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The lost art of plain speaking

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in Office Communication,Workplace Communication

Spend enough time in big American organizations and you may start talking like a know-nothing robot. You’ll utter phrases such as, “Let’s harness our in-house learnings” and “Despite bandwidth limitations, we’re marrying our granularity with our mission-critical functionality.”

In the absence of straight talk, everyone babbles, but no one understands. Communication becomes a big joke.

It’s easy to laugh this off as harmless fun, but it comes at a cost. When we tolerate and even en-courage the use of jargon over clear English, we risk obfuscating important ideas. And that invites misun-derstanding.

What’s worse, we lose the ability to level with people. Our word choice masks our lack of accountability. We speak in code to disguise the fact that we’re weasels.

Sometimes, the words sound simple. But the message is blurry and misleading.

Consider how Boeing’s chief executive, Jim McNerney, responded to the latest high-profile delay of his company’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft. In June, his senior managers publicly insisted they were on schedule to release the new plane within weeks. But they backtracked almost immediately.

“We all wish we didn’t sound so confident at such a late stage,” McNerney said. Instead of taking responsibility for another delay, he defended it by claiming, “It’s an issue of the thousands and thousands of tests we do.”

Any clear-thinking person hearing that would wonder, “If you do thousands of tests, then why is your company making premature announcements that everything’s on schedule? Why not complete your testing rather than mislead your customers that you’re about to deliver their new planes?”

Logic is rarely taught in public school. But by applying rigorous, rational thought before you speak, you will build trust.


Want employees to follow your instructions? Package your information in simple steps or use vivid, eye-catching communication. In e-mails or memos, number your points or to-do action items. To explain a complex concept, break it down into three component parts—and begin by saying, “Let’s take this in threes.” Create fun visual reminders (such as colorful handmade signs) to remind employees to wear safety gear or follow customer-service protocols.

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