When did it become so difficult to speak plainly? I ask because it feels like we’re on the brink of a linguistic revolt. Despite language providing the speaker or writer with the ability to construct meaning in a manner that suits both him/herself and the audience, it feels like – certainly in the UK – the public is fed up of on-the-fence, opaque answers to straightforward questions.
This is not a new phenomenon, but more like the economic cycles of boom and bust, with society rolling in and out of periods of propaganda-like language designed neither to inform nor enlighten, but rather to jolt people to desired action or to feel in a certain way; whether in the guise of corporate speak, political correctness or unnecessary jargon.
So, what can we learn from this?
One common motive that prevents people from straight talking is fear. Fear of making a mistake, admitting liability or difficult questions where the answer is either unknown or needs to be suppressed; fear of rejection or, worse still, vilification – or the plain and simple fear of not getting what you want.
It seems that many people, such as those in the heady gaze of the public eye like our political and corporate leaders, are simply frightened. And why wouldn’t they be? In the age of Twitter, YouTube and viral emails, where public derision is just a couple of clicks away, erring on the side of vanilla, pre-approved, anodyne comments to navigate the communications minefield appears the safest option.
But, this approach isn’t foolproof and can clash with stakeholders’ demand for information; hiding behind jargon and ducking questions is being tolerated less and less. Thomas Cook’s handling of the death of two children at one of their resorts is a case in point, which has arguably tarnished the reputation of both the company and those who handled the crisis.
Customers, consumers or the general public – whatever you want to call your audience - are crying out for not just plain English, but also authenticity and transparency.
This is why, even in the face of tragedy at Alton Towers, Nick Varney, the chief executive of Merlin Entertainments, won plaudits for his public handling of the rollercoaster crash. How rare it was to hear the head of the business say that safety measures "clearly weren't adequate… because the accident happened.”
Such was the speed and authenticity of his response that the Sky News presenter who was intent on giving him a grilling ended up the subject of a 50,000 petition for her dismissal.
Admittedly, there are times when it isn’t possible or proper to provide detailed information, but corporations need to understand that increasingly audiences demand transparency and plain speaking. In doing this, they show respect to their audiences and value them.
Those who understand this and plan appropriately should things go wrong are in the best position to mobilise, say and do the right thing at the right time.
This is the difference between the Nick Varneys and Tony Haywards of the corporate world and helps to explain the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn – he isn’t ducking the difficult questions – whether on pushing the nuclear button or the latest party dismissal. Even those who disagree with his answers find it refreshing and respect his openness and readiness to provide a response.
Emma Molton is a director at Camargue