Communicating frankly and clearly with staff

Debra Allcock Tyler warns against slipping into jargon and euphemism

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive, Directory of Social Change
Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive, Directory of Social Change

My mother, my sister and I all speak fluent shoe. They greeted the description of my recent purchase of a pair of open-toe, buckle-strap, slingback, four-inch, wood-and-leather double-wedge sandals in burnt orange-textured faux-leather with precisely the right level of ooohs and aaaahs that such a stunningly fab piece of footwear warranted. However, I recognise that there are many people who don't speak shoe and who would be left none the wiser by descriptions such as 'peep-toe', 'classic Mary-Janes' or 'cork-effect stacked heel'.

And it's not only in shoe-speak that people are left wondering if what they just heard was their common spoken tongue. I'm a member of the Sorp committee, where they speak fluent accountant. The dialect consists largely of phraseology such as 'the IPSASB conceptual framework' and extremely complex acronyms such as, well, Sorp, Fred 41 and UKGAAP.

My point? I think that most of us in the voluntary sector would recognise that we also fall into the trap of using language that can exclude others who are not so much in the know. I've often noticed, for example, that the terms 'sustainable community development', 'regeneration of the social economy' or 'social investment' mean different things to different people. And to some, including me, they mean nothing at all.

Part of our role as leaders is to ensure that we adjust our speaking to others' listening. We simply cannot expect others to learn to speak our language - particularly when we are in the business of influencing them. This means using simple and straightforward language and avoiding doublespeak. For example, replacing the words 'non-performing assets' with 'bad debts'; calling a loss a loss and not a 'negative contribution to surplus'; calling trustees' private time 'private time' rather than 'in camera'.

And if you're making people redundant, call it that. No one is daft enough to be fooled by the phrase 'we're not making job losses; we are simply in the process of downward management of staff resources'. The simpler the language you use, the more likely you are to be clearly understood, which is much easier and fairer for everyone.

- Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change and a trustee of MedicAlert

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