Dumbing down your language won’t make you look dumb

2nd May 2018

When I began helping organisations with their PR, I was surprised by the level of resistance I encountered when I suggested simplifying complex phrases. Too often it was seen as ‘dumbing down’, especially by those working in the academic and science communities.

However, when I was a journalist at the BBC, I learned a lesson about ‘dumbing down’ which changed the way I wrote forever. I hope it will change the way you think about it too.

After I had been health correspondent for a few years the BBC arranged a session with a tutor from the BBC Academy. He watched my reports and told me that I was using too much medical jargon. ‘You’re not just broadcasting to doctors,’ he said. ‘I suspect that you’re only using this jargon because you want people to think you know your stuff.’ He was absolutely right.

So I changed my writing. When a doctor talked about ‘atrial fibrillation’, I’d call it an irregular heartbeat. When they mentioned ‘Quality Outcome Frameworks’ I said ‘targets’. My new approach didn’t make my life easier. It could be hard to find a common phrase which was an accurate alternative for the jargon. The experts got frustrated when I said ‘bug’ instead of ‘infection’ - it’s not strictly correct, but everyone knows what you mean.

Then, the most surprising thing happened. The very same professionals who had insisted I use their terminology started complimenting me on my work. It turned out that they, too, understood the reports much better when I removed the complex language.

If you are writing a staff newsletter, does it contain phrases familiar to everyone, or only those staff who have been with the business for a long time? How does that make newcomers feel? If you are writing your annual report, is it written in an engaging way so that everyone can understand your achievements, not just the auditors? When you are in a meeting, do you challenge the jargon to make sure you really understand the issues?

Be warned: writing in simple, clear terms is actually very hard. I had to make sure that I really understood all the concepts I was trying to explain. As a result I became better at my job. I realised how often other people used jargon to cover up their own lack of understanding or to try to conceal something they didn’t want me to know. Far from ‘dumbing down’, you are actually getting smart, your communications will look more professional, and you might just find out something important.

The good news is that the BBC has made some of its training publicly available, including this page about good writing: http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/j... I’m also a huge fan of the Plain English Campaign, who have some great free resources: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk

I didn’t always succeed in ditching the jargon, of course. I remember calling a potential interviewee on the Isle of Bute and asking her if I could come and film her business for a ‘bit of colour’ in my report. I meant that I was looking for some pretty pictures, but I heard her say to a colleague, “The BBC want to come and film us, and they say it’ll be in colour!” 

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