Plain talking: Gobbledygook costs money and risks lives

Conference on clearer language hears communication often a matter of life and death

Needlessly complicated communication from pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals could be putting patients’ lives at risk, a conference on plain language taking place in Dublin has been told.

The 10th International Plain Conference, which promotes clearer language among businesses and state organisations, heard that communication in the health sector was frequently a matter of life and death - and fear of litigation rather an attempt to communicate effectively with patients was behind much of the language used in correspondence and on packaging.

Deborah Bosley, the president of Plain, alluded to the lengthy and frequently unreadable contraindication information on drug packaging and pointed out that "disclosure does not equal communication".

Dr Neil James of the Plain English Foundation in Australia echoed Ms Bosley's concerns about inefficient communications putting patients' lives at risk.


Ethical component

“There is a serious ethical component to this, and people have a right to understand what is being said to them. We are talking about life and death consequences.”

Ms Bosley also addressed the inaccessible communication commonly found coming out of financial institutions and suggested the mortgage crisis in the US would not have been so grave had banks used clearer language when communicating with customers.

“I don’t put any of the responsibility for the failings of the communication on the shoulders of the consumers,” she said.

"Even Albert Einstein said make everything as simple as possible. Some big organisations are hiding behind complexity. If [a financial product] is too complex to be explained, that says something about the financial instrument itself. Businesses place a value on complexity, but it is easy to be complex and it is hard to be simple."

She recalled an example of a US financial institution which sent out a letter to its customers and almost immediately received 10,000 calls from recipients asking what it meant - wasting countless staff hours and costing the company millions of dollars.

Dr James said in his view, governments all over the world were “starting to recognise that clear communication is essential”.

He suggested that the “main barriers to effective communications are in mid-level management. Executives have no problem with plain language, and nor do the troops. It is at the mid-level where it is most difficult to bring about change.”

Inez Bailey of National Adult Literacy Agency in Ireland, which was hosting the conference in Dublin Castle, said "so much communication isn't effective or efficient and it is not reaching the people it is supposed to be reaching".

She suggested the State was one of the big offenders when it came to poor communication. “We need people to demand this and to say, ‘Give it to me in a form that I understand’. We would love to see more people simply saying : ‘Sorry, I don’t understand this. I want it done better’.”

Save us from jargon

Britain’s civil servants have been banned from using the jargon that has kept the comedy writers from ‘Yes Minister’ to ‘The Thick of It’ in gags for years. Here are some words that are banned:

Slimming down (processes don’t diet)

Foster (unless it is children)

Agenda (unless it is for a meeting)

Commit/pledge (we’re either doing something or we’re not)

Deliver (pizzas, post and services are delivered – not abstract concepts such as ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities’)

Deploy (unless it is military or software)

Dialogue (we speak to people)

Key (unless it unlocks something. A subject/thing isn’t ‘key’ – it’s probably ‘important’)

Progress (as a verb – what are you actually doing?)

Promote (unless you are talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion)

Strengthening (unless it’s strengthening bridges or other structures)

Tackling (unless it is rugby, football or some other sport)

Transforming (what are you actually doing to change it?)

Going forward (unlikely we are giving travel directions)

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast