‘WISE’ up on your English
Corporate jargon is all over us. Thanks to the legion of well-educated MBAs and elite consultants who swamp our office corridors, we now happily use colourful phrases such as “shifting a paradigm”, “base effectiveness matrix”, “blue sky thinking”, “moving the needle” and “back-end execution resource” without as much as a second thought. We may even ask our colleagues to “push the envelope on their medium-term ambitions” or “stretch their strategic agenda to encompass the art of the impossible”. All this is well intentioned but rather annoying. Most worryingly, such jargon often carries no clear meaning at all. What indeed is the art of the impossible, and why will pushing envelopes all over the office ever achieve anything worthwhile?
Corporate jargon is also bad because it hides the real meaning of what you intend to say. In fact, many managers use it as a glib substitute for simple, direct communication based on clear thinking. If you are not clear about what precisely you have to say, lump on some impressive-sounding jargon (e.g. “unstructured and multi-dimensional linear thinking is a corporate imperative in today’s volatile ecosystem”), which hopefully will cover up for your lack of clarity. Actually, it never does, and smart people learn to ignore all this hopeless stuff immediately.
In addition, I have a deep suspicion that Indian managers, in particular, feel important and erudite when they use business jargon in English. Perhaps in these modern times we also aspire to be the Shashi Tharoors of the corporate world, giving the real Englishmen a run for their words. Therefore, we end up creating unreadable documents which are not understood by anyone, and, sadly, are not read seriously at all.
Some of the best managers I have worked with use clear, simple English. They speak and write like normal human beings. What they say is well understood, and they are able to connect with all their colleagues immediately. We need to learn from them. This column puts forward a few simple principles of how to be WISE—an acronym for Write In Simple English.
Use uncomplicated words
The first step to being WISE is to use simple words and phrases when we write or speak. Instead of asking our colleagues to “move the needle”, consider asking them to “take small initial steps”. Instead of “leveraging benchmark practices”, think of using “learning from the best”. “Multi-polar consumer worlds” could perhaps be replaced with “many diverse consumer groups”. Whenever you are tempted to use jargon, pause and think—is there a simpler word or phrase that can convey what I want to say ?
Use plain sentences
Long and verbose English is unreadable and most often it does not deliver the desired results. Consider this important corporate announcement: “We need to regroup in the short term to thoughtfully dwell on the transformative impact of disruptive technologies on our organizational vision.” This sounds similar to what we read in many of our offices from time to time. However, it is also highly unlikely that most people will understand this, or will actually do anything concrete after reading this impressive-sounding statement. On the other hand, “We need to meet next week and think urgently about how new technologies are affecting our future” may actually lead to some useful action.
Management consultants have fed us with a plethora of frameworks, matrices, superstructures and other similar overarching stuff. To be fair, these methods are often a very good way of organizing our thinking. While these frameworks are also very seductive to use in normal communication and in every presentation, they often distract from the essential point you are trying to make to your colleagues. To keep things simple, state your point clearly, without reference to exotic frameworks or matrices or formulae. Those sort of brilliant devices are best confined to papers or articles in management journals.
Active voice, strong verbs
Another WISE way to communicate is to use the active voice and strong, direct verbs in whatever you say, because this immediately conveys both the intent and the action required. “Harish Bhat should solve this serious problem immediately” is far shorter, clearer and better than “This existential problem should be assigned to Harish Bhat for his early attention and consequent action”. Of course, Harish Bhat then has a big problem to worry about, but at least he knows very clearly that he has to act, and really fast.
Keep it really short
WISE managers should pay attention to the one-page memo, introduced many years ago by the wise old Procter & Gamble. The simple reason is that we can say most things we want to say within a single page, whereas modern managers, fuelled by powerful word processors and advanced education, take great pride in typing up thick documents which closely resemble doctoral theses. The hallmark of these long and winding documents is that they generally contain a lot of useless information. On the other hand, one page is a WISE, short and powerful discipline. It is difficult to write, because it requires you to reduce even complex matters to their very essence. And therefore, keeping things so short ensures that only essential information, analyses and recommendations are presented, with all the jargon necessarily cut out.
Think before you write
Finally, WISE communication requires clarity of thought. If your thinking is very clear, then you can write in simple, unambiguous language. So before you finalize your written note or memo, ensure that you have completed your thinking process. Sometimes, the process of writing itself helps sharpen clarity of thought, so write thoughtfully. If you are not sure whether your note is clear or simple enough, let it remain in your drafts folder overnight, particularly if it is an important piece of communication. Sleep over it, simplify it the next morning, and then send it out.
Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. He believes that WISE men write or speak only when they have something to say.