It’s a little-known fact, but not long ago the Commonwealth Government hired some corporate management consultants to update our national anthem. The first verse became:

Australians all let us rejoice: National stakeholders going forward should be committed to visionary communications

For we are young and free: For we incubate next-generation scenarios that leverage dynamic functionalities

With golden soil and wealth for toil: With mission critical infrastructure to maximise world-class deliverables

Our home is girt by sea: Our brickware harnesses frictionless supply chain scenarios.

Unfortunately, the text suffered from ‘a high-end negative architecture scenario’, which meant the words didn’t actually fit the music, and the idea was scrapped.

Okay, I made that up, but unfortunately it’s not all that far from reality. Here’s what one corporation actually wrote recently:

As a means of simultaneously decomposing both the optative and indicative parts of a requirements problem, from an abstract business level to concrete system requirements, we leverage the paradigm of projection in both approaches while maintaining traceability to high-level business objectives.

Come again? All this means is something like ‘our service will help you solve practical problems while keeping an eye on the business overall’. I think.

But while it’s easy to play up the comedy of corporate speak, it also has a very serious side to it. The evidence is emerging that complex language was a major contributor to the global financial crisis.

If that sounds like a far-fetched claim, consider the case of the Opes Prime collapse.

One of the investors in Opes Prime was a stockbroking firm called Beconwood Securities. When Opes Prime went under, Beconwood took court action to recover its money, arguing that the documents it had signed were so complex that it didn’t actually understand the product it was buying. Beconwood apparently didn’t realise that its own shares were actually owned by Opes Prime’s bank.

It lost the case, as the judge ruled Beconwood to be a sophisticated investor that should have been able to work it out.

But the fact that a stockbroker couldn’t tell the difference illustrates a major factor in the global financial meltdown. Financial documents got so complex that nobody in the system could tell who owned what and who owed what to whom. So they all stopped lending to each other. The financial system froze. The rest we know.

And it hasn’t stopped there. While the international financiers were licking their wounds, major corporations started to get in on the obscure language act, spinning their situation for all it was worth.

When GM announced its bankruptcy, for example, it wrote to its ‘stakeholders’ explaining: ‘As you may know, GM is using an expedited, court-supervised process to accelerate the reinvention of our company.’ When Air New Zealand had to shed staff, it announced it would ‘disestablish up to 200 full-time jobs’.

It’s time for the corporate world to learn that poor language is not good for business.

A few years ago, the Royal Mail in Britain surveyed the public about the writing they receive from companies, and discovered that one-third boycott products specifically because of the quality of the writing. This was costing UK firms a staggering $10 billion a year in lost trade. Those figures translated to the Australian economy would be some $2 billion.

And according to a survey of 1,214 American homeowners and investors conducted by Siegel+Gale, 84 per cent are more likely to trust a company that uses jargon-free, plain English in communications.

Seventy five per cent also believed that language complexity played a significant role in the current financial crisis. Sixty-three percent felt that ‘banks, mortgage lenders and Wall Street intentionally make things complicated to hide risks or to keep people in the dark.’

Another American survey found that companies scoring high in spin posted financial results up to six times worse than those that write in plain English. Only 11 per cent of the top 25 firms lapsed into jargon, but more than half of the bottom 25 firms did.

Memo to all those corporate spin officers out there: we’re onto you.

And if those numbers aren’t enough to make corporations sit up and take notice, the regulators are already getting in on the act. President Barack Obama has recently spoken out against poor financial and credit documents, and the United States Congress and Senate are already considering a plain language bill. This will make plain English compulsory in all Federal government documents.

America will join countries as diverse as Sweden, Mexico, the Netherlands and even New Zealand in mandating plain language.

Yet Australian government and industry are still to introduce similar measures for plain English here. The global financial crisis suggests we have much to catch up with. Our Prime Minister has been quick with a financial package, yet his own language is at times barely comprehensible, swinging between officialese, jargon, cliche and ockerisms.

What we need now is some strong action from government and business that will prove they take clear communication seriously. If other countries can introduce plain language laws and regulations, why can’t we?

Dr Neil James is Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation and the author of Writing at Work. The Plain English Foundation is currently hosting the Plain Language Association International 7th Biennial Conference. www.plainenglishfoundation.com

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13 comments

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    • John A Neve says:

      07:22am | 15/10/09

      If my memory serves me well, didn’t we go down this path 10 of 15 years ago with insurance companies?

      We just seem to go round and round, getting nowhere fast.

    • Catter says:

      07:43am | 15/10/09

      I have had enough of this Orwellian abuse. Everyone ought know that GFC stands for the greatest team of all. Geelong Football Club est 1859. Please end this abuse.

    • iansand says:

      07:58am | 15/10/09

      I worked with one of these gobbledegook generators for a while.  If I had to read anything twice I asked him “What are you trying to say here?”.  Usually he said (emphasising said) something short, comprehensible and more than adequate.  I then told him to write that.  Our communication with the outside world improved greatly. 

      People are afraid of simple ideas.  So they surround them with a bodyguard of false complexiity.

      My point is that someone in the bowels of an organisation generates this crap, and someone else approves it.  They are the people who should be terminated with extreme prejudice. Particularly the ones hiding in education departments.  If the people educating our children are incapable of concise, accurate communication what hope is there?

    • hoofman says:

      08:08am | 15/10/09

      Well, thanks for touching base and giving us a heads-up, but frankly I’m gobsmacked. I didn’t know that there were so many issues around this one. I find myself in a state of bemusement after having had my attention drawn to the use of inapppropriate and unnecessarily prolix language, including hackneyed phrases, obfuscations, scatology, euphemisms and unilluminating metaphors, the excessive and repetitive use of which may be detrimental to the vision and core objectives of this organisation which are to become customer focussed while at the same time and at the end of the day not losing sight of the flag (that we ran up the flagpole and saluted and which was workshopped and put through deliberative forums involving all the stakeholders and the various members of the team including the fullback and the left half forward back pocket flanker where we all put on our red hats and leveraged our resrources) and which was to take a proactive top-down and bottom-up iterative process to harness new paradigms, to compare baseline information, achieve lateral synergies, pick the low-hanging fruit, incentivise out team and to reach out to valued clients and keep them in the loop, tick all the boxes and not lose sight of the bottom line. Now that we’ve taken it to the next level we’re going great guns, we’re punching above our weight and we should bring this to the table at the next deliberative forum and jump through all the hoops. It’s all good.

    • Chris R says:

      10:03am | 15/10/09

      It’s not just corporations. My son’s school reports are a series of disconnected incomprehensible jargon statements. This is in grade one. What hope is there when even teachers can’t write school reports in plain sensible English.

    • Bob H says:

      10:12am | 15/10/09

      CorpSpeak is the fault of MBA’ers who try to complicate simple business functions because it is embarrassingly non-complex.  This is not good for an MBA ego, so they try to match technical disciplines language which unless is usually meaningless to outsiders.  So they have made up their own sham complexity, not to communicate, but to make them feel better amongst themselves.

    • SM says:

      10:35am | 15/10/09

      Excellent article Neil - thankyou.

      My elderly Mother has a not-insignificant (god, now I’m doing it myself)  share portfolio, and regularly receives correspondence (sorry, letters) from her brokerage firm inviting her to be part of additional offers, new floats etc.  Although some of the offers have been of some interest, she’s never taken up one of them because she simply doesn’t understand the absurd language they use in attempting to “communicate” their offers.

      Incredibly, she’s never even received a phone call from anyone at the firm to follow up on the letters and perhaps answer any questions she might have.

      Maybe, as you say Neil, it’s done to hide the associated risks and keep people in the dark.

      Whatever the reason,  it’s an abysmal sales process

    • Roger Norris says:

      11:04am | 15/10/09

      I cancelled a superannuation product with a well known Australian Fund Manager and became an SMF for exactly that reason: I could not understand the crap they wrote to me.
      I made a 12% profit in the 12/12 ending 6/2009.The expert made a 25% loss probably bercause it began to believe its own b…..

    • acker says:

      11:19am | 15/10/09

      Where I came from the GFC stands for The Geelong Football Club

      And over the last few years as well as winning a couple of premiership’s, they are getting a lot of things worldwide blamed on them.

    • DaveA says:

      12:40pm | 15/10/09

      We will need some detailed programmatic specificity to enable us to get to the bottom of this one.

    • papachango says:

      12:41pm | 15/10/09

      Fair point about corporate jargon, but more regulation is not the answer.

      In fact, management consultant speak aside, most of the jargon is a result of excessive government regulation. For example when you buy a life insurance of investment product you are given a PDS (product disclosure statement), that contains 100 + pages of regulatory crap mandated by the Financial Services Reform Act (parts I & II). How exactly does that make it easier for the products to be understood by clients?

      It’s gotten so bad that ‘we’ll speak to you in plain English’ is now a legitimate marketing differentiator.

      The other way to fight it is with ridicule - e.g. playing ‘bullsh_t bingo’ in meetings

    • TiredWebEditor says:

      01:16pm | 15/10/09

      For 10 years I’ve been writing and editing web content for large companies. For those 10 years I have been begging and pleading with marketing and other content “experts” to write clearly, without jargon or excessive marketing speel.

      To no avail and for a very simple reason.

      Loss of power. If the customer clearly understands what your product / service does or doesn’t do they can make an informed choice between your product and that of your competitor.

      That decision would be free of influence by advertising, PR speel or clever sales people.

      What company wants to give that kind of power to their customers?

    • Natz says:

      01:50pm | 15/10/09

      I’m a corporate writer who was recently sacked because my writing was ‘not appropriate for the audience’. I also had an article in a big selling national magazine at the same time. The editor of the magazine changed a handful of words… my communications manager changed every single sentence. Don Watson’s weasel words are still out there, eating up the good sense of bad managers and lawyers… and we’re still losing the war! PDS’s were meant to demistify financial products, but the legals have turned them into tombs of nonsense and a major waste of trees. The only way to clear the mire is for them to be legislated into plain English, with Flesch-Kinkaid measures. Never heard of them? Not many bad writers have either.

 

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