As a professional communicator I can smell something rotten in the air. “Brexit means Brexit”, claimed Teresa May – or does it? As 2017 ends Brexit is beginning to look more like “a period of alignment over a transitionary period towards an EEA/EFTA/Canada plus-plus-plus deal with a soft border somewhere in the Irish Sea”. There is only one thing we can be sure of about Brexit: it will be obscured by a cloud of obfuscating words.
This of course is the currency of politics, and we should not expect anything different emerging from the official pronouncements emanating from either No 10 or the Commission’s Berlaymont. But in corporate communication vague words spook the markets and rattle employees. Over the months ahead your boss and colleagues will want to know with some certainty what Brexit will mean for the company or organisation where they work, and how it will affect their lives.
So I thought this would be a good time to turn to George Orwell (author of Animal Farm and 1984) who was a master of writing style and how it could be used and abused by those in power to evoke certain emotions in audiences. In his famous essay, “Politics And The English Language,” written in 1946 he laid out six key rules for better writing that we could well take to heart as we attempt to communicate through the Brexit fudge:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use an idiomatic phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
So here is my Brexit spin on Orwell’s six rules:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print
Newly created metaphors and similes are very powerful; they sum up in an image what could take a paragraph to describe. However Brexit is dominating the headlines and the feature pages of every newspaper and will continue to do so throughout 2018. Be careful therefore that you do not fall into the trap of using journalistic metaphors and similes that – although clever when first published are becoming less fresh every day.
The head of the UK’s public spending watchdog, Sir Amyas Morse:
Brexit is a chocolate orange that might fall apart at the first tap.
The Tory MP Charlie Elphicke:
“Hotel California” Brexit where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.
The businessman Lord Wolfson
a frantic bus journey where the passengers are fighting over its speed and direction.
Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, international lawyer and wife of the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, on her food blog:
“The crumble, just like Brexit, seems fine on the outside, though if you look attentively you can see that there is a mess bubbling up inside. And it will definitely fall apart when you serve it, no matter how hard you try.”
The first few hundred times these metaphors were used, they evoked a mental picture; but now they pass through our brains without leaving a trace. Making an impact is an excellent way to stick in a reader’s memory, and if you’re writing for an online audience this is going to make your readers more likely to share what they’ve read.
So come up with your own metaphor or simile that is authentic and appropriate to your internal audience.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will
The longer the word, the more likely it has a Latin root. In Medieval Britain Latin was the language of politics, jurisdiction and management, whereas Anglo Saxon was the language of work and things. As a result, English tends to have two words or phrases to describe the same thing or activity. Where you have a choice, go for the Anglo Saxon since these words are grounded in everyday life and tend to be more meaningful to the listener.
You get the idea. Dig out that thesaurus and in your selection of vocabulary (or choice of words) always go for the optimal alternative (or better choice).
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it
Look at these phrases and how they can be made shorter and more meaningful. New trade agreements could:
render inoperative pre-existing conditions = break trading terms
militate against employment of non-EU nationals = stop hiring from Europe
be subjected to non-tariff barriers = suffer hidden taxes
give grounds for added complexity = make life harder
Verbal padding will make your sentences meaningless. This is because the eye skims over words that don’t need to be there so the reader assumes that the writer does not have much to say. Each wasted word you use devalues the currency of the pithy ones. Consequently, the more words you use, the more you dilute your message.
We use verbal padding to buy us time to think. Fine if you’re in conversation with a friend, but otherwise it’s far better to spend time honing your writing down to the essentials. Remember that you will be competing with other authors for your reader’s attention. Make your message concise and it will be clear to the reader that your writing is a sound investment of their time.
4.Never use the passive where you can use the active voice
Active language makes your emails, blogs, scripts and copy more vibrant, accessible and memorable. Any sentence can be written in either a passive, or an active, form.
To illustrate here is the all-important caveat in the outline agreement:
Under the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, the joint commitments set out below in this joint report shall be reflected in the Withdrawal Agreement in full detail. This does not prejudge any adaptations that might be appropriate in case transitional arrangements were to be agreed in the second phase of the negotiations , and is without prejudice to discussions on the framework of the future relationship .
So how would you turn this into active language?
The Withdrawal Agreement is based on three points – but the dealmakers can still change their minds
Active language is shorter, more to the point; and the person doing the action comes before the verb. School and college encourage us to use passive language – to appear more detached, objective and well, academic. The trouble is that, when we take these writing styles to work, they muffle our prose and stifle the impact of our messages. Passive language puts people off your message – and can make you look untrustworthy.
We have to be beacons of clarity. Which takes us on to Orwell’s 5th rule.
5. Never use an idiomatic phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
Communicating inside companies is a constant obstacle-course of jargon and acronyms. Internal communicators are as bad as any group in using obscure language where everyday words will suffice.
Here is a list of Brexit jargon that will guarantee losing your audience’s attention, so cut though the legalese with this glossary.
Acquis communautaire – the accepted laws of the EU
Article 50 – the mechanism by which Britain leaves the EU
Customs union – EU members trade without customs duties, taxes or tariffs between themselves, and charge the same tariffs on imports from outside the EU. Customs union members cannot negotiate their own trade deals outside the EU.
European Council – headed by Donald Tusk, is the gathering of heads of state or government that sets the priorities and strategic goals of the European Union. It is where the decision-making is done.
European Commission – headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, is the EU’s civil service responsible for carrying out the laws initiated by the European Council and ratified by the European Parliament. The 28 member-appointed EU commissioners formally initiate EU legislation.
European Court of Justice – based in Luxembourg the Court rules on disputes over EU treaties and legislation.
European Parliament – the directly elected parliamentary institution of the European Union (EU). Together with the Council and the Commission, its 751 members, who represent the second-largest democratic electorate in the world, scrutinise and debate EU laws.
EEA – the European Economic Area is made up of the EU’s single market, plus three European Free Trade Association members – Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. They trade freely with the single market in exchange for accepting its rules.
EFTA – a regional trade organization and free trade area consisting of the above mentioned states plus Switzerland. They are not party to the European Union Customs Union and can negotiate trade deals with third countries such as China.
Free Trade Agreement – an FTA is an agreement between two or more countries to cooperate on reducing trade barriers such as import quotas and tariffs so as to increase the trade of goods and services between them. They can take a long time to negotiate; the one with Canada has taken 13 years so far and it is still not ratified by all 28 EU members.
Single Market – The EU’s single market aims to remove not just the fiscal barriers to trade (tariffs) but also the physical and technical barriers (borders and divergent product standards) by allowing the freest possible movement of goods, capital, services and people. Simply put it allows for the free passage of goods, services and people within the borders of the EU.
These are just a few of the key components of Brexit. We will be returning to this glossary and updating it with communications-friendly definitions in the months and years ahead.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright
Orwell’s sixth rule is to use common sense. Trust your own ear. If something you have written or said sounds heavy because you have followed his previous five rules, strike it out and start again!
The classic example comes from the European Parliament where an English MEP said of a reform that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” This was interpreted in German as “The meat’s OK, but avoid the Schnapps.”
Marc Wright is the founder of simply-communicate. In a previous life he wrote and produced the BBC2 series Inside Europe, and has won awards for his work demystifying the European institutions.
Illustrations by Tim Ruscoe
A stream of smileexpo will be dedicated to the challenges of communicating Brexit inside large enterprises, so if you can get to London on May 21st bring your team and get skilled up.