Doubleplusgood By Kevin Thompson


I was ‘tasked’ to do something recently.

‘Tasked’?  …I took it to mean ‘asked’ only I had to do it, whatever it was.  So I guess I was being told to do it then.   But tasked somehow sounds sexier…

Jargon is a temptation that is hard to resist.  It arrives one day in the neighbourhood, shiny and immaculate as a new car, and people have an urge to test it.  They want to be proactive in this respect.

After all why say ‘talk’ when you can say ‘dialogue’? The latter makes you sound so much more profound.

But the trend for NHS jargon has been officially exposed.  In 2014 NICE, the National Institute for Care and Excellence, released guidance on how to write more effectively, or put it another way, how to communicate more effectively.

I make this point because that’s what writing is – communication.  Thinking about writing as communication stops me parroting out jargon.  Or so I thought.

NICE compiled a list of jargon to avoid whenever possible – some of which are listed below.

Back-filling   Deliver (when you mean abstract concepts such as improvements)

Dialogue       Drivers (for change)           Facilitate (use ‘enable’ or similar)

Going forward         Impact (used as a verb)      Incentivise/disincentivise            Issue 

Key (try ‘important’)  Progress (when used as a verb)

Robust          Signposting Streamline

Oh dear. Hands up.   I have used some of those words…quite often.  But it is a relief to know that I am one of many sinners in this regard in my NHS Trust; how often do you see the word ‘robust’ used these days in reports and the like?  It has become the writer’s equivalent of salt, to be sprinkled over everything to make things more palatable.  In fact I can’t remember the last time I saw a plan that wasn’t ‘robust’.  Before the word ‘robust’ became a first team fixture for ‘official’ reporting, did it mean that every plan fell apart when exposed to gentle winds?   I like cake.  But I don’t ask for a slice of ‘robust’ cake in a cafe, yet a piece of Victoria Sponge that disintegrates on impact is no use to anyone.  I think that it’s probably common sense that means you don’t have to ask for robust cake.  People just know it. You don’t need to say it.

But often when I have my manager’s hat on, I can forget common sense in my efforts to sound the part, to sound suitably ‘authoritative’.  So you dress up sentences like a Christmas turkey, forgetting that you should be communicating.  It’s not good to forget that you are talking to real people; having imaginary conversations with an audience entirely composed of versions of yourself won’t help.

I offer up an analogy.   I had a friend called Claire.  She used to give me lifts to work.  Claire was a pleasant, chatty person; but I used to dread the lift – when she got behind the wheel, she became a public menace.  When I asked Claire about her habit of commonly using the horn as a means to tell (slower) people to get out of her way, she talked about driving as if it was a dog eat dog world where she had to bark loudest.  I was baffled; when we walked to the shops to get a sandwich at lunch she didn’t push people out of the way, so why did ownership of a Fiesta XR2i (in red) turn her into a monster?

My point is that Claire projected a daft idea of driving which affected and prevented her real, thoughtful self from taking control.  I think many of us do something similar in our working lives; this feeds into our communication – we allow this projection of what ‘official writing’ is to circumvent our natural impulse to communicate clearly.  So I end up facilitating rather than doing, auditing rather than checking…etc.

And jargon isn’t just fancy words when plain ones will do.  If we want to be truly open in the NHS we have to recognise that the public doesn’t necessarily understand the implications of words such as ‘diversity’ or ‘engagement’ – NHS insiders use such terms with distinct, internally understood set of meanings that may not be available to the person on the street.  Such words in normal life have a different, set of meanings – ‘engagement’ is something that happens before marriage, and ‘diversity’ may reflect the plant life in your garden.  Openness cannot happen when we load up our communication with a particular set of internal codified meanings that effectively ‘fence off’ non NHS and NHS people.

Hello My Name is Kevin

Kevin Thompson – Corporate Performance Team.

Duncan Macmillan House

Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

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2 thoughts on “Doubleplusgood By Kevin Thompson

  1. As Head of Communications for the Trust I couldn’t agree with you more! The NHS (like most industries) has a language of its own and we have to be really careful not to fall into the trap of using jargon when plain English would do the job better. I could add to your list of words:

    Granularity (makes a difference)
    Commenced (began)
    Blue sky thinking (thinking!)
    Empowered (take responsibility)

    We try and use plain English and I think some of our skills are around translating complex ideas and plans into simple, accessible information. However not every document produced by the Trust comes through our office and so we have an educational job to do in encouraging staff to speak and write in a clear jargon free way – communications is not all about the written word but so much more! Our communications strategy expands on what we should be doing around here:

    • Speaking and writing in Plain English. Plain English means that we use language that everyone understands; When talking to patients or colleagues who are not of our own speciality, or anyone else, avoiding using jargon or we will explain the medical, technical or management language we are using;
    • Not speaking in acronyms or initials without explaining them first;
    • Being aware of our body language and how it might communicate to those we are talking or listening to. Trying to actively listen and hold eye contact when involved in face-to-face communication;
    • Recognising that people do not always absorb information completely at first hearing. Giving people the opportunity to ask questions there and then or on another occasion if they need to;
    • Feeling comfortable about telling people when we do not understand what they are saying or what they have written. Being comfortable with challenging others and being challenged ourselves and as a learning organisation welcoming feedback and constructive criticism;
    • Always trying to put ourselves in the position of those we are communicating with and treating people how we would like to be treated through both face-to-face and written communications, including elements of equality and diversity;
    • It is important that communications is a two way process, encompassing staff, FT members, service users, carers and other stakeholders.

    We might not get it right every time – but it’s everyone’s job – not just the Communications team!

    Julie Grant Head of Communications, Nottinghamshire Healthcare

  2. Most of these words are used due to laziness. It is easy to churn out all the jargon and buzzwords. Thoughts for a better word are much more bother. There are some reasons for using longer words because in some cases they explain the situation more correctly than the more common words. However jargon and the current words are a menace but can save time when you are communicating with another who recognises the word. In fact it becomes the norm of speech especially in the same ranks or positions of people. It gives the feeling of belonging in a group or club which is very warming. It becomes corporate speak as often as wearing suits and dresses applicable to your group. The trouble with jargon etc is when it is talked outside the group to another group with different jargon patterns. I was always taught to write for the reader level either higher or lower with consideration. This is what we should do when we talk, match the level to the listener. So many people write as they are writing to their own level and talk the same hence a mismatch of understanding. This often occurs in presenting information in leaflets etc. Also the jargon words are a good way of hiding your own feelings or being honest. They can obscure and mislead. I will finish with my philosophy ‘Never use a big word when the diminutive will suffice’ ! Michael Osborne

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