Control o Language Controls the Business
Legend has it that a sportswriter read the following Jack London passage to Pro Bowl quarterback Kenny Stabler:
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.”
When asked what that meant to him, Stabler replied, “Throw long.”
There are estimated to be 250,000-plus words in the English language. The average American has a vocabulary of 10,000-12,000 words and uses regularly about 1,100. We average an eighth-grade reading level.
The purpose of language, obviously, is to communicate. So you’d think that using the language clearly would be the objective of us all. It certainly appears to be for Stabler, but not everyone.
Many use the language primarily to impress others. Consider this memo from Lucent Technologies: “Lucent Technologies is endeavorily determined to promote constant attention on current procedures of transacting business focusing emphasis on innovative ways to better, if not supersede, the expectations of quality.” As in, Lucent is looking for new ways to improve quality.
Teachers no longer teach. According to one education magazine, “They facilitate learning by creating a learning environment that focuses on the cognitive area but may also include activities related to the effective domain.” Domain is a hot academic buzzword nowadays.
Some speak and write purposely to confuse and mislead. It’s common throughout some businesses and professions to build walls with words to keep outsiders out. Get a load of this Forbes magazine indictment:
“Lawyers write impenetrable prose because they want to control and limit access to vital information. Some lawyers write obscure prose for the same reason the medieval church didn’t want the Bible printed in the common vernacular. They want to control and limit access to vital information. Don’t want a sales manager to look at a statute and decide for himself that his rebate program is legal …”
To sample a language controlled entirely by insiders, try talking with your IT guys.
The chaos our economy endured after 2008 was largely from Wall Street’s total control and manipulation of the language of finance.
How many investors, for instance, would buy derivatives if they knew this definition: “A derivative has no value of its own. It is not a stand-alone asset. Its value is determined by underlying variables such as another financial asset, interest rates, volatile indices, none of which may, necessarily, be disclosed to the buyer.”
Former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt wrote, “Most of the language of Wall Street is written not to be understood. Financial disclosures,” he said, “are not to inform readers but to protect the information provider.”
Everyone should demand clear, simple definitions and explanations. In your own, personal writing I recommend the “Readability Statistics” available on Microsoft Word. You’ll always know who can understand what you write.
The reading grade level for this column, for instance, is Grade 10 and 46.4 percent “reading ease.” The ideal is Grade 8 and 65 percent.
John Malmo is president of John Malmo Marketing Consulting, Inc. If you have a marketing
question of your own, go to askmalmo.com.