I am busy on my latest webinar series for international officials on Speechwriting and Talking-Points. I proclaim into my computer and they watch wherever they are around the planet. Haha I tidied the room behind me.
One of the core ideas that always strikes home like a thunderbolt in a bad mood is Stupid Words.
Yesterday at Miss Crawf”s series of parents meetings with teachers her Physics teacher nailed it (as Physics teachers usually do): “In writing your answer, explain the problem as if you’re talking to a normal person – don’t use words they won’t understand’.
Precisely. That’s what I call the Aunty Test: never use a word or phrase or construction in a speech that you would not use when discussing an issue with an intelligent aunt.
Examples? Here are stupid words lite, of the sort beloved by mediocre drafters everywhere. If you used them when explaining your work to your aunt, she would sternly ask you to stop sounding ridiculous and talk sensibly:
in order to
in this regard
in connection with
it is essential that
Then you get on to the myriad hardcore stupid words and jargon-phrases that have overwhelmed huge areas of EU/UN and wider global bureaucratic communication:
inherently a context-specific approach
implement a synergistic framework
increasingly interconnected world
integrated capacity-building measures
I quote this awful FCO real-life speech extract:
In recognition of the UK’s firm commitment to the initiative, I am pleased to pledge £200,000 to advance its development and implementation
Horrible. Ugly. No-one human talks like that. This is how you turn that into a speech-line, by taking out the clunky depressing nouns:
We’re committed to this initiative. That’s why I’m pledging £200,000. To take it forward. To get results
Simple, direct and energetic. But also shows actual human commitment – another reason why officials often default towards passive dull language. Remember this EU example?
My idea of Stupid Words is powerful because they have become so ubiquitous. International officials peck away endlessly at computers thinking that if they fill a long report with this sort of thing they are saying something important. In fact it’s the opposite. They fall into this jargon because they have little to say that is new or interesting, or because (alas) they have stopped thinking about what such words mean. Yet without exception all of them are working on big theme subjects and policies fraught with human interest.
Pointing this out prompts a startled disconcerted reaction: “But … but … that’s what we do all day!” One participant last year noted that “I now know that I have become stupid through my whole career!“
When they let go, the change is astonishing. Once participants start stripping these useless phrases from their draft speeches, everything and everyone comes to life.
Moral of the story?
Aunty says: No Stupid Words. You feel much better once you throw them away. It may take a while to convince the ‘hierarchy’ that this is a good idea, but stick with it.