Avoid word barriers with your audience
Be constructive: don’t succumb to ‘lurker jargon’
A few months ago, during a typically manic quarter end, a problem arose in our office of the type that profoundly exercises us investment communicators. To wit, a commentary arrived from one of our overseas writers stating that profitability had improved “on the margin”.
Our editor piped up. In this context (a rationale for why a position was being held), what did we suppose that “on the margin” meant? Was it a reference to profit margins? Or could it perhaps mean that profits had improved in some of the company’s peripheral operations? Our curiosity, not to mention legible copy, demanded an answer.
After waiting a while for our Asia-based colleague to return to working hours, the reply arrived. “It doesn’t mean anything much,” he said.
On the face of it, no harm done. And even if this throwaway phrase had made it into the final commentary, the world, one suspects, would have kept on turning.
But that was exactly the point. By casually throwing this apparently innocuous but, as it turned out, thoroughly meaningless phrase into the mix, we would have been adding to the kind of subtle finance-speak that is certainly not the worst linguistic offender, but is all the more insidious for that.
Call it “lurker jargon”. Light years from the most egregious phrases (“detailed modalities”, say, or “cascading relevant information”), lurker jargon takes the form of minor additions or slight tweaks to well-known phrases, with the apparent intention of either muddying the waters somewhat or conveying a touch of authority.
Indeed, some of these phrases amount to little more than slightly unconventional word choices, making their threat to clear, accessible communications all the more slippery.
Take the word “constructive”, a frequent prefix for stocks about which investment managers may feel – whisper it – positive. When a commentary states that a manager or analyst is “constructive” on this or that holding, most people would get the general idea.
The question then becomes, why use constructive (a word whose several meanings emphatically do not include “positive” or “optimistic”) rather than one of the more universally accepted options?
Industry figures might argue that “positive” doesn’t quite capture the nuance of “constructive”, or is too unequivocal. But if a regular word or phrase doesn’t quite capture a desired meaning, the answer, surely, is to use one that does – “broadly positive” might do it, or “generally upbeat” – rather than create something new and, by its nature, exclusive.
Other examples of these lexical substitutions abound. Instead of the clear, unmistakeable “loss”, some commentators have
In an equally galling incarnation, this lurker jargon can take the form of words that are correctly applied but used with such excess as to stand out like a klaxon. In the world of investment writing, it seems that ever fewer things happen “following” or “after” something else.
Instead, everything is “post”. The likes of “post-election, markets rose dramatically” or “post the rise in oil prices, energy stocks rallied” are seen with increasing regularity. Again, this may function well as a shorthand for insiders, but is that really the standard we want when communicating to the outside world?
No one is disputing that finance and investment frequently require nuanced language, tailored to its audience. And we are certainly not advocating that all investment communications strive to win Lucy Kellaway’s Wan Long prize.
But as with jargon more generally, it is difficult to argue that the purpose of lurker jargon is anything other than erecting a barrier between the speaker or writer and her audience. As subtle or innocuous as they may seem, these slight tweaks of language are destined to give rise to distance, insiders and outsiders, and, ultimately, a lack of clarity. And we need only look back to the financial crisis, with its CMOs and CDOs, to see where that can lead.
Niels Footman is Head of Marketing at Copylab, an international communications agency based in Scotland.
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