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Comment: Words work

By Praxity executive director Græme Gordon

From the day I started in this role at Praxity I have advocated for good and better communication. With partners and staff at our Participant firms, with the broader accounting community and with all our disparate stakeholders.

To me, communication is the foundation stone of sound management and of an effective business.

I recently started to think even further about communication in this era of social media, with its instant tweets and a news cycle apparently measured in milliseconds.

I realised that what underlies good communications is perhaps the single greatest human invention. And that’s not excluding the wheel, sliced bread, or whatever is suggested by the appropriate idiom in your particular locale.

It is language. The ability of humans, not only to communicate with each other by making specific sounds but also to convey complex concepts and even emotions.

Think about it. We, the global community, speak to our nearest and dearest in a language all our own. Yes, there are currently more than 7,000 languages used around the world according to Ethnologue*. But I mean more directly – at home, we all use phrases and shorthand that can be understood by our closest family or friends because of the context.

However, even those theoretically speaking the same language don’t always fully understand each other. And that is my key point about communications. As George Bernard Shaw allegedly said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language”. I would go further –  even within a country, local variants or distinctive regional slang can render communication incomprehensible to ‘outsiders’.

In the UK, for example, if I use my lowland Scots vernacular, anyone from South East England and London would find it very hard to understand what I was saying. If you don’t believe me, try reading the words to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the song I’m sure you’ve heard and perhaps sung yourself at New Year’s celebrations. Do you really understand the key phrase “...for the sake of auld lang syne”? Or do you just sing it ‘because’? FYI, it means “...for the sake of times long past” i.e. let’s look to the future by honouring but not forgetting the past.

One can even get het up about semantics within a language. Not, for example, when to use the pluperfect ablative (which I can’t truly explain anyway, but is apparently used when discussing what had happened with something or someone) but the infamous split infinitive. Such as “To boldly go…” rather than the correct “to go boldly”. A colleague and I have hours of ‘fun’ discussing such things, as he is a strong advocate of not splitting the infinitive. I say ‘hours’, but realistically only minutes when he “edits” my various writings. I think I mainly write such things to keep him on his toes. [Ha! Ed.]

If you think this is a bit esoteric, think of today’s ubiquitous communication platform, Twitter. Until recently Twitter only allowed 147 characters, thus creating the need for brevity. This has brought about new phrases and acronyms. Did “BTY” or “BFN” exist in before Twitter? My point is that clear and unambiguous communication is essential in business and to advance any cause or proposal. But it doesn’t actually have to be complex or have all the correct syntax.

Some of the most potent communications revert to a key element of Ancient Greek rhetoric or oratory, dating back to the Sophists. The short, pithy phrase that delivers much greater impact. Think of “Veni, vidi vici”, “I think, therefore I am”. Or, more recently in the US, “Yes we can” and “Make America great again”. Simple, powerful and meaningful to those at whom it is targeted.

Choosing your words carefully will make sure you not only communicate efficiently, but effectively too and your audience will understand what you intended. I suspect we’ve all experienced clumsily drafted emails that have had unintended or unwelcome effects!

*Ethnologue, Languages of the World, Twenty-first edition (2018) 

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