Fed up reading reports, memoranda, and other documents whose meaning lies buried under a pile of jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords? Three people at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation reached their breaking point earlier this year and decided to speak out. Plainly, of course.
Mike Bailin was frustrated. He had been president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation for less than a year, but already his daily reading had inundated him with enough insider lingo to last a lifetime. Too often, he found himself hopelessly mired in sentences that looked like this: “A factor constraining the flow of resources to CCIs is that funders must often resort to targeting or categorical requirements in grant making to ensure accountability.”
Joanne Edgar was frustrated, too. As communications director at Clark, she repeatedly tried to translate foundation-speak into straightforward language, but program officers overruled her edits and dutifully reinstated their pet buzzwords. And then there was Tony Proscio. Hired by Clark to write a section of its annual report, he was frustrated by the same challenge facing Joanne: how to avoid using a raft of technical terms and arcane argot in a publication traditionally as readable as a VCR instruction manual.
Fortunately, from all this frustration has come a thing of beauty: in other words, a booklet intended to be (in its own words) “A plea for plain speaking in foundations.” At the request of Bailin and Edgar, Proscio has written an eloquent, pointed, and very witty dissection of the foundation community’s penchant for language that is often vague, confusing, or simply meaningless. Inspired by reading his slender book – which physically evokes its spiritual predecessor, Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style – I called Tony to learn more about a problem which is clearly not confined to foundations.
Goodman: Why do so many people have difficulty speaking and writing in plain English?
Proscio: In government, I blame the lawyers. Words are the tools of their business; beautiful language is not. In other parts of the social policy universe, the source of the problem is not so clear, but I think the greatest source is the fear of controversy. People work on the edge between the accepted and untested, and that’s where you can offend others. For fear of saying something that may set off a sensitivity alarm someplace, they resort to vague language or language whose meaning seems to be so technical it cannot possibly carry any political freight.
Can you give me some examples?
“Policy development.” What they really mean is lobbying – which is illegal for most of the groups who use it. Policy development sounds academic, but it’s old-fashioned lobbying. “At risk” is a perfect example. It’s a phrase that means something is coming down the track at the people we’re concerned about. It does not suggest there is anything wrong with their lives, while in fact, that’s what we mean.
Are there other ways that this “fear of controversy” hinders our ability to communicate clearly?
I think the passive voice is the best example. The nice thing about the passive voice is that nobody takes responsibility. Things are done. The little child who reports to his mother that “something got broken” is headed towards a career in foundations. Changing the passive voice to active makes foundation folk nervous – not because they’re bad writers or unclear thinkers, but rather because saying “A caused B” raises questions and concerns. Controversy.
In selecting the best (or worst) examples of “foundation-speak” for your book, did you have any personal favorites?
All forms of the verb “to impact” are my personal demon. I think aesthetically it’s an ugly family of words. People believe “impact” is much stronger than “affect.” It isn’t. It’s the words “to affect” on steroids. I also happen to hate “proactive” in a way that’s not widely shared in the world. I think it’s a silly word and phony because it’s usually used in a completely dispensable way. Most times, you could slice it out of the sentence with no discernible effect at all.
Now that the book has been published, are there any deserving words you feel were left out?
How I missed “leverage” I can’t fathom. It tends to be dropped into sentences whenever somebody wants someone else to do something for them. It’s a way to cover the image of arm-twisting. And “social capital.” A gauntlet has been thrown down to me on this one. (Some of the words that did make it into the book appear in boxes on this page.)
You ascribe many communication problems to “murky language covering up for murky thought.” So, what do we do when we have murky thoughts but also have a deadline?
If your thinking is murky, sit down with someone outside your field and try to talk the matter through in actual conversation. And admit your confusion! The best thing that happens is that other people will then weigh in on the subject.
What impact, er. effect do you hope the book will have on its readers?
Most of all, I hope people will get a good laugh out of it.
To obtain a free copy of in other words, send your e-mail request to Deborah McCoy at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (DMcCoy@emcf.org). To communicate with Tony Proscio, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Excerpts from “In Other Words: A Plea for Plain Speaking”]
precious little nuggets of what-we-find-out
advice on almost anything
a little more tasteful than cold, hard cash
any thinking process that takes time and money
best utilized in place of “use” to mean use