The Fourth Deadly Sin of Communication is Enigma. It’s perhaps the most prevalent. “Enigma” is a polite term meaning nobody knows what you’re talking about.
During the Second War the Axis Powers used the Enigma code machines to scramble messages in such a way that you needed a similar machine and the code key to unscramble the message. Their unintelligible message was deliberate. That’s fine if you’re a U-Boat, but not if you’re in the business of professional communication! (Generally speaking, that is. There are exceptions, discussed later.)
You know you’re being enigmatic when you say something and your conversation partner stares blankly, asks you a series of questions then finally brightens, “Oh! Now I get it!” In response, you scowl and harrumph, “Well, I knew what I meant!” As long as the subject matter is not urgent, no harm done.
Technical language is too often enigmatic. Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan once warned his audience (only partly in jest) “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
Especially in technical writing and speaking, cryptic or enigmatic language has no place. The purpose of technical communication is to convey complex concepts with precision. Special effort needs to be made to ensure that the meaning is clear and unambiguous. As fans of adventure movies know, the fate of the world depends on knowing which wire to cut first-- the red or the black.
Technical language is sometimes criticized for not being “plain English”, with the unspoken assumption that every web-surfer should easily be able to read a medical, legal or scientific treatise. This criticism is misguided-- the truth is that language should be easily understood by the target audience. There is no need to “dumb down” a medical article for the benefit of the casual reader-- in fact, it would be retrograde. Terms of art have special meaning to the practitioner, allowing for more concise and unambiguous language. To translate into “plain English” would necessarily make the document verbose and complex-- so much for “plain language”. If the material is intended for a professional audience, let it be in their language. (However, if even the technically-trained audience gets lost, there’s a case for re-writing-- are you listening, Canada Revenue Agency?)
There are two caveats. First, where a professional writes for a general audience he should be writing to enlighten, not to strut. Jargon-dropping is like name-dropping-- it makes you look a pompous ass. The true professional understands the subject matter well enough to be able to explain the broad strokes of his trade in clear, everyday English.
The second caveat has to do with the giving of opinions and advice: write or speak so that you can be understood. Advising a patient that they have a serious medical condition they can neither pronounce nor understand is not only useless, but cruel. Similarly, a legal opinion which can only be read with a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary in hand is of little value to the client.
To mock the sins of others is both unkind and hypocritical, so let me make amends by suggesting a few ways to avoid falling into the Fourth Deadly Sin:
Now, before we wrap up: I had promised to talk about exceptions to the rule. There are times when you want or need to be a little murky, even if you’re not a U-Boat.
Ontario’s beloved Premier Bill Davis was a master of the Art of Fog. He loved to hold press conferences and welcomed the tough question with an air of great sincerity. After acknowledging the question and the questioner, expressing gratitude for this opportunity to clarify this very important matter, Brampton Billie would lead the press through the long grass and the swamp and into the deep woods, qualification upon qualification, parable upon parable, quoting historical figures, reeling off statistics, until finally, half an hour later, with the room in awed silence, he’d turn to the young reporter and ask, in kindly, fatherly tones, “Sarah, did that clarify things for you?” It worked every time. He was Premier for fourteen years and retired undefeated.
I’ve said that lawyers should always strive to be clear, except when they shouldn’t. There are times when an issue is better left under a snowbank, for example, in delicate negotiations, something which will get your client raging about the dirty, lying, low-life scumbag on the other side. Keep a lid on that stuff.
There’s a great gulf between telling a lie and spilling your guts. The first is wrong, the second is stupid. But sometimes, if you’re afraid there’s going to be a gunfight, filling the room with popcorn can be useful. In such cases, obfuscation is an art, not a sin.
Just understand the difference.
Sarah, did that clarify things for you?
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.