Beware the curse of techniloquence.
Lady Justice Hallett, the coroner at the inquest into the July 7 London bombings, last week made a special request that emergency service workers should speak in plain English. The Times reported her “concern that nearly all senior witnesses had used cumbersome language”. The inquest is designed for us to find out what happened. Made-up words hinder us from understanding.
The offending terms, according to newspaper reports, included “dynamic risk assessment”, “rich situational analysis”, “national role maps”, “hot debriefs”, “safety critical communications” and “common recognised information pictures”, emanating from a document called the “Emergency Responder Inter-Operability Lexicon”.
Techniloquence is using language designed to make those who understand it sound like experts. In Aristotle’s terms, it’s all about the ethos: you decide that explaining your message and moving your listener matter less than underlining your personal expertise. Once you turn ‘using your own judgement’ into ‘rich situational analysis’, it becomes easier to justify your seniority, to design and sell training courses, to separate yourself from outsiders. Abstract language infuses everyday tasks with a hint of scientific or military achievement. The uninitiated are made to feel that unfamiliarity with this pretend language is their fault. It is an expression of power.
This comes at a price. When words are framed in the interests of the speaker, they are not framed to interest the listener. Techniloquent language deliberately stops people visualising tasks and processes. Yet persuasion relies on creating and linking images that people relate to and welcome. Hiding behind technical terms might make you feel important, but it will make you less persuasive. In the context of the inquiry, it stops the public from following the story of what happened on that terrible day.
Techniloquence? A made-up word. That’s why my colleagues prefer the term “business bollocks”.