Jargon in the business world continues to proliferate, and eternal vigilance is required for anyone giving a media interview to avoid slipping into it. Last week a former cabinet minister even blamed senior Civil Servants for falling back on jargon to disguise their lack of knowledge, leading to poor briefings for ministers and bad decisions. Carrying out media coaching for clients in the financial services sector over the past few days, I heard impenetrable acronyms including NCA’s (National Competent Authorities in a European regulatory context, although NCA could also mean the National Crime Authority), CII (referring to the Chartered Insurance Institute qualification) and even STIRT (short-term interest rate trading). Do not try these at home.
There has been a vogue in recent years for creating new words – often portmanteau combinations of others. Some of them are rather clever – Julia Hobsbawm, author of the forthcoming book Fully Connected
refers to the our attempts to consume the overwhelming flood of new content now being generated online as ‘infobesity’. Others are quite fun, for instance when applied to celebrity pairings or ex-pairings (Brangelina for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for example) but inevitably, unless explained properly when talking to a wider audience the practice generally has the effect of all jargon, which is to exclude those who aren’t ‘in the know’. This week I heard someone complaining about having heard the recent term ‘shrinkflation’ and feeling stupid for having no idea of what it meant (the practice by consumer goods companies of reducing the number of Maltesers in a bag as an alternative to putting the price up).
While we’re at it, we could have another go at banishing some of those clichéd buzzwords. A few years ago the Local Government Association came up with a list of words and phrases that public sector officials should avoid
– such as ‘service users’ and ‘funding streams’, to add to corporate favourites such as ‘thinking out of the box’, ‘paradigm shift’ and so on. Maybe it’s time to update that list.
In media training courses I always tell clients that it is fine to introduce new ideas and words in a radio or TV interview, as long as you make their meaning clear in plain language – then we feel we have benefited from listening to the interview, by learning something. When speaking to ‘print’ media journalists, it is just as important not to assume the reporter magically knows as much about the subject as you do. Trade magazine or specialist journalists, for instance, may be steeped in your industry’s specialist terminology, but equally they may just have been hired from one of the postgrad journalism courses. Then, they are probably struggling to understand what you are talking about, but may feel feel embarrassed to admit it. So if you are speaking to a reporter who may be inexperienced, and it’s a technical area, offer help if they need it, or try to explain as you go along (‘as you’re probably aware, that simply means….’) without being patronising. Think how you would explain it to your cousin or next-door-neighbour. I believe the use of confusing or misleading terminology continues to be one of the biggest single reasons why people get misquoted in articles. Fortunately, all it takes to avoid the problem is a little thought.