How To Speak (and Write) Like a Human (The Second in a Five-part Epic)

Ben Thompson | March 19, 2018

Wondering why your mind started wandering during that presentation on cross-functional interdepartmental synergies? Or, worse, why the audience for your presentation on cross-functional inter-whatever stared at their phones the whole time?

It was all because of language: too much of the wrong kind. But don’t worry. We’re here to help you speak (and write) simply and clearly so people can connect with what you’re trying to communicate.

In the last issue, we looked at jargon and why it is so confusing to readers and listeners. If you read that article—and did your homework—you might have your own personal list of jargon you want to avoid.

My happiest-to-not-be-using word? Leverage.

In this issue, we’re going to take a look at jargon’s ugly stepbrother.

Pretentious abstraction

Jargon means something to someone. Lawyers know exactly what they’re talking about when they file a habeas corpus motion. It may sound like a new dating app to you and me, but in their professional lingo, it has a precise, powerful meaning.

Abstract language doesn’t mean anything, which makes it impossible for anyone to pinpoint exactly what you mean.

Compare these two sentences:

  1. Our plan will optimize outcomes in the near future.

  2. Our plan should cut costs by 3% and increase revenue by 1% in the second quarter.

Which one do you trust?

Sentence #1 uses an abstract verb (optimize), two abstract nouns (outcome, future) and one abstract adjective (near) to basically say “Our plan will produce something at some time.”

What does any of it mean? It’s impossible to say.

Sentence #2 expresses the same ideas but makes them crystal clear. What’s the difference? It replaces the abstractions with concrete ideas.

Abstract Concrete
Optimize Cut, increase
Outcomes Costs, revenue
1%, 3%

The only imprecise word in sentence #2—“should”—makes the statement more accurate and concrete. It’s a plan, which means it’s not guaranteed, so “should” is a far more honest way to project the … errr … outcomes.

Feeling the humanity yet?

Notice anything? How do words like “cut” and “increase” make you feel? How about a word like “optimize”? A simple, clear word like “cut” packs a lot more punch than its slippery, polysyllabic relative “optimize.”

As you start speaking like a human, you’ll find being simple and clear is also a good way to speak with a lot more power.

Fun assignment: pull out something you wrote two or three months ago and give it a read. Circle every abstract, impossible-to-pin-down word or idea.

Next issue: Nouns aren’t verbs