Defining Moments

Are you being formal, or just boring?

sprovost@thetribunenews .comDecember 28, 2012 

Steve Provost

“You want me to de-prioritize my current reports until you advise me of a status upgrade?” — Jack in “Fight Club”

Do people really talk like that? On occasion. Do people really listen to people who talk like that? Only if they have to.

Fortunately, people don’t talk like that too often. They do, however, seem to write like that ad nauseam. What’s funny is that they actually expect people to read it.

Here’s the point: Communication is supposed to be about getting your ideas across. It’s not supposed to be about stringing together as many syllables as possible in the most pompous fashion imaginable.

I think part of it comes from trying to sound “professional.” I’ve reached this conclusion because I’ve read this kind of language in all sorts of business documents. I call it Mumbo Jumble.

It’s a common workplace hazard, in the same class as business meetings, performance reviews and people who swipe your lunch out of the office fridge. Nobody likes any of this, but everyone accepts it because “that’s just the way it is.”

Maybe the best (or worst) example of Mumbo Jumble is the fine print lawyers include at the end of contracts. No one likes reading this stuff, but lawyers — at least the shady ones — love to write it. Why? Because they know most people would prefer to just sign the thing and get it over with rather than wade through all the arcane language that spells out just how much they will regret it if they sign on the dotted line.

They don’t really want you to read it.

But it isn’t just shady lawyers who indulge in this kind of writing. It’s regular business folks in all walks of life. The kicker is that, unlike your run-ofthe-mill unscrupulous attorney , they actually do want you to read what they’ve written — and they think it’s interesting.

I suspect most people use Mumble Jumbo for one reason: They want to sound like they know what they’re talking about. But whether they know their stuff or not, it doesn’t matter. Either way, this style of communicating is just not very effective. When people start nodding off in the middle of your memo, that’s a pretty good clue that you’re not getting your message across.

Journalists are as bad as anyone else. Have you ever seen the word “embattled” in a news article? I suspect you have, and if you don’t remember, it’s because your eyes have glazed over from reading it so many times. It’s one of those words reporters toss off to make their writing sound important. The Syrian president is “embattled.” So is that controversial health care bill. And the Cabinet nominee. And the Tipton kangaroo rat. At some point in time, I’m convinced, journalists have labeled half the newsworthy subjects on the face of the planet “embattled.”

We use that word about as often as police officers use “subject.” The subject brandished a firearm. Huh? Why not just say “the man (or woman) waved a gun”? That’s a whole lot simpler.

Then there’s the medical profession. Do you know the difference between a contusion and a laceration? A contusion is a bruise; a laceration is a gash or tear in the skin. Why is it necessary, good doctor, to use three of four syllables when one will do just fine?

Are you addicted to Mumbo Jumble? Do you insist on using big words, avoiding contractions and never, ever addressing the reader directly? There’s a word for that.

"Formal”?

Wrong. The word is “boring.”

If you want people to read your writing, the key isn’t to make it sound important. The key is to make it interesting. Fun, even. Maybe then they’ll actually be able to refer to it during the next sleep-inducing business meeting you so thoughtfully put on the calendar.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor.

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