• 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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