The enemy of clarity is insincerity

“The enemy of clarity is insincerity” is a great line. I wish I could claim authorship of it, but it comes paraphrased from a quote by George Orwell:

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.”

So, why do I think it’s a great line? Because, like all good quotes, it smacks of a truth (“with a small t” to also reference something said by Jim Collins). We have all seen it in action. The good intent watered down, hedged or hyped out of recognition; left a shadow of its former self.

I see a few main reasons it happens:

  • It’s too specific – someone might actually expect us to do it;
  • It’s not ‘salesy’ enough – our customers won’t buy it;
  • We need to cover ourselves – our lawyers won’t like it;
  • Let’s make it broader, we need to appeal to more people;
  • We couldn’t agree on which word so we used both.

You’ve probably had your own experiences that you could easily add to that list.

Here’s the thing: You have to stand up for what you believe, for your purpose or no one else will.

And one of the key ways you do that is with the words you use. Language matters, beyond the blanket of “communication” it makes people pay attention, it makes people care, it tells people what you mean (and don’t mean), what you will do and won’t do. It is the foundation of our intentions and without clarity it is, at best, useless and, at worst, dangerous.

And while lack of clarity is particularly rife in the high-level language used by organisations (purpose, vision, mission, values), it doesn’t end there. You can find it everywhere from Terms and Conditions to sales materials, from advertisements to product descriptions, from human resources materials to returns policies.

It takes courage to say what you mean, to stand up and clearly, without ambiguity, commit to something. It takes discipline to then get on with the job of making that commitment a reality. It takes both and a good measure of ability to see “what is” rather than what we would like to be.

In the end, it is impossible to meet expectations if you don’t set them clearly. It is impossible to keep a promise hidden behind hedging that would obscure Buckingham Palace.

So, my call to you today is this – be honest and clear about what you stand for and what you will do, say it and mean it. Then repeat that cycle across your whole organisation.

See you next week.

Michel is an independent adviser and advocate dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes the Brand Alignment blog. You can follow Michel on Twitter @michelhogan

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