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Jog on, jargon


I’d probably bet my last thousand bucks that you missed Alan Sokal’s 1994 contribution to the publication Social Text.

A quick sample, then. Enjoy. “[T]he  pi of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone.”

Just (almost) kidding. Physics professor Sokal’s article was a hoax, written by him in deliberately obscure, nonsensical language. His plan: to prove that postmodernism and post-structuralism meant magazines would publish any old gobbledygook. If it tied in with the editor’s political views, that is.

Whittling down words (and they can often be as arcane as Sokal’s) to make something easy to read is a challenge we often face in agency life. If you’ve ever played bullshit bingo – not to be confused, of course, with chicken shit bingo – you’ll know how often people fall into the trap of obfuscating their verbal asservations. Sorry. Fall into the trap of saying things that are hard to understand.

George P Rowell was a top US advertising executive, and I think he’d have liked us. He once said “[Copy]writing consists mainly in saying in a few plain words exactly what is required, precisely as it would be written in a letter or told to an acquaintance.” Poor old George died in 1908 – yet his words hold good today.

That’s why we’re here to make business more readable, even when people expect an onslaught of jargon, a word which originally meant the twittering of birds.

“Everything gets revised 4,000 times.”

Getting rid of jargon isn’t all that easy, though. When Forbes published a list of 45 bits of business jargon that you shouldn’t use, ever, I had a look. Suddenly and sadly, “swim lane”, “drink the Kool-Aid”, “move the needle” and – especially – “open the kimono” all looked appealing. It reminded me of Bournemouth, where a sign told visitors you shouldn’t throw dogs into the sea off the pier. I’d never thought of jettisoning a dog in that way, let alone wanted to do so. But it became all I could think of.

There’s a neat set of extra guidelines we follow when we want to tighten up on what we say. In between being down and out in London and Paris, keeping the aspidistra flying, changing his name from Eric Blair, and looking forward to Annie Lennox and 1984, George Orwell came up with some pithy thoughts.

  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut out a word, do so.
  • Use English phrases instead of foreign ones; avoid jargon and technical words.
  • Never use the passive voice if it is possible to use the active one.
  • Break all of these rules rather than say anything horrible.

But how do we get an objective view on when things are shipshape and Bristol fashion? Easy. Check out the load of useful tools online. You simply copy text, pop it into your browser and run a readability check on it. Not infallible, but a good start. There’s a tool in Word, too, but recent changes make it less accurate than it used to be. Even so, a blogger recently used it to compare well-known authors, with some interesting results, especially when you look at this blog’s stats.

Alan Sokal’s text, which scores 30 and has a US reading grade of 15.1, is a tougher read than an academic paper on chess.

The Bournemouth paragraph scores 72.3. Its reading age is on a par with late-period JK Rowling and pretty close to Seth Godin.

“They do things differently there”

What’s the secret of turning Sokalese into language that everyone can understand? David Ogilvy once said “The consumer… is your wife”. Dated? Yes. Insightful? Yes. We get better results – and easier to read text – when we know what’s going to make the reader all fired up and ready to go, compared with when we write for a generic person. It’s a particularly important point to remember when a client is reviewing text. In most cases, they won’t be the target audience, and so it’s essential that they ignore their own preferences and prejudices.

So go on, skip the Sokalese and sock it to ‘em.

Paul OBrien

About the author

Senior copywriter and former fencer who loves things he can’t understand. Which means he loves lots of things.


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