Lucy Kellaway: Key ingredient in language of business is fudge

Setting up a website for a teaching business provided a lesson in avoiding giving offence

“’Good’ now means bad, and ‘great’ means mediocre. Even ‘extraordinary’ is now workaday. So we went for ‘formidable’.” Photograph: Thinkstock

“’Good’ now means bad, and ‘great’ means mediocre. Even ‘extraordinary’ is now workaday. So we went for ‘formidable’.” Photograph: Thinkstock

 

When handing out my annual guff awards last week I wrote something I’d now like to retract. I said clear language in business was perfectly possible if you tried hard enough.

I now find it’s not as simple as that. Last autumn, I co-founded a social enterprise designed to get people like me to retrain as teachers. Teach Last, I wanted to call it, which I thought both clear and comic. No, no, no, was the response from practically everyone. Teach Last, they insisted, sounded as if the crematorium was the next stop, and so I backed down, and settled on the least worst alternative, Now Teach.

Two words into the new project I’d learned my first lesson. As a journalist I write whatever I like and if I upset someone, well, that’s part of the job. But when you are setting something up compromise has to be part of it - and compromise hardly ever goes with sharp language. It doesn’t matter if the words look pretty. If they alienate anyone, you have to fudge them.

Single-syllable words

Name chosen, the next task was to write the copy for the Now Teach website. This, I confidently told everyone, was what I was good at. Long ago I worked out a two-step process to composition: you decide what you want to say and then you say it, using mainly words of one syllable.

In this case what I wanted to say was easy: Now Teach exists to persuade people of over 45 who are fed up with their swanky careers at McKinsey, for instance, to start again as teachers. But even I could see that this wouldn’t do. First, you can’t slag off McKinsey on a charity website. Neither can you specify age, as it is illegal. But how else to get across the idea that you are looking for people who are getting on a bit? In conversation I had been referring to them as “oldies”, but no one apart from me thought this funny. “Mature” is okay for cheddar, but not otherwise; “seasoned” is fine for wood or a lamb stew, but not for humans. “Older” is hopeless as it has come to be a euphemism for ancient – if you google it, you are led straight to articles about colostomy bags and care home closures.

Another possibility (suggested by a former management consultant) was “late-stage career-changers”, which has the advantage of being inoffensive, but the disadvantage of making me feel restive before I’d even read to the end of it.

With heavy heart, we settled for “experienced”, which we initially bolstered by adding “professionals”. Only then my inner Jane Austen revolted, as in her book only lawyers, doctors and clerics qualify. In the end we have gone for another dread word: “leaders”, which is not only overused but rules me out. I have never led anyone.

Corkers

The final task was to convey quality – we weren’t looking for any old “experienced leader” but for ones who would be absolute corkers as teachers. The word corker, delightful though it is, doesn’t work on a website, yet inflation in language has been so rampant that none of the old words work any more.

“Good” now means bad, and “great” means mediocre. Even “extraordinary” is now workaday: the word appears nearly three million times on LinkedIn. The obvious answer is to avoid adjectives, only if you do, the result is too flat, which won’t do if you are trying to sell yourself. So we went for “formidable”, and were almost all set, until along came an expert who said our words might have pleased us, but they would fail to impress Google’s search algorithms. It was back to the drawing board.

So now when I search, the first result says: “Now Teach is a teacher training programme for experienced career changers looking to reapply their skills to the classroom.” As a writer I dislike it. George Orwell would have had a fit. But then he didn’t have to deal with search engines. And he was as much trying to cause offence as to avoid it.

Still, as someone who is trying to start a movement, I like the words a great deal. I’ve stopped demanding freshness or elegance of them; I only care that they do the job. And it seems they do. Despite the euphemism, cliche and fudge, nearly 650 people have applied already. Most are longish in the tooth. All are experienced, many impressively so. But most pleasingly, some are shaping up to be absolute corkers. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)

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