It's Time to Drop the Gobbledegook
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
To avoid exposing themselves to potential ridicule, organizations that think complicated, jargon-laced language makes them sound smart should focus on producing clear, concise and coherent communications.
By Dex McLuskey
UK online grocer Ocado was derided recently, especially by people in the robotics and software sectors, for this paragraph in its first-half results:
“Over the last six months, the centre of gravity at Ocado Group has shifted from our heritage as an iconic and much-loved domestic pure-play online grocer to our future as a technology-driven global software and robotics platform business, providing a unique and proprietary end-to-end solution for online grocery, and an innovation factory, applying our technology expertise to adjacent markets and other verticals.”
Let’s take a moment to parse that 67-word sentence.
Center of gravity? English has a good word for that already — focus. Not just an innovator, but an “innovation factory,” coz that makes us sound — ahem— cutting edge. And not just an online grocer, but an “iconic and much-loved domestic pure-play online grocer," which is obviously much more impressive. And does “adjacent markets and other verticals” mean they’re going to start selling ladders in France?
But let’s credit their ambition. To go from an online supermarket to “a technology-driven global software and robotics platform business” is quite the transformation. Hang on, though, they didn’t shoehorn``disruptive” in there, which is a grievous power-word oversight these days.
Seriously, Alan Turing would have had difficulty deciphering this, which makes you wonder why organizations still put out such enigmatic, jargon-laced gobbldegook.
Why not just write something like “we’ve decided to expand beyond online grocery delivery by selling our technology while looking for opportunities to build revenue in other markets.”
Simple, straightforward and easily understandable.
Too many organizations opt for complicated language at the expense of clarity. But like Ocado, instead of sounding smart, they just come across as talking gibberish.
For 15 years I had the pleasure and privilege of working at Bloomberg News in London, Dallas and occasionally New York City.
Matt Winkler, Bloomberg’s founding editor-in-chief, drummed into every reporter and editor that everything we published had to be understood by both capital markets professionals and Matt’s mythical Aunt Agatha, who knew absolutely nothing about finance.
In other words, every story — and everything within a story — should be appreciated by the expert and comprehended by the amateur.
It’s a mantra that will always inform and direct everything I write. It doesn’t mean treating the layperson like an idiot, or over explaining to the investment banker with 20 years experience. It means being clear, concise and coherent.
In recent weeks I’ve read several times in asset managers’ mid-year outlooks (and, boy, are there a lot of those), phrases like “spreads are getting back to the tights reached in January,” and about how a “dovish pivot by the Fed may cause long yields to climb while pushing down the rate-dependent short end, steepening the curve and preventing 2-10 inversion.”
No doubt professional bond investors understand such terminology, but how likely is Aunt Agatha to get a handle on what the writer is trying to convey?
So for the first example, how about writing something like: “The extra interest investors demand to hold corporate bonds over US Treasuries of similar maturities has dropped by more than 30 basis points, or 0.3%, this year, to the smallest premium since January.”
And for the second: “Since cuts typically push down yields on two-year Treasuries more than those on debt of longer maturities, lower interest rates may help to increase the compensation investors get to own benchmark 10-year bonds over shorter-dated debt.”
These may be longer, but they’re a darn sight clearer and don’t patronize the professional or talk down to Aunt Agatha.
A real-life example would be a Bloomberg Opinion story I wrote for Nobel Prize-winning economist Myron Scholes that likened the return of the risk premium to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. It included the sentence: “Ultra-accommodative monetary policy by the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks has created many market distortions, among them the disappearing term premium, or the extra compensation investors demand to bear the risk of lending money for longer periods of time.”
While investment managers are in no way as guilty as Ocado of committing such egregious crimes against language, the more they try to move away from using words and phrases such as alpha, information ratio, tracking error, Sharpe ratio, duration, beta, carry and so on without clearly explaining what they mean and why they matter, the better.
When you’re trying to get people to trust you with their money, transparency is critical and one way to build faith is to not hide behind highly technical industry speak.
So from now on don’t make the same mistake as Ocado and instead opt for language that dear old silver-haired Aunt Agatha will understand and appreciate.
Dex McLuskey is a managing partner at Context Content LLC.
To discuss your content marketing and other communications needs, contact Dex at 720-251-4627 or at firstname.lastname@example.org