disassemble or otherwise convert it to any other form usable by humans.”
As a result, the clearest call to action has been from the outraged public, demanding that the abomination be put out of its misery.
Lesson for presenters? The winning entry was written by a 27 year old web programmer, speaking in his own language. It’s dangerous to assume that your audience speaks the same language you do.
No matter what our background, most of us can speak a foreign language. One that’s completely opaque to anyone who might be listening in. It’s the language of your industry.
Every industry creates jargon, acronyms and product-words that aren’t in any dictionary, and mean nothing to outsiders. And then individual companies have their own variations on the dialect.
Some industries don’t use any uncompressed nouns at all, like travel people:
“FYI we’ve got 250 VIP’s coming on QF from LAX, we did a deal with SCVB at IT&CMA to keep their ADR at $750.”
Speaking the jargon fluently is like a secret handshake that admits you to the club.
That’s why they hold association conferences – so people can cluster around the bar happily chatting in fluent industry-speak.
Because if you belong to, say, the Australian Asphalt Pavers Association (Official motto: ‘There’s a lot more to asphalt than meets the eye’), there’s nothing better than some quality time with others who share your black, sticky passion. They never tire of hearing about it, unlike your friends and family.
There are two important lessons in this for presenters.
Communicating with Civilians
If you spend a lot of time surrounded by industry people, you can start thinking everyone talks that way. If you’re planning a speech to a general audience, try to weed out as much jargon as possible. If you have time in advance, run your script past a ‘civilian’ and ask them to point out anything they don’t get.
If you’re an outsider talking to people from a specific industry, take the time to get to know their language.
Go and meet some of them in advance, pick up some terms, and put them in your presentation. It’s like visiting a foreign country – the locals appreciate that you’ve taken the effort to learn a few phrases, and they’ll be nice to you.
This approach works particularly well if your presentation is a new business pitch. The first time you meet the potential client, write down as many of their jargon words as you can, and use them when come back to make a presentation.
“Now you’re speaking my language,” they’ll think, because you literally are.
History lesson today - where did jargon come from?
I’d always assumed all those words were developed for the first MBA programs at Harvard early last century, to shut others out of the secret society that controls world finance and puts obedience chemicals in the water supply.
Turns out jargon has been with us a little longer. Nearly a thousand years, in fact.
In 1066 William the Conqueror beat Harold at Hastings, so England had a French-speaking king. English speaking noblemen were put to the sword. Court cases were conducted in French. Speaking English at universities was banned. French became the language of the educated and important.
Eventually English won its way back through sheer force of numbers. But the educated and important kept their love of long, Latinate words from the French language.
To highlight how clever and important they were, instead of saying “Let’s start the meeting way we always do”, they would say “In accordance with precedence, the commencement of the proceedings…” etc.
So for nearly a thousand years, people have been getting up in front of audiences and needlessly confusing them, so they can show that they’re better than you.
It’s an interesting interview, if you have a spare half an hour. James touches on some favorite topics of this blog, including:
If you want people to remember what you tell them, vivid phrases stick better than jargon.
Vividness put pictures in their mind. It helps them understand. It helps them remember.
If you were describing the stock market, for instance, you could say “the shares exhibited a modest, temporary recovery after a major fall in value, after which the downward trend continued.”
Or you could say “a classic dead cat bounce“. Shorter, better, longer-lasting.
And “pork barrelling” sounds much better than “unfair distribution of funding to influence voting”.
Speaking of pork, I’m feeling a little sorry for the pork producers of the world at the moment. They have rightly pointed out that you can’t catch any kind of flu from eating pork. You’d have to kiss a live pig, and even then, only in the right spot*.
The pork producers have persuaded the World Health Organization to re-name swine flu. So if it’s OK with you, please refer to it as Influenza A/H1N1 from now on.
As in “Run for your lives! There’s an overturned truckload of sneezing pigs in the front yard! If we don’t get out fast we’ll all get Influenza A/H1N1!”
How many people outside of WHO and the International League of Pork Producers will actually use that term? Or be able to remember it at all? Rounded to the nearest whole number: zero.
‘Swine’ is too good a mental image. And as a communication device, it spreads much faster than the disease itself.
Many complex subjects, products and processes have interesting nicknames that you use around the office. Share them with your audience: it’ll help them bring the subject to life.
We’ve included the list below. There’s the pseudo-science of ‘coterminosity’. There are unhappy arranged marriages like ‘edge-fit’. But I think the most depressing is the drabbing-down of ‘unemployment’ into ‘worklessness’.
Beware, reading the full list will make you feel like your brain has been scooped out and replaced with insulation foam.
The hero behind this initiative is the LGA’s Richard Stokoe. Send him a message of encouragement here, we need more like him.
200 WORDS AND THEIR ALTERNATIVES
Across-the-piece - everyone working together
Actioned - do
Advocate - support
Agencies - groups
Ambassador - leader
Area based - in an area
Area focused - concentrating on the area
Autonomous - independent
Baseline - starting point
Beacon - leading light
Benchmarking - measuring
Best Practice - best way
Blue sky thinking - thinking up ideas
Bottom-Up - listening to people
CAAs - why use at all?
Can do culture - get the job done
Capacity - ability
Capacity building - enough room in the system
Cascading - why use at all?
Cautiously welcome - devil in the detail
Challenge - problem
Champion - best
Citizen empowerment - people power
Client - person
Cohesive communities - why use at all?
Cohesiveness - together
Collaboration - working together
Commissioning - buy
Community engagement - getting people involved
Compact - why use at all?
Conditionality - why use at all?
Consensual - everyone agrees
Contestability - Why use at all?
Contextual - background
Core developments - main things that are happening
Core Message - main point
Core principles - beliefs
Core Value - belief
Coterminosity - all singing from the same hymn sheet
Coterminous - all singing from the same hymn sheet
Cross-cutting - everyone working together
Cross-fertilisation - spreading ideas
Customer - people/person
Democratic legitimacy - voted in
Democratic mandate - elected to put people first
Dialogue - talk/discuss
Direction of travel - way forward
Distorts spending priorities - ignores people’s needs
Double devolution - Why use at all?
Downstream - Why use at all?
Early Win - success
Edge-fit - Why use at all?
Embedded - set in
Empowerment - people power
Enabler - helps
Engagement - working with people
Engaging users - getting people involved
Enhance - improve
Evidence Base - research shows
Exemplar - example
External challenge - outside pressures
Facilitate - help
Fast-Track - speed up
Flex - Why use at all?
Flexibilities and Freedoms - more power to do the right thing
Framework - guide
Fulcrum - pivot
Functionality - use
Funding Streams - money
Gateway review - Why use at all?
Going forward - in the future
Good Practice - best way
Governance - Why use at all?
Guidelines - guide
Holistic - taken in the round
Holistic governance - Why use at all?
Horizon scanning - Why use at all?
Improvement levers - using the tools to get the job done
Incentivising - incentive
Income Streams - money/cash
Indicators - measurements
Initiative - idea
Innovative capacity - Why use at all?
Inspectorates - monitoring bodies
Interdepartmental - working together
Interface - talking to each other
Iteration - version
Joined up - working together
Joint working - working together
LAAs - Why use at all?
Level playing field - everyone equal
Lever - Why use at all?
Leverage - influence
Localities - places/town/city/village
Lowlights - worst bits
MAAs - Why use at all?
Mainstreaming - Why use at all?
Management capacity - Why use at all?
Meaningful consultation- talking to people
Meaningful dialogue - talking to people
Mechanisms - methods
Menu of Options - choices
Multi-agency - many groups
Multidisciplinary - many
Municipalities - towns/cities/areas
Network model - Why use at all?
Normalising - make normal
Outcomes - results
Outcomes - focused
Output - results
Outsourced - privatised
Overarching - Why use at all?
Paradigm - Why use at all?
Parameter - limits
Participatory - joining in
Partnership working - working together
Partnerships - working together
Pathfinder - Why use at all?
Peer challenge - Why use at all?
Performance Network - Why use at all?
Place shaping - creating places where people can thrive
Pooled budgets - money
Pooled resources - time and money
Pooled risk - Why use at all?
Populace - people
Potentialities - chances
Practitioners - experts
Predictors of Beaconicity - Why use at all?
Preventative services - protecting the most vulnerable
Prioritization - most important
Priority - most important
Proactive - Why use at all?
Process driven - shouldn’t everything be people driven?
Procure - buy
Procurement - buying
Promulgate - spread
Proportionality - in proportion
Protocol - guidance
Provider vehicles - Why use at all?
Quantum - Why use at all?
Quick Hit - success
Quick Win - success
Rationalisation - cut
Rebaselining - Why use at all?
Reconfigured - reform
Resource allocation - money going to the right place
Revenue Streams - money
Risk based - safest way
Robust - tough
Scaled-back - cut/reduce
Scoping - work out
Sector wise - Why use at all?
Seedbed - idea
Self-aggrandizement - Why use at all?
Service users - people
Shared priority - all working together
Shell developments - Why use at all?
Signpost - point in the direction of
Single conversations - talking to
Single Point of Contact - everything under one roof
Situational - situation
Slippage - delay
Social contracts - deal
Social exclusion - poverty
Spatial - Why use at all?
Stakeholder - other organisations
Step Change - improve
Strategic - planned
Strategic priorities - planned
Streamlined - efficient
Sub-regional - work between councils
Subsidiarity - Why use at all?
Sustainable - long term
Sustainable communities - environmentally friendly
Symposium - meeting
Synergies - what use at all?
Systematics - Why use at all?
Taxonomy - Why use at all?
Tested for Soundness - what works
Thematic - theme
Thinking outside of the box - Why use at all?
Third sector - charities and voluntary organisations
Toolkit - guidance
Top-Down - ignores people
Trajectory - route
Tranche - slice
Transactional - Why use at all?
Transformational - change
Transparency - clear
Upstream - Why use at all?
Upward trend - getting better
Utilise - use
Value-added - extra
Vision - ideal/dream/belief
Visionary - ideal/dream/belief
Welcome - necessary and needed/step in the right direction
Wellbeing - healthy
Worklessness - unemployed
As we fight the battle against jargon, we thought the worst it can do is bore audiences into hibernation.
As it turns out, we were wrong. It can actually kill people.
This depressing article in The Times describes how health bureaucrats in Mid Staffordshire became so obsessed with ‘critical decision units’, ‘pathfinding’ and ‘outcomes’ that patients who didn’t fit into the ‘benchmark’ 4 hour waiting time were shuffled off into side rooms where nobody came to help.
As a result, apparently, hundreds died.
Melanie Read writes: “If managers had spent less time on ‘a programme of agreed audit activity which facilitates a review of existing controls and recommends appropriate remedial action or systems redesign’, patients might not have had to drink out of flower vases.”
As always, jargon is a smokescreen for inaction - people who are actually doing something can usually describe it quite clearly.
Ian Whitworth believes passionately in the power of live communication, without the buzzwords and bullet points. He works as a creative director and principal of agency A Lizard Drinking. He is also one of the founders of audiovisual company Scene Change. Ian is an ex-professional presenter and long ago, ex-audiovisual technician. For non-presentation stuff, try @ianwhitworth.