During the week I received my copy of Communication World or CW, the magazine of the International Association of Business Communicators. The back page opinion column was a tongue-in-cheek piece about whether it is correct to use the word communication or communications in relation to my profession.
I laughed when I read it, because my first job in PR 15 years ago was with a consultancy called MACRO Communication, which no longer exists. The directors insisted (and I do agree with them in principle) that communication refers to the process of communicating which is what our jobs are all about, while communications refers to the technology or medium used to convey messages – as in telecommunications. Then I moved to a new company, Howorth Communications, which did include the ‘s’ on the end. I didn’t agree with it but after saying it for a while, I really didn’t care which one was used. That’s how it is with a lot of word usage complaints. Neither is incorrect, language use is flexible and constantly changing, get over it.
That’s really the point that Gerard Braud who wrote the opinion column in CW was making. He notes that academics are actually arguing about this stuff. Proofreaders had vehemently removed the ‘s’ when he’d used it in articles. He was expecting to receive ‘ugly e-mails’ (email or e-mail – there’s another one) from readers about it. But as he says, “In the big picture of our world, we have greater things with which to be concerned.”
This week it’s not about one word but some combinations that left me cold.
There’s rarely anything terribly wrong with a particular word. And part of the joy of words is putting them together in creative ways. However, the reason a lot of corporate-speak is unintelligible to the reader/listener is that the combination of words just doesn’t make sense. I know it’s not normally a deliberate attempt to confuse us or obfuscate the truth. It’s more likely an attempt at making something (or yourself) seem more important.
I heard some lovely examples today. A journalist I know was posting live from a press conference on Twitter. Always good fodder for weasel word hunters! His posts included including the following gems, as direct quotes:
next generation learning space
(is this a classroom? A web site? An intergalactic playroom? NASA Class of 2011?)
underlying project management philosophy
(I am guessing they were quite organised and methodical in their approach, but really…)
overlay transport virtualisation
(well, that one is just tech jargon, plain and simple. Huh?)
The best writing and speaking paints a picture in our minds and sparks the imagination. The worst leaves us confused and bewildered. None of those words are particularly awful on their own (well, except perhaps the use of ‘space’ which has reached plague proportions lately in our quest to be non-specific), but in combination they fail to paint a picture. For me anyway.
In my first PR consulting job 13 years ago, I was fortunate enough to sit opposite a former Fairfax journalist and grammar stickler. I worked on all of the company’s tech industry clients; Peter worked on a variety of corporate accounts. Poor Peter also had the unfortunate job of proofreading many of my early attempts at press releases and removing the tech-speak.
He taught me a lot – including a list of words that should never appear in a press release. ‘Revolutionary’ was one of them. If he spotted it in some technology company’s marketing drivel that had found its way into my work, he would raise his eyebrows and ask, “are people going to take to the streets at the launch of [product X]? Will they raise their fists and shout? Protest? Bring down the government? No? Well, this isn’t revolutionary.”
I was reminded of his words this week when I read some of the many articles praising the new iPad tablet computer from Apple. Almost all of them quoted Apple CEO Steve Jobs calling the device “magical and revolutionary”. Fair enough. He’s allowed to talk it up, and it’s just reported speech.
The article that really annoyed me though was this one from The Times (you’d think they’d know better). The journalist described it as “pretty revolutionary”. Bad enough that he’s used a word that I’m sure he’d beat up a PR person for using, but then to add a qualifier? I guess at least he didn’t call it a “game changer”. Boy am I sick of hearing that one. In the same article, actor Stephen Fry calls the iPad “a transformational device”. Hmm, there’s an idea for another WWW in there.
Somehow, Mr Jobs, I don’t reckon people are going to take to the streets about this one either. Well, maybe a few Apple zealots outside the Apple store when it finally ships here…
I’ve been at the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) conference in Brisbane for a couple of days and getting a lot of ideas and inspiration. A few main themes have been running through many of the presentations. To my delight, one of them was the trend towards using direct, simple language in PR.
Christian Schultz from Mattel in Europe summed it up as “would my mother understand this?” He claimed that social media and information overload will lead to a move from long, polished language to short, authentic messages. I hope he’s right!
Deirdre Breakenridge was talking about ‘putting the public back in public relations’, which is the topic of her latest book. She mentioned that aside from the increasing need to keep communication simple, social networks tend to develop a kind of ‘language’ of their own shared by members, that can include or exclude people. You only need to listen to conversations on Twitter to see that happening.
Another theme running through the conference was the loss of “control” that corporate communicators are experiencing and often concerned about. Companies tend to want to manage or control messages and communications. Once you unleash information into social networks, this is no longer possible (if it ever was – for example, at the ‘water cooler’). However a paper presented by Prof. Jim Macnamara from UTS at the PRIA Academic Forum that I attended on Sunday looked at media training programs provided by PR folk and found that the majority still claim that you can manage or control the interview and the result. “Really??” Jim asked with raised eyebrows. “Try asking a journalist.”