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A plea for "humane" communications

by Davin Wilfrid

April 25, 2011

by Davin Wilfrid, insideRESEARCH

Alfred Kahn, a Cornell economist and the foremost proponent of airline deregulation in the 1980s, died in December 2010. Kahn was a remarkably successful economist by any measure, but to many his enduring legacy will remain a simple memo he wrote while chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1977.

The memo, titled "The Style of Board Orders and Chairman's Letters" is an elegant plea for straightforward language and the elimination of "gobbledygook" in all business communications. Here's a small sample:

"May I ask you, please, to try very hard to write Board orders and, even more so, letters for my signature, in straightforward, quasi-conversational, humane prose -- as though you are talking to or communicating with real people. I once asked a young lawyer who wanted us to say 'we deem it inappropriate' to try that kind of language out on his children -- and i f they did not drive him out of the room with their derisive laughter, to disown them."

As someone who makes his living in the effort to understand what software companies are doing, and why they are doing so, Kahn's lessons hit close to home. Every time I have to peel back 9 layers of "leading" this and "leveraging" that from a press release or product description, I get a little more suspicious that there may be little or no substance hiding underneath. 

Why are business/technology communications so rife with "gobbledygook"? It all starts from a place of innocence, in my opinion. There are words and phrases that mean something very specific in the context of SAP software, and are not necessarily interchangeable with a straight-talking cousin. For example, the words "tool" and "solution" have different meanings and should not be used in place of one another. 

The more pressing issue, I think, is that too many people still believe linguistic flourishes and jargon-heavy sentences just seem more impressive. After all, why say "Companies can use our software to plan their trucking routes and change plans to handle last-minute orders," when you can say "Our full-suite solution offers end-to-end enablement of transportation planning, leveraging real-time data streams to accomodate fluctuating business needs."?

To me, that sentence is analogous to a baseball player hitting a single up the middle and cartwheeling to first base. He may think it looks good, but the crowd thinks it's just goofy. 

Or, as Kahn closes his famous memo: 

"I've heard it said that style is not substance. But without style what is substance?"

Alfred Kahn [NYT]

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