• George Orwell and the importance of clear communication

    George Orwell and the importance of clear communication

    Clear language and why it pays to say what you mean.

    “In certain kinds of writing…it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”
    — George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

    In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay called Politics and the English Language. In it, he argued that communication should always be clear, that clarity of expression should reflect clarity of thought.

    Being lax with how we choose to communicate obscures what we actually mean to say, whether on purpose or to cover up something we don’t want to reveal. Orwell believed that communication was headed the wrong way because, basically, it’s easier and people are lazy. People will imitate what’s common and thus spread bad, imprecise writing.

    As he says:

    “[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy.”

    Furthermore, Orwell believed that sloppy writing was not only annoying but dangerous. Imprecise or deliberately foggy words can be used to cover up all manner of disturbing things. He called this ‘defence of the indefensible’. Think of politicians dispassionately using euphemisms such as ‘collateral damage’ or ‘offshore detention’ when what those terms refer to are too monstrous to say plainly.

    It’s still everywhere

    Although this essay was written more than 70 years ago, Orwell might well have been talking about contemporary business communication.

    After all, corporate-speak (named for another Orwell idea, as it happens) is so infamously difficult to parse that it’s a cliché to say so.

    But it doesn’t have to be this way.

    How much would you love to read an internal email from a manager who said what she meant rather than obscured her meaning in jargon?

    Wouldn’t you be able to do your job better if you had accurate communication about your boss’s expectations?

    And surely a bad idea at a meeting would reveal itself more quickly if it was plainly spoken. (In Orwell’s words: “When you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”)

    Not to mention that your consultants would be able to more promptly deliver their work if conversations weren’t couched in buzzwords and vague phrases.

    From Hook Media’s perspective as a media business with a wide variety of clients, we have always done our best work when everything was clear and direct. That means everybody is clear about what the project is, what the expectations are, what the issues are (should they arise) and what the end product should look like.

    You can only arrive at this through clarity of thought, which you can only express through clear language.

    Rules to write by

    Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is brilliant essay and I recommend you read the whole thing it if you’re interested in communication at all.

    It contains his famous six rules for writing that are as relevant today as they were back then:

    1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    Clarity is what gets you the best results — no matter what your business.

    And if you need help with your communications, get in touch.

    Image: George Orwell, 1943, Branch of the National Union of Journalists (BNUJ), public domain.
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  • A second set of eyes: Even the stars of business and social media need good copy

    A second set of eyes: Even the stars of business and social media need good copy

    Typos, misspellings, poor wording, badly phrased ideas: all of them are coming from the social accounts of brands, business personalities and other people who want your money.

    Have you ever noticed how much bad copy is around on the internet?

    This idea is never far from my mind but it hit me anew as I was reading the sample chapter of a book I had been anticipating. The author is a well-known commentator on innovation and technology who has a popular and engaging social media presence, so I was excited to see how he came across in long-form.

    However, as I started to read it, I got a sinking feeling. Although the interesting ideas I was expecting were there, the prose…was static. Like someone had transcribed it from a speech. As any good journalist knows, speech is a fickle thing: sometimes the transcription can make a person sound foolish when in fact he is an erudite and articulate speaker. Written communication is a different beast.

    Then I encountered a typo. Then another. A misplaced inverted comma. A double spacing.

    Small things, really, but something that can and should be easily fixed.

    (I am very aware that I’m setting myself up for ridicule should this article itself have any of the above. Such is life.)

    In fact, what the sample chapter most looked like to me was a pitch document. ‘This chapter is where I’ll do this’ and ‘from there I’ll move into that’. There was no finesse, no building of arguments.

    I then noticed that some basic, checkable facts were wrong.

    Next came a laboured, extended metaphor. Then a mixed metaphor within that first one. And it just kept going. At least put some self-effacing references to the fact that your metaphor is cumbersome! That might at least buy some time from your readers before they give up.

    I thought to myself, “Surely somebody should have picked up on this when it was being edited”.

    If I didn’t know any better I’d think this business guru had gone the self-publishing route. Maybe he dealt with a publisher who exercised no editorial oversight. What might have been a fun, insightful read became a slog because of something relatively basic: communication skills.

    Bad communication is everywhere

    But these kinds of communication errors are everywhere and often from the leaders in their respective fields.

    I remember being similarly disheartened when I followed some of the ‘sharks’ from the TV show Shark Tank and saw how poor some of their writing skills are. Sure, that’s not what they’re best at — they’re business experts after all, not copywriters — but for a crop of people constantly telling people to always be at your best and work hard, some have had trouble grasping the basics.

    In my previous role as a magazine editor, I would often encounter a similar habit in fitness professionals. These Adonises would post on social media admonishing others for not working hard enough and just ‘hardening up’, ‘put it in the work’ and getting things done. But ask them to fill out a questionnaire, tee up a phone interview or write an article and suddenly they had ‘no time’.

    So, sometimes ‘hard work’ is really just a matter of prioritising what’s important to a person.

    This is all fine! But it might be time to bring in the experts if you need some professional communication.

    Good communication skills are important

    When you’re in the business of communication, bad or incorrect copy shows up everywhere.

    I recently received an email from SBSOnDemand: ‘The Handmaiden’s are back’ (sic) said its subject line. How did this slip through?

    You begin to appreciate how special good communication skills actually are. We should all learn them from a young age but with recent news that one of the world’s leading education experts thinks the NAPLAN is teaching kids to be poor writers, it doesn’t look to be changing any time soon.

    Business gurus talk a big game. Gary Vee can say you should just get your product out there, no matter how rough around the edges it is. And maybe that’s true — as long as your business isn’t professional communication.

    ‘Just do it’ is all well and good when what you’ve just done isn’t your core business. But for us media professionals, journalists and copywriters, it’s the equivalent of Gary Vee shipping off wine in a plastic bottle.

    If your business is communication, you better make damn sure you know how to communicate.

    We can help

    One thing we offer at Hook Media is a copywriting and editing service, be it subbing your e-book, creating copy for your website or helping you create your own branded publication. With experienced journalists on our team, we’re ideally placed to help our clients make sure they are always communicating well.

    After all, first impressions matter. Your brand might only get one chance to make sure it looks professional. That could be the difference between getting a customer and not.

    And for those gurus posting all manner of bad copy on their LinkedIn accounts, if you do ever get self-conscious about it, give us a call. We just might be able to help.

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