Why do some executives use vague and complex language in public statements? Why can’t they use simple, plain language that everyone can understand? If you are an executive and need to make a public statement make sure you avoid these three things that make public statements hard to understand.
In a recent announcement, Nike’s CFO talked to the press about their supply problems. Here’s what he said, reported by the BBC:
We are not immune to the global supply chain headwinds that are challenging the [manufacturing] and movement of product around the world. We expect all geographies to be impacted by these factors.
What is this? Could the message be any less clear?
To avoid buzzword-filled, unclear messages make sure you avoid these three things that make public statements hard to understand.
Buzzwords make things less clear
For a start, why does a supply chain have headwinds? Is Nike embracing low carbon transport and has gone back to using the sailing ships from the 1700s?
As nice as it would be to see more square riggers on the oceans, I doubt that’s what Nike’s CFO meant. In the world of business buzzwords, headwinds are ‘things that make it harder’ or ‘things that slow us down’. It is a reference to delivery problems hundreds of years ago. In ye olde days, headwinds would slow down delivery by ship. In Nike’s defence, using the word ‘headwinds’ makes some sense. After all, they are talking about the movement of goods around the world. But that isn’t much of a defence.
The problem with using words like ‘headwinds’ is that most people need to pause and think about what it means. The word might be familiar but the context it is used in is unfamiliar. If we have to stop to think in the middle of a sentence it makes the whole message harder to understand.
If a public statement is difficult to understand, the person making it is failing in their job.
Don’t use words in the wrong context
Going back to the statement, what about the word ‘geographies’? The word does exist, it is the plural of the word ‘geography’. But is it used in the appropriate sense in the Nike announcement?
According to the Collins Dictionary, the word ‘geography’ has three meanings:
- The study of the natural features of the earth’s surface, including topography, climate, soil, vegetation and humankind’s response to them.
- The natural features of a region.
- An arrangement of constituent parts; a plan; a layout.
Which of these three definitions is the Nike update pluralising? Are they expecting all studies of the natural features to be impacted? Or is it the natural features themselves that are impacted by supply chain issues? I’m not even sure how to link the third definition to what Nike said.
This is an example of a word that sounds good but doesn’t actually mean anything in the context it is used. Unclear business language is full of words like these. Here’s a tip — don’t use them. Pick a simpler word that is easy to understand. Instead of ‘geographies’, use ‘locations’ or ‘places’. These are simpler, clearer and quicker to say.
Simple words make messages clearer
‘Headwinds’ and ‘geographies’ are two of the more obvious issues with Nike’s statement. There are others, but dissecting them would lead to a much longer article. Instead, I’d like to show how the same message can be given using simple language.
We are not immune to the global supply chain headwinds that are challenging the manufacturing and movement of product around the world. We expect all geographies to be impacted by these factors.
Like many other companies, we are having problems making and shipping products around the world. Shoe and clothing deliveries will be delayed everywhere.
Sharing news with the press means talking to lots of people. That can be tough, so why make it tougher by using difficult language?
If you need to give a public message, especially one with bad news, keep it simple and do these three things that make public statements easier to understand: avoid buzzwords, use plain language, and if you do want to use a fancy sounding word, check that it makes sense in the context of your message before you use it.