Word soup: How some organisations are drowning in words

Information designer Edward Tufte has said “to clarify add detail” and while I appreciate and often use the sentiment, the detail can be the devil.

Across many projects I’m involved in I encounter the same thing – organisations are drowning in words.

Take a look at any presentation, report, strategy, vision et al document. There are words about what they care about. Words explaining what the words they care about mean. Words explaining what the words explaining the words mean. Layer upon layer, until what reigns is not clarity but confusion.

A friend of mine who works with secondhand and antique goods once said to me “the world has enough crockery”. If you’ve even been to a secondhand store you’ll know what she means. Stacks of plates as far as the eye can see.

Sometimes I feel that way about words.

The right words can move people to do extraordinary things and reverberate across the ages, inspiring people for millenniums. Sadly most of the language used in organisation environments is anything but.

I call it word soup – when a website can randomly generate a sentence that could be in your last presentation … well let’s just say a bit more thought wouldn’t go astray.

Earlier this year I talked about the deep work needed to know the elements of organisational identity and build brand. That sentiment is also true here.

Just getting some words on a page that people can agree on isn’t getting clarity. So in service to needing less words, here’s a few things to consider before you even get to them.

What is the purpose of the words? How are they going to be used? Who are they for? And once there are some words on a page that people agree on, do they also agree on what they mean? Yes, great. No, keep going there’s more work to do.

I’m not suggesting here that everything needs to fit neatly on one page. And most things need more than a three-word tagline to be useful. However, if you’re using words just to explain other words then it’s probably time to go back to square one and look at the words you started with.

Do the work.

I write this in full acknowledgement of the irony of writing more words about too many words.

See you next week.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan

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