Bernard O'Riordan, Media Trainer
Recently I wrote a blog saying we should all take a leaf out of Winston Churchill's book and use simple, jargon-free language when dealing with the media.
It prompted someone to ask who the most challenging people to interview were, so I thought that was worth exploring.
At the risk of opening a can of worms, experience has taught me that the most frustrating professions a journalist will ever report on are science/medicine, law, accounting, investment banking and IT, in no specific order.
Not because the highly-skilled professionals working in these fields aren’t friendly or knowledgeable; it’s just that they are often verbose when they talk to the media. They tend to use language that is technical, annoying, dull, uninspiring and dripping with industry jargon.
And it’s understandable. Scientists and medical professionals often find it difficult to use simple language because they’re immersed in significant, even ground-breaking work that they don’t want to dumb down.
Accountants, investment bankers and IT professionals focus on numbers, complicated financial products and algorithms, not words. And lawyers have trip wires everywhere; they agonise over words and meticulously dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ before speaking.
Now it’s a great generalisation to suggest anyone who works in these professions is a bad communicator. The late Steve Jobs, for example, lived and breathed technology but he was a master when it came to using simple, informal language to convey big and technical ideas.
But there is a tendency for many professionals to hide behind industry jargon, legalese and gobbledygook when they talk to reporters.
You know the types of irrelevant buzz words I’m talking about; those inscrutable terms that act like a roadblock in a conversation: “at the end of the day”, “stakeholder engagement”, “leverage”, “sub-optimal targets”, "output based objectives" and “moving forward”, to name but a few.
The global financial crisis threw up so much mind-numbing financial slang that the BBC even created its own glossary of banking jargon-busters for online readers.
Just why people slip into abstract language and meaningless expressions is puzzling, but often it's a safety net or their way of trying to sound smart when they're nervous.
But there’s nothing safe or clever about jargon when you’re dealing with the media because it only serves to confuse and alienate the reporter - and ultimately your true audience, the public. Jargon is lazy, it adds nothing and it’s just not quotable.
A former colleague who’s now the medical reporter for an Australian television network told me it’s her biggest daily frustration. She is regularly forced to stop the cameras and ask the ‘talent’ to try again using plain, simple language her audience will understand.
Interestingly, there's now a push to encourage doctors to use simple language their patients will understand. And even scientists are getting a helping hand with this long-overdue web site.
Admittedly, some jargon cannot be avoided. A term might have such a specialised meaning or be so widely understood (like GFC) that a reporter has no choice but to use it. But you should still provide a brief definition of what it means if you want to avoid confusion.
I know it's sometimes hard to step back and simplify your work, particularly when you’re not used to dealing with the media.
But if you want to reach and be understood by as many people as possible, drop the jargon, the bureaucratic expressions and the multi-syllabic words and choose simple, everyday language.
Why say "facilitate" when you could just say "help"? Why go with "utilise" when it's so much easier to say "use"?
And forget the notion that you have to 'dumb it down'. It's actually about making it simpler so that everyone will understand what you are trying to say.
When explaining something complicated to a reporter, imagine you are explaining it to a teenager.
If you can explain it in simple, digestible language that a teenager could easily repeat back to you, then it's much more likely you'll be interesting, and quotable.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. What's the most annoying jargon you've heard?