Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style has a place of honor on my bookshelf. It’s a small volume—fewer than 70 pages in the copy I own—but filled with invaluable wisdom.
William Strunk, famed professor of English at Cornell University, believed most readers were treading water in a dangerous sea, and that it was the duty of the writer to throw out a rope, so that the struggling reader could latch onto something that made sense. By and large, I think he was right.
What made me think of “the little book,” as it is commonly known, was an article I read a couple weeks ago about a complex issue. Instead of using plain language to say what the author really meant, the piece was full of buzzwords and jargon to the point that it actually said nothing. The words the author used got in the way of what they were trying to say, and, gauging from reaction online, that left readers with a variety of reactions: amused, bemused, unsettled, and irritated.
It was a great reminder that there are several different types of language that professionals, regardless of industry, need to be able to navigate. For instance, in higher education specifically, we’ve all had faculty members who couldn’t quite master the art of moving from academic writing to a less complex mode of communicating complicated data. That’s common. But one of the things that can be even more difficult to deal with is administrative jargon.
This can happen when your administration has key points it wants to highlight in news releases or in internal copy. Call it what you will—policyspeak, doublespeak, phraseology—but understand that it’s an impediment to communicating in a clear and concise manner. An administration that gets attached to certain buzzwords can be difficult to please, and a public relations team can get bogged down trying to find ways to implement that kind of vocabulary.
The other type of language is one that PR pros get to use on occasion (and, I think, the one we like the best). That language is plain and straightforward. When a public relations professional gets the chance to speak clearly and succinctly with the media, it can often be a win for the client and the media alike. Sometimes, the biggest struggle is to get clearance to say something of substance in a way that almost anyone can understand.
I’d like to encourage and remind all of us to carefully edit our work specifically to root out buzzwords and other types of jargon. Using direct, plain language in press releases, blog posts and pitches makes it much more likely to reach desired audiences. And being direct means we’ll all be less likely to have a headache from playing buzzword bingo all day long.