Former teacher schools Trump on grammar, communication and power

I have a new hero. Her name is Yvonne Mason and she’s a retired English teacher from Atlanta, Georgia. A few days ago, she received a letter from President Trump in response to a letter she wrote to him about the recent school shooting in Florida.

Most people would be happy to receive a letter from the president, even one as divisive as Trump. And so was she until she read it. Old habits die hard and it wasn’t long before she got out her old purple pen and a yellow highlighter, and started marking it as if it had been submitted by one of her pupils.

You may not be surprised to learn that Trump didn’t do very well. The letter was soon covered in yellow lines and purple scrawls. “Have y’all tried grammar style check?” she scribbled at the top.

Clearly, the White House hadn’t. Mason’s biggest gripe was the apparently random use of capital letters, one that plagues my life when I edit my clients’ writing.

After highlighting the incorrect capitalisation of ‘Federal’ (twice), ‘State’ (three times) and ‘President’ once, she could take no more by the time she reached the fourth ‘Nation’. “OMG this is WRONG!” she exclaimed.

In my experience, lawyers are the worst. Common examples include ‘Client’, ‘Lawyer’, ‘Business’ and ‘Judge’. As Mason would no doubt be at pains to point out, these are not proper nouns and should not have capitals.

You may think this is unnecessarily pedantic. After all, in the age of instant messaging and abbreviated social media posts, who cares?

Mason says that her constant message to her students was: “Language is the currency of power.” The words you choose and your mastery of the English language all convey something about you, whoever you are, president or janitor.

It’s a point the Washington Post picked up in an article in March about the endless small mistakes that have dogged Trump’s presidency. These, the newspaper says, “have become symbolic of the larger problems with Trump’s management style, in particular, his lack of attention to detail and the carelessness with which he makes policy decisions".

Mason sent the letter back to the White House with a link to https://plainlanguage.gov/, a US government website whose purpose is to “make it easier for the public to read, understand, and use government communications”.

President Trump may not agree but Mason’s message could not have been clearer. “If you can’t communicate what you want or what you need … you’re not going to get what you want,” Mason said. “Writing clearly and consistently gives you power.”



Why you need to cut out the jargon and corporate gibberish


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.