How much is clear language worth?

Andy Whitlock
Jun 5 · 3 min read

It’s easy to agree that good communication has value, but how much value? What’s the cost of not having it?

In the last few weeks I have witnessed…

  • Two weeks of a project wasted because the two parties involved had a different interpretation of what a “creative platform” was.
  • Some smart marketeers arguing at length about whether creating “content” was a complete waste of time and money or a sound investment (without any context about what it was, who was making it and what it was for).
  • The C-suite at a large corporation debating what a “positioning” is ten weeks into a positioning project.

So although I can’t put an exact price on the value of clear language, I can safely conclude that if people have very different ideas about what a fundamental word or phrase means, it costs time. And it strains working relationships.

“Start slow to go fast,” the saying goes. Rush in at the beginning and you’ll grind to a halt later. And language is perhaps the most fundamental material to show caution with.

I urge patience and pedantry when it comes to defining and agreeing the definitions of the glossary that will punctuate your next project. It might feel tedious but you will be amazed how differently one person interprets a word or phrase from another. Especially so when it’s an unfamiliar, specialist subject and no one wants to admit they lack experience in that area. And even more so when several different interpretations of a phrase or concept have been popularised and stirred into a soup of overlapping industry indecision.

Short, snappy labels appear to be precise, but their reductiveness opens them up to a wealth of interpretation and abuse (conscious and otherwise). And here’s the kicker: congealing inside each person’s personal interpretation sits layer upon layer of messy, unspoken assumptions and biases. Those biases will invisibly guide that person’s contribution to the project whilst leaving them baffled that the same invisible forces aren’t causing you to reach the same conclusions. In week 10, you’ll finally get aligned after some very frustrating moments and lots of wasted effort.

It’s not vital that your interpretation of the phrase is ‘correct’ (whatever that means), what matters is that everyone involved understands it to mean the same thing so you can all have the same conversation. Of course, if there is a universally accepted definition, that would be a good place to start, but group alignment is the most important thing and universal agreement is often thin on the ground.

These words and phrases are codes. But they’re your codes for your project. If you hire a specialist to guide you through a process, don’t let them use these codes and phrases like magic spells. Don’t let them make you feel stupid for not understanding their meaning. Don’t let ‘cryptically reductive’ masquerade as ‘simple’; simple should mean unambiguous. Simple should mean everyone has broadly the same answer when they attempt to explain it.

It’s hard to make complex concepts unambiguously simple. And it starts with using more words not fewer. More words to unpack meaning and context. More questions and answers to bring more people on board. You can return to the pithier shorthand version once everyone gets it. If you can bear the small cost of a longer conversation at the beginning, you’ll avoid the far greater cost down the line.

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Andy Whitlock is Chief Simplifier at The Human Half. He helps companies work out what they are, why it matters and how to tell people.

Read: ‘Why are we afraid of simplicity?’ Or don’t. Maybe call your mum or do a crossword instead.

Andy Whitlock

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Strategy Director, thehumanhalf.com