'I was 17 when I went to war': the impact of simple language

  • Advertising
  • August 5, 2015
  • Damon Stapleton
'I was 17 when I went to war': the impact of simple language

“Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.”
—​David Ogilvy

There is a great contradiction in the communications business. It can be found in two words: communications business. Communications are by their very purpose designed to be clear and simple. Free from jargon and cloudiness. They cut to the heart of the matter. There is no confusion. We know what to do. We have clarity and understanding. In essence, we are talking about what needs to be done simply and with focus. We know what the problem is, which is half the problem.

The world of business though is anything but clear. This is because business is often about the future. And there is often very little clarity about the future. It is where logic meets vision.There is insufficient data. There is fear and ego. Which in my experience are the two biggest reasons for confusion. And this often leads to jargon. Which in our business, both on agency and client side, is an attempt to give the impression of certainty. You are now only mere moments away from doing shit work.

Whether you are a client or an agency there is a simple truth that we should all remember. When you care more about using the right words in your world as opposed to how you communicate with the rest of the world you are going to reach a very small audience.

I have met a man who had 'future expert' on his business card. I imagine his job is pretty safe. In meetings over the years I have heard words like transclusion, pivot, paradigm shift, optimisation, sense check and snackable content thrown into sentences like shiny confetti in a ticker tape parade where the cavalcade takes a horrible wrong turn.

Now, I know what some of those words mean. The problem is when you put them all together. I like this example from Ollie Latham: "I’m going to have to circle back synergistically to cascade a holistic response to this pain point." Translation: "I am going to find an answer to the problem".

This is happening in millions of meetings across the world every day. And, the problem is our business is becoming more complex every day. Jargon used to be funny. It is now a problem. And not just because it creates confusion, which it does. Not speaking plainly does something far worse. Simple words have clarity. Simple words have another quality: power.

Jargon is a sickness that is very capable of making what we produce confusing. However, what’s far worse is that it can also create a process that is designed to create products that are bland and boring.

This for me is the real problem with jargon. It is a masquerade of vague, vanilla politeness. It is accuracy without a target. It is a cancer that kills perspective. And without perspective, you are not interesting. The one thing a brand has to be to survive.

So, I thought I would give you two examples of plain speaking that have clarity and power. One recently happened in mainstream media. And one is personal.

A few weeks ago, Kim Kardashian was put on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. This is what Sinead O’Connor said:

“What is this c**t doing on the cover of Rolling Stone? Music has officially died. Who knew it would be Rolling Stone that murdered it?”

Clarity. Honesty. Passion. Perspective. Interesting. Simplicity. It is a lesson. Imagine if conversations and communications were this simple and precise in our business. You might not like what she is saying but you sure as hell understand it. And more importantly, you feel something. Also, you instantly have a point of view.

Here is one more. My grandfather’s name was Gerald Basil Stapleton DFC, DFC. He was a Squadron Leader in the Battle of Britain. He was shot down twice and shot down thirteen enemy planes. He was tough as nails and a little crazy.

He only ever phoned me once. Strangely, I was in Cannes. He was in England. I had had a shit week and the agency I was running hadn’t done that well. I was sitting at the end of a pier feeling sorry for myself. The phone rang. I answered. Slightly startled, I told him about my week and the pressure I was feeling.

He listened.

And then he said just three things:

I was 17 when I went to war.
Most of my squadron died in the Battle of Britain but we had a saying.
Keep pulling the trigger until you see the fuckers smoke.

And then he said goodbye. I understood. And I have never felt more pathetic or more grateful to be alive on a pier in the South of France.

Simple, honest words can change everything. At best, complicated, unclear words normally keep things the way they are.

I am not sure we as industry have that option open to us anymore.

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