LET’S open the kimono. The language of business is a joke. It now seems to be best practice to get your ducks in a row for corporate meetings by memorising phrases like value proposition, point person and core competency. At the end of the day, buzz phrases and bizarre metaphors may take it to the next level, but the most insidious part of this corrosion of office communication is more banal: loose usage, cliche and jargon that conceal lazy thinking.
What a pleasure, then, to receive in the post a copy of The Unpublished David Ogilvy. In this anthology of office prose, most of which was never intended for a public audience, the Father of Advertising not only reveals much about his distinctive approach to his profession, but also offers a practical masterclass in clear English as a critical business tool. That it comes from a marketing man, a profession too often associated in the popular mind with obfuscation and misdirection, makes it all the more impressive.
On 7 September 1982, Ogilvy drafted a memo for internal circulation on “How to write”. Here is how he began:
“If everybody in our company took an exam in writing, the highest marks would go to the 14 directors.
The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.
Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.”
Ogilvy also drew a connection between writing well and a writer’s truth and integrity. In one speech, he attacked “verbal and typographical weasels” that encourage public scepticism about the truth of advertisements. He encouraged his audience: “Let’s take our tongues out of our cheeks. Let’s try and write like human beings.” His final tip in a list for his copywriters was: “Whenever you write a commercial, bear in mind that it is likely to be seen by your children, your wife – and your conscience.”
Ogilvy’s passion for clear and honest words finds an echo in George Orwell, who wrote: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” In his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell agrees that clear language is the first step to clear thoughts, arguing that “the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” It was a theme that haunted his work. The horrors of Newspeak, in his masterpiece, 1984, explore just how far the corrosion of language might be used to constrain intelligent thought.
Orwell worried about the impact of language on politics, but today it is business that should be concerned. Not just because sloppy language risks encouraging sloppy thinking, but because a sector that can only speak in jargon leaves the public with the impression it has something to hide. Let’s park the thought that language doesn’t matter. We need to manage the optics of this.