Gobbledygook Be Gone:  Now is the Time for Plain Talk

by Diane Berenbaum

Have you noticed that people don't talk anymore, they “dialogue.”  To move forward, they “think outside the box,” “push the envelope,” “reinvent the wheel” and maybe even “incentivize” their associates. That's gobbledygook.

Given our fast-paced world, with approximately 1.3 billion email users sending about 210 billion emails a day, you'd think people would write more clearly to get their messages across...the first time. Not so. Gobbledygook is making its way into every written message and meeting, perhaps to the point where people just don't notice anymore. Well, I notice. And I bet many of you do too. But maybe you are joining in to be perceived as knowledgeable and current, or just keeping your opinions to yourself.  It's time we did something about it.

Types of Gobbledygook
Gobbledygook takes many forms.  It can be annoying  clichés, like “at the end of the day” or “at this moment in time” or “with all due respect”—which happened to be voted the top three most irritating phrases as noted in Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield.

Or, it could be corporate speak; jargon and vague business phrases that have a tone of self-importance. We've all seen “ballpark figures” or heard about “mission critical” events. And, maybe even used phrases like these to sound impressive. Then there are what EMC Corporation has dubbed “hidioms.”  In other words, hideous corporate-speak language to avoid, or corporate speak run amok. While working with EMC, I received their corporate Writing Guide, which includes rules to keep their writing clear and consistent.

Here are some of the hidioms they noted along with words to use instead:
  • handshake (as a verb)--------agree, commit
  • mindshare-----------------------awareness
  • granular/granularity----------detail
  • net-net----------------------------Just leave it out!
We also turn nouns into verbs by adding –ing or ize, such as operationalize, commoditize, productize and solutioning. And, we coin new words through combinations of words, such as:

Marketecture: any form of electronic architecture perceived to have been produced purely for marketing reasons

Intrapreneur:  A person who focuses on innovative entrepreneurial development within a large company

Truthiness: Coined by comedian Stephen Colbert, it is a 'truth' that a person claims to know intuitively without regard to evidence, logic or facts.

Gobbledgygook Generator

The Plain English Campaign is no stranger to gobbledygook. In fact, they invite people all over the world to send them examples, then present awards for the best and worst examples. Although they have been fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979, they have a sense of humor about it. They created the gobbledygook generator to show just how ridiculous gobbledygook can be. Here's what I got when I clicked on the generator:

  • Forward-looking companies invest in 'Outside the box' third-generation concepts.
  • Our upgraded model now offers synchronized asset alignment.
  • The solution can only be deconstructed management contingencies.
Try it for yourself and see what kind of gobbledygook you can generate: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/examples/gobbledygook-generator.html

Some Industries are Tackling Gobbledygook
There is hope for a clearer business world and progress is being made in some notable areas, particularly the insurance industry.  I know what you are thinking—the insurance industry? They have some of the most incomprehensible documents, seemingly written to confuse not clarify. But Ingrid Lindberg, CIGNA's chief experience officer, is leading the charge to eliminate “insurance speak” from all customer communications. And she has succeeded.

CIGNA has new guidelines to replace insurance jargon we have all seen in our policies, like provider, co-pay and formulary. Instead you'll see familiar words like doctor, the amount you pay and drug list. It is paying off, too. By simply changing the words they measured a 156% increase in understanding.

Aetna has also stepped up their clear communication efforts. The company keeps its written communications pitched to a fifth-grade reading level. And they have published a simply-written paperback for members called "Navigating Your Health Benefits for Dummies,” which features breezy language and even cartoons about healthcare.

What You Can Do to Help

Take a stand and make a difference in your own organization. Here's how:

  • Veer from the crowd and use clear, simple language that doesn't demand a dictionary to understand. People will notice, and most importantly, understand your message.
  • Promote clear language in your departments and your organization. Encourage the creation of guidelines or even a corporate writing guide, like the one developed by EMC.  Share a list words and phrases to avoid to ensure clarity and consistency.
  • Highlight the consequences of not changing.  According to The Quality Connection, unclear communication causes 34% of all workplace problems. Think about the real tangible cost as well as the opportunity cost of confusing email chains and meetings.
  • Brainstorm and reinforce the benefits of clear thinking and plain talk, such as improved productivity, increased efficiency, fewer misunderstandings and faster progress. The list will surely convince others to stop the madness.
In the words of Tom Watson Jr., former CEO of IBM:
  • “Gobbledygook... may be acceptable among bureaucrats but not in this company. IBM was built with clear thinking and plain talk.  Let's keep it that way.”
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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