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Care with words

Last year I wrote a blog about words, suggesting how the worlds of innovation, business and entrepreneurship could avoid lazy jargon and clichés. I continue to receive a flow of reports, books or emails containing horrible abuses of language and thought it was time for another comment, partly prompted by a recent report that included the phrases ‘building a dense participatory ecology at scale…’, ‘two levels of participation typography are needed for the ecology to work’, and ‘resilience as an integrative construct’. I read these several times and still don’t know what they mean, though I can roughly guess. I’m pretty sure that language like this doesn’t encourage clear thinking. So here are a few suggestions on how to make life easier for readers, and a list of words best avoided or at least used sparingly.

1. Check your texts

A good starting point, not available to any past generations, is to test your writing with an online tool. An excellent option is read-able.com which brings together a range of methods for analysing the readability of a text. On the Flesch-Kincaid 'reading ease' measure, which you'll find there, it's good to aim for 60 and above unless you're targeting a very specialist audience. Higher scores make it far more likely you'll actually be read, even by specialists. Many people (certainly including me) write at too difficult a level.

2. Consider your stance

This piece by Stephen Pinker provides excellent steers about how to write (and is quicker to read than the whole book), including this one: 'the stance that our best essayists and writers implicitly adopt ...is a combination of vision and conversation. When you write you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that's interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.' 

3. Explain why as well as what

Always try to explain why what you're saying is interesting or important. This almost certainly feels obvious to you. But it won't be obvious to your reader, who will want to know why and also, possibly, ‘so what?’ A great deal of otherwise interesting writing jumps these vital steps. Researchers particularly struggle, because they become so caught up with what, to them, is the intrinsic fascination of their work.  

It’s similarly helpful to remind your readers of the context and background for what you’re about to say. What larger story is this part of? Again this will seem boringly obvious to you, but not to your reader who has a thousand other things on their mind.

4. Avoid unhelpful words

Good writing uses clear words. The following list (which colleagues at Nesta have contributed to) partly reflects my own taste. But it also applies a general test - if you wouldn’t use a word in everyday conversation, it’s probably best avoided. Some specialist words don’t have synonyms, and are useful shorthand, but they’re best kept for specialist audiences. Here, then, are a few words which I think should be used sparingly, if at all:

  • Turning nouns into verbs that don’t (or shouldn’t?) exist: impacting, evidencing etc.
  • Outcomes - often a useful word, but too often used in contexts where it adds no meaning (eg ‘better health outcomes’, meaning ‘better health’)
  • Pulling levers - a metaphor often used by governments, which implies an unrealistically mechanical view of how the world works
  • Vibrant - a word mainly found in government or tourism press releases
  • Space - used after a noun, for example the ‘design space’, ‘local government space’ &c. This adds precisely zero meaning.
  • Transformative and transformation - words largely drained of meaning thanks to excessive use by management consultancies; why not just say ‘change’?
  • Co-production - a word which contains a genuine meaning, but baffles most audiences
  • Going forwards, ongoing, moving forwards - these very rarely add any meaning to a sentence
  • Facilitate - a word that’s acceptable if used in its specialist meaning in relation to meetings, but not as a general synonym for help or support
  • Learnings - I discovered to my surprise that this is a genuine old English word, but it’s never used in normal life
  • Paradigm - best avoided unless you really are talking about a paradigm
  • Positive - not a terrible word but now sprayed about relentlessly and often adding nothing to the meaning of a sentence
  • Retooling - best avoided unless used to mean retooling
  • Design thinking - usually used to refer to desirable things like ethnography and rapid learning by doing, which, ironically, designers came to rather late
  • Bring to the table, end of the day - and a hundred other clichés
  • Awesome - even though Lego was right to sing that ‘everything is awesome’, it’s probably not a word to be used by anyone over about 14, unless something really is awesome
  • Disruptive - a word that’s now been so overused, it’s probably best restricted to things which really are disruptive, like strikes, bombs and riots
  • Engaging - used as a catch-all for everything from transformative art, to a well-written blog or charismatic delivery. Can often be replaced, improved and made more specific
  • Passionate - a once wonderful word that has been so overused in business (‘I’m passionate about my job selling baked beans…’) that it’s been hollowed out
  • Ideation - ‘creating ideas’ is still a preferable alternative
  • Methodology - when what you really mean is methods (unless you really are discussing knowledge about methods)
  • Citizens/consumers/users - when you actually mean people
  • Scaled up - when you just mean ‘grown’ (unless it literally is the same thing scaled up)
  • Rebalancing - for things that were not balanced in the first place, and are unlikely to be so in the future

I’m sure many will disagree about some of the words on this list; my main plea is to think first before casually using overused words.

5. Consider very plain English alternatives

Finally, it can be useful to translate jargon into very plain English. Last year we commissioned ComRes to look at public attitudes to innovation. The report has important implications for how science, technology and innovation are communicated, and for the politics of how they are done - the lessons of which are not widely appreciated. A small part of the research looked at words used around innovation and suggested substitutions that would make more sense to a general audience:

Wonk speak

Plain English

innovation

invest[ment]

consumer technology

evidence based

incremental innovation

economic growth

recession

the long term

new ideas, new ways of doing things

support

gadgets

tried and tested

better [+ noun] (e.g. better homes, better technology)

jobs, careers, houses

cost of living, lack of jobs

your children and grandchildren

Author

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan has been Chief Executive of Nesta since 2011. Nesta is the UK's innovation foundation and runs a wide range of activities in investment, practical innovation and research.

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