Words that drive me nuts

November 5th, 2015

Language, such an interesting topic. I’ve always been keen on plain English – or plain language, if you like. Solid words like nouns and verbs, without the added distractions of adjectives.

A travel brochure landed in my letterbox this week and here’s why this particular company is “the only way to travel”. (Really?) A professionally planned itinerary. Well, duh. I suppose an unprofessional itinerary, or one that’s not planned at all is well, not an itinerary worth considering. And here’s a selection of meaningless adjectives used: unparalleled, enriching, strategically, rich, seamlessly, one-of-a-kind, extensive, comfortable, traditional, preferential… And that’s just on the first page!

Such language rolls of people’s tongues in organisations too. Words that are abstract, and open to many interpretations: outcomes, objectives, sustainable, collaborative, deliverables. Here’s an example (made up, of course) of how these words might be used: “We are an outcomes-focused organisation, that uses collaborative and sustainable approaches to ensure our strategic objectives and deliverables are congruent with our organisational values and aspirations.” I threw in a few more. I’m on a roll! After a while I lose the will to live and just want to shout, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN?” I’m not alone, surely?

Language, please!

February 4th, 2015

It’s not what you’re thinking. I have no problem with bad language, swearing, cussing. Fuck no. My friend Kay Scorah wrote a brilliant piece recently about all those words you probably shouldn’t be using. As they say, be warned, strong language – and now go read it. I’ll wait.

Johnnie Moore found this gem too on the Ad Contrarian website. I couldn’t watch the video to the end. I was done after about a minute. Go have a look. It’s about McDonald’s philosophies, I think. I couldn’t get past the jargon and cliches.

Jargon. Cliches. Rhetoric. Weasel words. Obfucations.

I’m done with them.

Don’t tell me you’re a thought leader. I don’t want to hear about your innovation incubator. I don’t believe the answer to all your problems at work are to clarify roles and responsibilities. I certainly don’t care about your open and transparent dialogue. Business as usual is so overused it has its own acronym.

I want to hear plain language. Solid words. Anything ending with ‘..ion’ is probably an abstraction. Sounds fancy. Means not much.


The meaning of words

December 3rd, 2014

Play WordleMusing over the meaning of these words – play, playfulness, game, activity, ice-breaker and warm-up – I invited others to share their understanding. Even with a sample size of 14 responses*, there’s some interesting insights regarding word meanings and the use of language when facilitating. here’s what i discovered.

Some people gave meanings for each word, others took the words as a collective and said what they mean to them: eg “Fun, sharing and the unknown”; “getting together and learning from having fun”. So there’s my first insight:

Even instructions are interpreted differently

That’s not to say everyone should interpret instructions the same way (unless it’s the safe operation of a chainsaw). There’s something interesting and unexpected about what emerges from different interpretations of instructions. Plus, who am I to know the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way of doing an activity?

A word with no context can be taken many different ways

Play, for example can be a verb (activities done primarily for leisure or enjoyment), a noun (a theatrical performance), or an object (the button you push to start a DVD player). This really drove home the point for me that, as facilitators, we may use words that mean a certain thing to us, but may be interpreted quite differently by others. It’s a clue, I think, to talk less, and do more.

There was no agreement on what these words mean, because ‘meanings are slippery’

Thanks to the person who alerted me to this. I understand what I mean when I use a particular word, you may understand something completely different. I remember an animated argument I once had with a US journalist about ‘organic’ agriculture. After a while, I asked him what he meant by ‘organic’ and we discovered that what I understood to be ‘organic’ he understood as ‘biodynamic’: related yes, but somewhat different. We sometimes need to clarify and negotiate what we mean when we use various words. And sometimes we need to be open to accepting a different, or changed, meaning to the one we had in mind.

Our experiences and influencers shape our understanding

“I didn’t come all this way to play games!” said a manager in one of my workshops. In his mind ‘play’ and ‘game’ had a particular meaning, and place. And it certainly wasn’t in a facilitated workshop. A colleague is very clear that a ‘game’ is something that has rules, winners and losers. If it’s a collaborative, group game then, in his mind, it’s not a ‘game’, it’s an activity. A hunter would have a different understanding of ‘game’ eg a wild animal; and game can be used as an adjective ‘are you game to do that?’

Language is an abstraction and representative

The words I type here reflect my thoughts, they are not my thoughts. The word ‘chair’ is not a chair. At least a chair is a concrete object that I can point to, touch, feel, and sit in – even though there are many different types of chairs. Abstract language, which crops up a lot in workshops, is even harder to deal with: communication, strategy, best practice etc. and is fraught with danger.

Meaning can be sucked out of words

Don Watson, in his book, Weasel Words (2004), talks about ‘sucking the meaning out of words’. “This is a language without possibility. It cannot convey humour, fancy, feelings, nuance, or the varieties of experience…This dead, depleted, verbless jargon is becoming the language of daily life. The death of language is not being brought about by absent commas, and misplaced apostrophes, or even by neglected grammar. Foolish as that neglect is, the real disease is in the system…it is there in the cant of competitive advantage and human resources management, transparency, accountability: in the clichés, consumer, client, key, core, going forwards, at the end of the day, outcomes-based. It is there in the pompous lunacy of management jargon which reaches from the world’s biggest corporations and government agencies…to primary schools where children now use PowerPoint in English presentations and are taught to call the conclusions of their history essays product.”

We can have an emotional reaction to particular words

And usually it’s not a good reaction – these words close us down. You probably know what yours are. If someone tells me in a workshop that ‘communication is the problem’ I inwardly sigh and immediately wish I were somewhere else; if someone suggest a SWOT analysis I want to scream. These words trigger a response in me. They may be completely benign to others. In his recent AFN post, Peter Rennie, talks about ‘taboo’ words and muses as to what makes them taboo. Is it because they are ‘shadow’ words, words that remind us of something we’d rather forget or ignore? Interesting question.

What’s all this got to do with facilitating?

Language is a form of power. Don Watson (2003) again: “Public language that defies normal understanding is, as Primo Levi wrote, ‘an ancient repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires’. They will tell you it is in the interests of leadership, management, efficiency, stakeholders, the bottom line or some democratic imperative, but the public language remains the language of power. It has its origins in the subjection or control of one by another.”

As facilitators we need to cultivate our ability to sniff out weasel words and to challenge them. In a workshop someone suggested ‘business as usual’ was needed. This is a meaningless term to me, so I probed a bit more. What they really wanted to say was ‘we need to honour our existing commitments’. Still not great, but at least better than ‘business as usual’.

And we also need to be aware of our own facilitation weasel words. There’s a great hash tag on Twitter #shitfacilitatorssay. I cringe every time, seeing myself using ‘facilitator’ language.

It pays to be vigilant – to notice the language others use, to notice the language we use, to be aware of the power of language, and to sometimes let go of language altogether and tap into more embodied experiences of sharing.

* To be perfectly clear, this is definitely not a scientific study – it was a random on-line question to facilitator groups with the invitation to share what these words mean to them.


Don Watson (2003) Death sentence; the decay of public language, Random House, Sydney.

Don Watson (2004) Watson’s dictionary of weasel words, contemporary clichés, cant and management jargon, Random House, Sydney.

Kinetic type AND language AND Stephen Fry

September 28th, 2014

In my last post about interests, I mentioned that one of them was kinetic type.

This can be traced back to early days in my career when I worked with a hugely talented graphic artist, Frank Moore, who taught me the ins and outs of typography (not to mention layout and design, pre-internet no less). On a recent visit to Oxford, a highlight was a visit to the Oxford University Press Museum to see early examples of type and book production.

So I obviously love this Stephen Fry  kinetic type video. Its topic is about another love of mine; language. Enjoy.

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And if you enjoyed that, you might also like this one I made a few years ago about facilitating. Maybe it’s time for a new one?

Language matters

September 24th, 2014

It matters more than you think. The language we use reveals a lot. The language I use as a facilitator reveals a lot about me (so much so that Sascha Rixon did a whole PhD on facilitation language) and the language you use can be like an open door, welcoming me into your world, or like a barrier, holding me at a distance so as I don’t get too close. Many of us use language without giving it a second thought.

This article by Hannah Jane Parkinson in the Guardian about what not to say to someone with bipolar disorder, has one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read. Yes, it’s about language. It’s the difference between ‘is’ and ‘has’ – such small words, such a world of difference.

Hannah writes: I think it is more polite to say someone “has bipolar” than “is bipolar”. You wouldn’t say that somebody “was cancer”. You wouldn’t say: “This is Maya. She is diabetes.” But people will talk of someone “being bipolar”.

This, I think, is true of anyone suffering any mental illness: they are not depressed, they have depression; they are not anxious, they suffer anxiety; they are not bipolar, they have bipolar.  This helps me situate mental illness where it belongs, as a recoverable illness, not as a defining characteristic of a person.

I’m also supporting the ABC’s Mental As initiative for Mental Health Week 5 – 12 October. It’s worth checking out the huge variety of stories people tell about mental illness. It’s all part of breaking down the stigma.

3 tips for science communications

August 16th, 2012

It’s National Science Week here in Australia. I’m quite fond of science and scientists: I’m married to a scientist; I even studied science once; I dabbled in science communications; I failed to get a Churchill Fellowship to explore science communications; and I love just about anything to do with space exploration. I’m a big fan of science fiction and I’ve been known to read New Scientist at the hairdressers (I bring my own). (Credentials. Tick.)

It dismays me how scientists – so full of passion and creativity – sometimes make the wondrous mundane, and the story of their work stripped of emotion. It’s no surprise to me that many scientists I know have a hobby in the creative arts – music, painting, photography, art. Most scientists I know are also human, with all the emotions that humans possess. They want, just like the rest of us, to love and be loved, for compassion, for connection and for their stories to be heard.

The structures and protocols of science communications provides both a shield and a barrier – a shield from criticism by outsiders, and a barrier to sharing knowledge and meaning. It’s left to the media stars of science communications – like Prof Brian Cox – to do the heavy lifting.

So what about the everyday scientist? The ones spending hours at the bench; the ones analysing mountains of data, how can they share their story, their piece of the puzzle, their contribution (maybe not even with the big wide world, just with friends and family)?

Improvised theatre appears to be the antithesis of science. Science is all controlled and documented, improvised theatre is spontaneous and ephemeral. Yet science is full of spontaneity, surprises, and serendipity. Ask any scientist. And improvised theatre is full of structure. Ask any improviser.

So I’d like to offer these communication tips from improvised theatre to any scientists out there wanting to share their story. And we want to hear your story, your struggle and your delight.

Be average
I know, I know. Science is all about excellence. And yes, it is. But not to the rest of us. We mere mortals have no idea what you’re doing. We don’t know the importance, we don’t know where it will lead. You don’t have to impress us like you might think you have to impress your peers. To us what you are doing is already extraordinary.

Story is not a dirty word
Ever had the advice to just stick to the facts? Don’t embellish, strip out the emotion blah blah blah. It’s all rubbish. Stories, and storytelling, is part of our human DNA. Then I hear things like, “I don’t know where to start, or what to say.” (See be average above). Here’s an approach that’s pretty universal for structuring stories.

1. Establish where and when your story takes place.

2. Describe the normal state of affairs.

3. Tell us what the catalyst for change was – the need, the want, the search for understanding…

4. What happened, and what were the consequences.

5. What happened after that, and what were the consequences.

6. Depending on your story you might repeat this step a number of times.

7. The resolution – what happened in the end (or what do you hope will happen).

8. And finally, how are things different (or will they be different).

In other words, this is known as a Story Spine. In more general terms it looks like this…

1. Once upon a time…

2. Every day…

3. But one day…

4. 5. 6. Because of that…

7. Until finally…

8. And ever since then…

Improvisers use this framework all the time to ‘make up’ stories on the spot. It makes improvisers look much cleverer than they really are! It’s the structure of The Story Spine that is the brilliance.

Colour – Advance
There’s a thing called The Curse of Knowledge. It reminds us, whenever we become an expert at something, that it’s just about impossible to remember what it’s like to be a novice. And when scientists devote their lives to something, like scientific research, they gather LOTS of information. What, then to share, and what to leave out, when communicating? After all, communication is not a solitary activity – it involves someone receiving your message, no matter what medium you use to send it.

Colour – Advance is a really useful way of testing your message. It works really well with someone who is not familiar with your work. You invite them to listen to, or read, something you want to communicate. They can give two instructions only:

1. Colour. This means provide more detail, go to greater depth.

2. Advance. Move the story forward. I want to know what happens next.

Notice what they want more of, and where they want the story to move forward. Adjust accordingly.

Happy Science Week everyone.

The world is full of talented people!

August 9th, 2011

Here’s just two examples. I love this video from Mr Simon Taylor about language. Brilliant.

And then there’s this one by Rick Mereki. I want to know how he did it.

Voices in groups

March 28th, 2011

Body language gets a lot of press when exploring group dynamics. Voice not so much. Here’s a few random thoughts and observations about different ways we use our voice in groups, based on what I do and observations in groups.

  • Phatic communication: verbal ‘stroking’ (aka small talk) to establish a rudimentary relationship with strangers before embarking on further conversation
  • Avoiding experiencing something or doing an activity/game by abstracting, asking questions, clarifying etc – talking about the activity rather than doing it
  • Avoiding saying something meaningful or exposing a vulnerability by abstracting, asking questions, clarifying etc. This also includes externalising – talking about others, rather than about myself.
  • Filling silences. Some silences are companionable, others uncomfortable. When someone uses their voice to fill a companionable silence, it’s jarring; when they use their voice to fill an uncomfortable silence, it’s a relief. We all seem to have different tolerances for silence.
  • Shifting status. We can use our voice to subtly (or even not so subtly) shift our own status in a group (this usually means raising our status or making a status attack). We can also use our voice to raise or lower the status of other people.
  • Verbal batting, which often includes interrupting. You know the deal. I start saying something and before I’ve finished someone else jumps in by interrupting me with their idea, and then I do the same back. Backwards and forwards we go, batting ideas around.
  • Holding people hostage. One person talking to a large group with no obvious means of escape for the audience members (except maybe those who have embodied the Law of Two Feet).
  • Singing. Music can transform and when someone uses their voice to sing it can have an amazing impact on a group.

Yes! No! Maybe!

August 17th, 2009

In some cultures, yes means yes, and no means no. Elsewhere yes is the answer to everything. And sometimes yes means no, and no means yes. Or maybe. And other times, it depends – on who answers first, what the question is, or even who asks it.

This creates a few dilemmas for facilitators.

And it reminds me of this puzzle that Dave Winer posted recently:

Four logicians are having breakfast. Waitress asks — Will you all be having coffee? The first logician says “I don’t know.” Second says “I don’t know.” Third says “I don’t know.” Fourth says “No.” The waitress returns with their coffees. Who gets coffee?

Or the story Malcolm Gladwell tells in his book Outliers about Korean air crashes, which on investigation had little to do with knowledge or flying skill, and a lot to do with teamwork and communication, particularly ‘mitigated speech’. “We mitigate when we’re being polite, or when we’re ashamed or embarrassed, or when we’re being deferential to authority,” writes Gladwell (pp 194). He goes on to describe research by Ute Fischer and Judith Orasanu that describes at least six ways to persuade, with different levels of mitigation. In this case, the example relates to persuading the pilot to change course.

1. Command: “Turn thirty degrees right.” That’s the most direct and explicit way of making a point imaginable. It’s zero mitigation.

2. Crew Obligation Statement: “I think we need to deviate right about now.” Notice the use of “we” and the fact that the request is now much less specific. That’s a little softer.

3. Crew Suggestion: “Let’s go around the weather.” Implicit in the statement is “we’re in this together.”

4. Query: “Which direction would you like to deviate?” That’s even softer than the crew suggestion, because the speaker is conceding that he’s not in charge.

5. Preference: “I think it would be wise to turn left or right.”

6. Hint: “That return at twenty-five miles looks mean.” This is the most mitigated statement of all.

While Captains said they had no problem issuing commands, the first officers, when talking to their boss, would choose the most mitigated alternative. They hinted. (pp 195).

This suggests to me that we need to be aware of the questions we’re asking when facilitating, the language we use, the linguistic norms of the group we’re working with and the dynamics in the room. All the more reason to be present to what is actually happening, rather than planning for what you think will happen.