Why plain talking means plain sailing every time

tell it like it is

So here we are. 2009. A bright, shiny new year to play with. Kick the tyres, walk around, get on in. Let’s take it for a ride. And on the way, we can chat about New Year’s resolutions. Oh you haven’t made any? Well how about this? Tell it like it is. Write like you talk. Say what you mean. And mean what you say. In a year that’s likely to see credit crunched even harder, more businesses going to the wall, and belts tightened even tighter, telling it like it is might give you the edge over the competition. It’s not that hard. Really.

Froth to go

Doublespeak is everywhere. And even the coolest, funkiest, hippest companies are not exempt. A while back, I talked about Starbucks wasting 23m litres of water every day. And their response was as insubstantial as their cappuccinos:
“We recognise the opportunity exists to reduce our total water usage. Starbucks’ challenge is to balance water conservation with the need for customer safety.”
Well they’ve done it again. The story was simple: in 2009, they said, their sales would fall. Add an extra shot of gobbledygook to that, and some sugar-free spin, and you’ve got:
“Any resulting decreases in customer traffic or average value per transaction will negatively impact the company’s financial performance as reduced revenues result in sales de-leveraging which creates downward pressure on margins.”
So let’s précis that. Sales. Will. Fall.

Never mind the quality – feel the width

Why do we do it? And yes, at times, we all do it – hide behind grand-sounding phrases, and double-decker words. The credit crunch is a perfect example. ‘Collateralised debt’ is simply debt that nobody understands or can track back to the source. ‘Highly leveraged’ means in debt – lots of it. And ‘highly geared’ doesn’t mean you have a BlackBerry and an iPhone. It just means that you’re in debt. Lots of it. Often, we use doublespeak to hide mistakes. In June 2000, the Millennium Bridge opened in London. The futuristic metal footbridge linked Tate Modern, on the south side, with St Paul’s, on the north. Within hours, it was closed. It wobbled – badly. Eight years later, a study carried out by Bristol University showed that the problem was caused by:
“the presence of lateral bridge motion without changing the pedestrian walking frequency and applying the same foot placement strategy to maintain balance”.
Translation: it wobbled. The designers got it wrong. They made a mistake – but they’re passing it off on the pedestrians whose ‘foot placement strategy’ was at fault. Well that’s all right, then. Doublespeak makes a bad problem worse. You get something wrong, then you try to talk your way out of it. And your customer, your friend, your wife, your husband, the person whose car you’ve just pranged – all of them will think less of you because of it. Next time you make a mistake, try this approach:
I made a mistake. I’m sorry. I’ll try better next time.
(It works, really. I should know.) Plain talking – and that means plain writing, too – sends an immediate signal to the person you’re talking to: you can trust me. And in 2009, we need all the trust we can get. Happy New Year.