Big words, little effect

Politicians and civil servants aren't the only ones who need to be reminded to communicate clearly. Everyone needs a nudge, of course, including journalists. A wordsmith might rightly argue that certain audiences demand some jargon to keep communication brisk or expressive language to enrich their reading experience. There is a time and place for literary flourishes, done well and appropriately.

But the public almost always wants important information to be crystal clear, as top leaders have emphasised over the years. The latest call comes from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who has suggested a website to highlight forms of government-speak that one should avoid.

That list would more likely than not be a long one. For example, "retirement adequacy" uttered so often by policymakers recently does nothing to help clarify the CPF scheme. Public servants, it would seem, have also grown rather fond of speaking of the multiple "strategic thrusts" that their organisations are making. Others will have to fight the urge to "incentivise" through "subventions" to foster "mindset shifts" on key "policy parameters". Such jargon or overused expressions are often bandied about more than necessary, becoming fodder for satirists. But that is to be welcomed if it helps prod those dealing with the public to make ease of understanding the touchstone of their efforts.

For a start, one might examine what's behind the persistence of academic terms, management buzzwords and jargon. Perhaps there's a fear that speaking plainly might leave a plain impression and simple talk is for simpletons. Officials who habitually bat intellectual concepts within their circles may find it hard to switch tack and keep it simple, especially when policies are necessarily complex, with many dimensions to cater to different needs. But they must, simply because policymaking is not an intellectual exercise done in a seminar room, and a failure to communicate a policy's intent could render it ineffective, or irrelevant.

Every policy framer, speechwriter, newsmaker offering a soundbite, and messenger tasked with getting across ideas to a wider audience ought to be persuaded that Hemingway-like simpli-city is far better than Kafkaesque pomposity. This goes beyond just effective communication. Speaking and writing in a perceived elevated manner creates distance and distrust between officials and members of the public. This can arise when people wonder if a speaker is making things sound more complex than they need be to cloud an issue, avoid answering key questions, or mask insincerity. It is important to leave no such doubt by keeping public communications short, sharp and simple.