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Words matter

Words matter. They can inform and inspire, or deceive and confuse. We recently held a session at Nesta to discuss how to make our writing clearer, and avoid the vices that particularly afflict the field of innovation:  unnecessary neologisms, ugly jargons, and hot air that substitutes for clarity of thought.

Some of the general rules for clear writing provide a useful start: 

  • opt for short sentences
  • use active rather than passive verbs
  • use everyday words with an Anglo Saxon rather than Latin origin
  • try to shun words like ‘enable’, ‘foster’, ‘facilitate’, ‘unleash’ or  ‘driver’ which are not bad in themselves, but have been worn down by careless overuse .
  • don’t use ugly euphemisms - like ‘high net worth’ instead of ‘rich’.
  • don’t use filler phrases – like ‘going forward’
  • if you must use jargon – like ‘co-production’, or ‘evidence-based policy’ -  then only do so for expert audiences, and avoid neologisms like the plague:  words like ‘ideation’ or ‘edupreneur’ are not amongst the wonders of modern civilisation.

Next, be sceptical of fashionable words – like ‘transformational’ or ‘change agents’ – that are often used to hide woolly thinking. A prime current example is the abuse of the word ‘solutions’. I’ve lost count of the number of people or organisations that claim to be able to ‘solve’ social problems.

Practical problems like access to clean water or cheap energy can be solved. But to the best of my knowledge no social problems – like unemployment, drug addiction or mental illness – have been definitely solved in recent years, though the right actions can make them a lot better. 

The WHO ‘solved’ smallpox in the 1960s, in the sense that they eliminated a disease that had killed millions. But that example stands out because it is wholly exceptional. For me,  any claim to be able to ‘solve’ a social problem sets off alarm bells.  

Phrases can also become clichés that get in the way of thought rather than helping it. A good example is ‘disruptive innovation’. It began as a useful way of talking about new ideas that change everything around them, seen purely through a business lens. But it’s become a cliché, sprayed around indiscriminately, and unthinkingly presented as a good thing. The result is that it risks getting in the way of more interesting discussions, for example about which kinds of disruption are desirable and which are not.  

I’ve sinned in the past, coining quite a few dubious phrases, from ‘joined up government’ and ‘social impact bonds’ to ‘connexity’. I now value plain, clear English more and more. So we’ll be drawing up our own lists of words to avoid, drawing on the wisdom others have brought to this same problem – from George Orwell’s still-seminal essay Politics and the English Language to the Economist magazine’s style guide, and the Government Digital Service prescriptions on what words to use in websites.

How we use language influences how we think. Fuzzy language promotes fuzzy thinking and that in turn encourages ineffective action. So I hope we’ll do our best to avoid obfuscation and ugliness. And I hope our partners will keep us on our toes. 

Photo Credit: neil conway via Compfight cc

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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