Anthony Hilton: Cut the jargon and be concise

The most valuable lesson for anyone in the comms industry is captured in the quote attributed variously to Mark Twain, Pascal and even Cicero: 'I did not have time to write a short letter so I wrote you a long one.' It is also the most ignored.

Anthony Hilton: Cut the jargon and be concise
Anthony Hilton: Cut the jargon and be concise

The point is that brevity, if it is to be accurate, requires clarity of thought, and that in turn delivers clarity in communication. It is not easy and it takes time. It helps explain why it is so much harder to be a headline writer on The Sun than on The Sunday Times.

Years ago I came across something called the Fog Index. It analysed clarity of text by multiplying the number of sentences with more than 12 words, by the number of words of three or more syllables. It may have been crude, but it made the point.

This is a challenge to business. Most comms are too long because the author does not understand the subject clearly enough, and a whole industry - known as business schools - has grown up to disguise this fact.

We have a generation of managers with degrees from such schools who are incapable of expressing themselves clearly or succinctly.

This sets the tone for the organisation. The aims of many are never expressed in language free from jargon, with the result that no-one really knows what the objective is. When stripped of the superfluous adjectives, management cliches and American business-speak the banality of what is left is often just too embarrassing.

But it is also a gift to investment bankers. They have long discovered that the best way to overcharge for a product or service is to dress it up in language no-one can understand. There was a debate in the Financial Times letters page earlier this year when an old-school merchant banker quoted a paragraph from the official text of an International Financial Reporting Standard - the rule book for the form and content of accounts - and challenged FT's readers to explain what it meant. No-one could capture the essence of the rule succinctly.

The best thing the PR industry could do would be to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. But is that likely?

Anthony Hilton, City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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