People entering and exiting the building.

The end of 'blue-sky thinking'?

02 December 2013

'If we use language the rest of the world doesn't understand, we diminish [our] reputation.'

So said Alan Duncan MP in his memo to the Department for International Development ("DFID") at the end of June. He informed his staff that there would be no more '"going forward", either at the beginning or the end of any sentence'; that there was no need to '"access", "catalyse", "showcase" or "impact" anything'; and that 'a sentence which begins "Grateful for your…" would appear to be lacking the prefix "I would be…".'

Some may write this off as mere pedantry (Alan Duncan even refers to himself as a 'grammar fascist') but he's not the only one throwing the book at this dictionary of misused and misunderstood words and phrases. The Civil Service issued a style guide for written content on websites in July which banned using words such as 'deliver' (unless the writer is referring to pizza or post), 'streamline', 'transforming' and 'utilise'. Users were also warned off metaphors such as 'ring-fencing' and 'slimming down'. After all, 'processes don't diet'.

Some may feel thoroughly vindicated by this; others may feel entirely ambivalent. I would direct the latter towards a more specific version of Alan Duncan's summary to DFID: if we use language the rest of the world doesn't understand, we diminish our credibility. In the private commercial context, the clichéd images of boards of directors sitting at their table 'brainstorming' about their next great idea or 'washing up' the problems that have arisen from their previous one rarely fail to make eyes roll. And of course, everyone remembers anti-hero David Brent in 'The Office' insisting that doing good business meant looking at 'the whole pie'.

In recent years, the credibility of certain figures and institutions in both the private and public sectors has been at an all-time low. Consider Bob Diamond and Barclays in June 2012 after the Libor fixing scandal; or Jacqui Smith, Elliot Morley and countless other MPs during the 2009 exposure of their unjustifiable expenses. Some may argue that those were discrete, unfortunate episodes local to those particular professions; but others may look as well at the revelations of phone-hacking that led to the closure of The News of the World in June 2011 and Lord Leveson's investigation into media standards, and the allegations of sexual misconduct against BBC presenters and conclude that there's a wider problem.

Preserving the credibility of any institution is important, and getting the use of language right plays a vital role in achieving this. The Civil Service guidelines concluded that 'you risk losing trust from your users if you write in buzzwords and jargon'.

Of course, there is a difference between using buzzwords and jargon and employing 'group language'. Those who work together or otherwise identify as belonging to the same group naturally find ways to communicate that are unique and specific to their needs: when you were at primary school you knew what to do when your teacher announced that it was 'carpet time'; university students all know what it means to have an 'essay crisis'; and pensioners know that they don't want to be one of the 'twerlies'. Lawyers have a particularly sophisticated group language: most people would think that being 'made up' would refer to a happy conclusion to an argument between friends, or that 'bundling' was what happened to you when you were put in the car with the camping equipment as a child. This kind of language – group language – clarifies expression. It facilitates faster and more accurate communication between like-minded individuals (as anyone who has tried to explain 'pagination' in lay terms will know!).

In comparison, buzzwords and jargon obscure expression: they prevent even the users themselves from fully understanding what they are trying to say. Does anyone really know what it means to 'blue sky think'? Has anyone ever successfully 'driven' an idea? And surely it's impossible to avoid 'going forward'? Using language in this way diminishes credibility because it suggests that no one really knows what's going on. Worse, it suggests that they are deliberately concealing what's going on through this meaningless linguistic smokescreen. As Alan Duncan told his department: 'Clear language conveys clear thought. Its poor use suggests sloppy thinking.'

'Sloppy thinking' is probably the kindest interpretation that can be given to some of the attitudes that have been exhibited in the last few years during which bankers have been shown to have been playing games with our money and MPs have used our taxes to buy their second homes. The more we continue to suspect that those figures are doing nothing more than 'brainstorming', the more our trust in them is eroded. If they begin to use language in a way that leaves nobody in any doubt as to what they are doing, the more trust will be built up. The Civil Service issuing this style guide demonstrates that they understand that their clarity of expression is crucial to doing effective work with the public. 'Going forward', other public and private bodies must also find a way to demonstrate that they are doing more than just 'blue-sky thinking'.

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