THE WORDS you use say a lot about you. It’s obvious. If you say “utilise” instead of use, or “facilitate” instead of do or make, you’re sending out a signal to the world, consciously or unconsciously.
Think about it. It’s a lot harder to say, “We’ll utilise all of our resources to facilitate a solution”, than it is to say, “We’ll work hard to solve the problem.” Actually, it’s not only harder, it’s longer and less direct.
So, what do people get out of speaking like that? What’s the benefit?
If you look at some of the most powerful speeches ever made you’ll find they rely on single-sound words to drive the key messages. You know the kind of thing: “We will fight them on the beaches …”, “I have a dream”, “I did not have sex with that woman.”
People ordinarily use single-sound words in every day speech too. You have to listen carefully, but if you go into a bar you’ll hear whole conversations like this:
“What do you want?”
“I think I’ll have a glass of wine for a change.”
“Do you want some crisps too?”
“No, but I’ll have some nuts if you’re in the chair.”
It’s amazing, in fact, how much we use single-sound words in speech. We Anglo-Saxons like short Anglo-Saxon words. So much so that there isn’t a single romance word in the top 20 most-used words in English.
Such brevity does not extend to writing though. When people write, they put on a different head. Usually, it’s a kind of multisyllabic, Latinate and slightly Victorian head, and it is very common in business. The chap who shakes a partner’s hand at the end of a negotiation and says, “Great. That’s a done deal. Thanks”, may well be driven to write about the “successful facilitation of an all-party agreement” when writing to his bosses.
So, what’s the harm in it, you may ask.
Well, that’s a little trickier to answer. But here goes …
For years now, I’ve produced magazines for clients – the kind of thing they send to their stakeholders to promote their services. My job is to search out interesting stories and write them more or less as I would for an independent publication. In fact, the more independent the stories are the better it is: nobody wants to read PR puffery.
Like most journalists, I quote people – often people within the client organisation. And every so often, somebody takes exception to something a colleague has said, or imagines that they could have said it more elegantly themselves – and so they correct it.
The problem is that they do this with their Victorian writing head on, and what was once a live quotation – something that a flesh-and-blood human being actually said – becomes a piece of business writing that makes the person quoted sound like an android. In practice, the sound of writing is different to the sound of speech – although it doesn’t have to be that way (if it were, you’d never get decent movies).
I once recorded two senior people in an organisation who were chatting animatedly about some business development or other. It was so entrancing, this exchange, that I quoted them directly and very accurately. The dialogue was lovely, very alive.
When I showed the piece to my paymaster in the client business, she said: “It’s too chatty.”
I was taken aback. “Well,” I said, puzzled, “they were chatting.”
Perhaps she thought I was being cheeky. Anyway, she changed the quotes so that the two senior people sounded like a couple of robots coming round after a millennia or so without power. Or maybe that’s just the way it sounded to me.
Curiously, organisations that spend fortunes on slogans – often quite simple slogans (like “Just do it”, “Because you’re worth it”, “All the news that is fit to print”) – can still develop an internal language that is robotic and lifeless without much thought as to how that makes them seem to their customers, or even to their own people.
Not long ago, I was running a business English course for a hard-pressed human resources department in a multinational. These people had a really tough time. The bosses wanted tons of appraisals and reviews; they wanted everything to be measured, and they wanted it measured now. But the managers wanted to be left alone to get on with their jobs. Caught between the hammer and the anvil, the HR team had retreated into the remoteness of an icy language.
It took me a while to see it and when I did it was startlingly obvious. Without discussing it, everybody in the department had abandoned the use of personal pronouns – I, we, you, our … and so on. The result was a communication style that had lost the human touch altogether. They would respond to personal requests from distressed members of staff with mails that began: “It is the company’s belief …” It was beyond remote, which is a curious place for a human resources team to end up.
I suppose what I’m saying here is that, when it comes to writing, the way in which an organisation communicates with its customers and its own people sends out a signal – just like the people who use words like facilitate and utilise instead of make or use in speech. And that signal is broadcast continuously through email, internal memos, press releases and meeting reports.
The trouble is that the authors often don’t know what they sound like to normal mortals.
It might be a good idea, every so often, to find out. But don’t ask your partners or competitors, these glitches in languages can become a kind of jargon. Ask your customers, they’ll know.
And since I’m writing this on Valentine’s Day remember that three of the most important words you’ll ever hear are the single sound words, “I love you.”