Copy Clinic – how to improve your communications:
He recently left his managerial role at the bank’s main research body, the Development Economics Group, ostensibly to allow him more time to focus on research.
The move took place amid reports of a high-handed, somewhat rigid managerial style, demonstrated most clearly by a crusading approach to a matter dear to our hearts – communication – and in particular his diktat on use of the word “and”.
Romer had launched a campaign to purge the World Bank of nebulous language and excess wordiness. Top of his hit list were over-long emails and presentations, and bank reports that, he said, make “vague and imprecise” claims largely in order to safeguard the writer’s reputation.
Being an economist, Romer underpinned his arguments with the most rigorous data, especially a fascinating 2015 report from the Stanford Literary Lab showing how the World Bank’s language has changed over the last 60 years.
In place of specifics, the study found, the bank’s reports now veered towards vagueness and jargon (think “food security” rather than preventing hunger, and “knowledge sharing” rather than training).
Exemplifying this trend was the inexorable rise of what Romer saw as the exemplar of muddy thinking: use of the word “and”.
The stickler economist decreed that if its frequency exceeded 2.6% he would not approve a final report for publication.
For communications professionals like us, for whom crisp copy has the power to send us all aflutter, Romer’s sentiment is one we broadly share.
But should there be “rules” on what sort of words you are able to use to convey your organisation’s message?
The Stanford study brought into sharp, scientific relief just how far corporate language has drifted in recent years from the clear and concise to the waffley and non-committal. Has anyone really benefited, for instance, from the modern-day urge to “reach out” rather than call or email? Has the world changed so profoundly that only “leverage” can quite capture the things we used to “exploit” or “make use of”?
That said, on reading this story, I was reminded of the eternal linguistic battle between descriptivists and prescriptivists, one that Martin Amis more colourfully equated with the contrast between “berks” and “w***ers”.
To elaborate, descriptivists – as the World Bank’s users of “and” might style themselves – believe that usage dictates what is “right” or “wrong” in language. So if people today talk about “innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue”, that is fine, because that is what people today talk about. Prescriptivists, by contrast, believe that existing “rules” are in place for good reason, and all manner of hellfire and chaos will ensue if they are not adhered to.
‘To seize on every newest buzzword clearly does not make you a better communicator’
In reality, we all have a bit of “berk” and “w***er” in us. To object to certain terms or expressions because they sound pretentious, showy or redundant is not to enslave oneself to antiquated customs of language.
Similarly, to seize on every newest buzzword clearly does not make you a better communicator. The key, as is so often the case in communications, is having knowledge of the existing best practice, but also the flexibility to bend those conventions to fit the ultimate goal – your key message.
So while cutting back on word count is an admirable pursuit, if a slightly redundant usage sounds natural and, in a particular context, adds impact – “utterly unique”, say, or “truly global” – communicators should have the confidence to use it.
They should even, when the moment demands, feel free to embrace multiple uses of “and” (a technique, called polysyndeton, employed to great effect since at least biblical times).
Because as admirable and necessary as much of Romer’s quest has been, a parting quote from him offered a poignant – and possibly informative – note to his recent career mishap: “It is possible that I was focusing too much on the precision of the communications and not enough on the feelings my messages would invoke.”
Niels Footman is Head of Marketing at Copylab, an international communications agency based in Scotland.
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