Why you need to cut out the jargon and corporate gibberish

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Why you need to cut out the jargon and corporate gibberish

I’m starting the year with a plea to lovers of clichés, jargon and corporate gibberish. Punch the puppy, now.

I saw a brilliant example of jargon a couple of weeks ago. It was in an advert for a head of change at the BBC that seemed to come straight out of the BBC satire W1A. Talk about life imitating art.

One task for the prospective employee was to “Oversee and gain senior stakeholder buy-in for the design and planning of the required change management interventions required to successfully embed the change.”

There was plenty more of this sort of twaddle. One requirement was to “engage senior stakeholders to understand change impacts”. Another was to act as a role model for “good practice change management competences and behaviours”.

The so-called father of advertising, David Ogilvy, was well known for his hatred of jargon. “Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon,” he said. He was talking about advertising but could just as easily been referring to any other industry.

Jargon has infected our language. And, according to research last year by Londonoffices.com, it is driving people nuts. Included in the list of phrases that infuriate co-workers and clients are “blue-sky thinking”, “idea shower” and “singing from the same hymn-sheet”. Thankfully, the American desire to “punch the puppy” has yet to cross the Atlantic. (Apparently, it means to do something inexcusable that is good for business.)

One office worker surveyed by Londonoffices.com said: “I overhear colleagues using some of these phrases because they think it makes them sound clever and important, but mostly they haven’t got a clue what they’re on about.”

Worse even than irritating clichés is corporate gibberish. How about the opening of this letter from Philips Lighting to a customer: “Dear Neil, did you know that technologies and standards are evolving rapidly in the dynamic smart city environment?”

The Plain English Campaign hands out Golden Bull Awards for the worst examples of English each year. In the Article and Blog Writing for Lawyers training course I run, I quote this previous award winner.

“A unique factor of the NHS Cheshire Warrington and Wirral Commissioning support organisation is its systematised methodology for project and programme management of small, medium, large service re-design and implementation…Building in equality and risk impact assessments the options are taken through a process to arrive at the content for an output based specification and benefits foreseen as a result of the implementation.”

This always raises a snigger from lawyers. They soon stop laughing when I point out that much of their own writing is equally impenetrable. Such as this legal humdinger: “The revocation by these Regulations of a saving on the previous revocation of a provision does not affect the operation of the saving in so far as it is not specifically reproduced in these Regulations but remains capable of having effect.”

So, here’s a ‘no-brainer’ for 2018 that doesn’t need an ‘idea shower’. ‘Kick the jargon into the long grass’, ‘circle back’ and you are guaranteed a ‘results-driven’ ‘quick win’. Whatever you do though, please don’t punch that poor puppy.

Happy 2018.

Oxford comma plays dramatic role in $10m lawsuit

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Oxford comma plays dramatic role in $10m lawsuit

At last, a legal case I can get excited about. That hasn't happened since the OJ Simpson trial more than 20 years ago but the decision in this one is even more sensational. A recent court case in Maine turned on something far more dramatic than a bloody glove: a comma. Or, to be pedantic, and if nothing else this blog is about pedantry, the lack of a comma.

I warned you it was exciting. Before we get down to the details though you need to know that this comma (or lack of a comma) wasn't any old comma. It was the mighty Oxford comma, the much-maligned Richard III of the grammar world (and not because it’s a funny shape).

What’s an Oxford comma, you ask? I’ll get to that but first you need a bit of background.

The case was brought in Maine by a group of drivers against their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for overtime pay. The company argued that no overtime was due because Maine state law says overtime does not apply to certain activities. Specifically, it excludes "the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of" perishable goods.

This is the bit where you need to concentrate. The case hinged on the last words, "packing for shipment or distribution". The court had to determine if these were two separate activities – "packing for shipping" and "distribution" – or one activity, "packing for shipping or distribution".

The drivers argued the latter and that they were entitled to overtime pay for work that involved "distribution" on the basis that this wasn't an excluded activity. The court agreed (in a 29-page judgement), and 75 drivers have been awarded a share in $10m worth of unpaid overtime.

Now back to the Oxford comma (sometimes called the serial comma). It is a comma used to separate the last item in a list of three or more items in order to avoid ambiguity. It’s an optional comma, though, and its use depends on the context.

In the sentence, "I like cricket, cycling and long walks in the country" you wouldn't use a comma after the word "cycling" as it is unnecessary.

But, there's a world of difference between saying "I want to thank my parents, Justin Bieber, and Helen Mirren" and, "I want to thank my parents, Justin Bieber and Helen Mirren”. The latter sentence, without the Oxford comma, implies that the parents are Justin Bieber and Helen Mirren. Unlikely.

Despite this, some people argue that the Oxford comma is an unnecessary affectation – like James Bond and his shaken, not stirred, martinis.

This argument arouses great passion. American rock band Vampire Weekend released a single called Oxford Comma in 2008, the opening line of which asked: "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?"

Clearly, many people do. There was a furore six years ago when it was reported that Oxford University had committed grammatical infanticide by dropping the Oxford comma from its style guide. This had the grammar stormtroopers goosestepping all the way to the letters pages of the Times and the Telegraph, although it turned out the reports were erroneous. (The Oxford comma had only been banned by Oxford University for press releases and internal memos.)

In the Maine drivers’ case, an Oxford comma after the word "shipment" would have made it clear that the distribution of perishable foods was excluded from overtime. Whoever wrote the clause should have taken heed of the grammar bible The Elements of Style by Struck and White, (the Lennon and McCartney of grammar, or would be if they had had more than one hit).

Despite its catchy title, The Elements of Style isn't much of a read but it is clear about where it stands on the Oxford comma: "In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus … 'red, white, and blue'." 

"That comma would have sunk our ship," said David G. Webbert, the lawyer who represented the drivers. As it was, there was enough uncertainty for the decision to go in his client’s favour.

So what next for the Oxford comma? Who knows, but this decision will have reverberated through the pages of grammar textbooks around the world. I can only imagine the semicolon is seething. Twice the ink of an Oxford comma yet no one ever mentions it except to say they have no idea what it does.

If the OJ trial is anything to go by, in 20 years time we’ll all be glued to the latest Netflix mini-series, Oxford Comma, hopefully starring Justin Bieber and Helen Mirren. I, for one, can’t wait.   

6 great content ideas for your law firm's newsletter

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6 great content ideas for your law firm's newsletter

Email newsletters are one of the best ways for law firms to keep in touch with their clients.

Reasons for this include:

·       They keep you ‘front of mind’ with clients  

·       They are a chance to show off your firm’s expertise and personality

·       They are a cheap way to reach loads of people

And, they are more effective than social media for updating clients. Internet research group Nielsen Norman say that 90% of people prefer to receive updates by newsletter, compared to 10% by social media.

Yet many firms don’t use them. One reason I hear over and again is: “I would send out more newsletters but I can’t think of anything interesting to write about.”

Why most newsletters are boring

In the absence of anything else, the default for law firms is to write about changes to the law and the results of recent cases.

This is understandable as it is a chance to show that you know your stuff. There are two problems with this. One is that the articles are likely to be of limited interest to most readers.

The second, and with due respect to my legal colleagues (I used to be one after all), is that the articles are boring. Lawyers write in a highly technical way. That’s great when giving a legal opinion or threatening to sue someone. It’s not so great when the reader can choose to read on or click away.

Newsletters that focus solely on legal updates tend to be one-paced textbook style articles of around 500 words on one legal topic after another.

But newsletters are about being interesting, and entertaining your readers. Bear in mind that your readers are people on your mailing list. This means you’ve either done business with them or they’ve signed up to hear from you.

So, they’ll be interested in what is going on in your world but they are unlikely to want a stream of dry legal updates.

The challenge is to put across your legal expertise but in a way that makes them like you and trust you. If you can do this, they are more likely to want to do business with you.

A good source of inspiration is any specialist magazine or newspaper colour supplement. They too are writing for an identified audience and a quick flick through any one of them will show you how they mix up their content.

Six content ideas

Here are six ideas for the types of articles you could put in your newsletter:

1.              A story – or in other words, a case study. People love stories and though you will probably have to change the names and some facts for confidentiality reasons, a case study is the perfect way to show off your legal expertise and the relationship you have with clients. Case studies are best when topped off with a glowing testimonial from a satisfied client.

2.              An opinion piece. Newspapers pay a fortune to their star columnists, usually because they have strong opinions. Love him or loathe him, Jeremy Clarkson’s Sunday Times column is a good example of this. Chances are that you have vigorous opinions about your own industry. If so, you’ve got the perfect soapbox to put them across.

3.              A Q & A, for example with a member of staff, a client or someone you work closely with, say, a barrister or accountant. The good thing about Q & As is that they are bite-sized, so they are easy to read. You can also cover a whole load of different topics and use them to put a lot of someone’s personality across.

4.              Picture stories. These are as simple to put together as a few pictures with some captions. This would be a great way to cover a firm event. They are popular with readers as they require little effort on their part. And because they are visual, they work well on social media. Don’t forget though the copyright restrictions on using other people’s pictures – you can read more about this here.

5.              Insider tips. Everyone likes to pick up information from the experts. Articles with ‘how to tips’ or insider secrets are always popular. They also lend themselves to the ever-popular listicle headlines – like the one for this article. (You can read more about listicles here).

6.              Reviews and previews. Newspapers and magazines are full or reviews and previews. One reason for this is that they relate to something happening now or about to happen in the near future. So, they are topical and up to date. Another is that we love learning what other people think about things. Amazon has built one of the world’s most successful businesses on this simple premise. In a legal context, this could be the review of an event, a seminar or even a book.

Finally, if you are using email newsletter software such as Mailchimp, it is well worth looking carefully at the open and click through statistics. That way you’ll find out what is popular with your readers and you can tailor future newsletters accordingly.

For more information about creating a newsletter for your law firm, please contact Simon Manuel at simon@inkanddots.co.uk