My family and I went to watch an outdoor theatre performance of Twelfth Night in Chester at the weekend. I’m no Shakespeare scholar and I can sometimes struggle to keep up, but I do try to listen carefully and I often find long passages of prose that completely blow me away. From Twelfth Night this line stood out for me, spoken by Feste the clown to express his distrust of language: “A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.” The castaway Viola (disguised as a man) replies, “Nay, that’s certain. They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.” Now that’s a prophetic 430-year old piece of advice for corporate communicators if ever there was! Workplace communication, with its tendency for meaningless jargon and ambiguous or politically correct language can so very easily be misunderstood. Sometimes our (perfectly well intended) communications are so dressed up with context, background and justification that the true message gets lost mid-way down page two after acres of pointless preamble. Such communications can indeed backfire on us if we’ don’t follow the golden rules of clarity, brevity and consistency. Not only does the message get lost, but the style becomes part of the culture. There are plenty of “good wits” in our organisations ready to turn our over-crafted sentences against us. Similarly, “they that dally nicely with words” by trying to inject unnecessary and unwarranted hyperbole “may quickly make them wanton” by over-using expressive adjectives and diluting the true meaning of potentially powerful messages. We could do worse than take the advice of the Bard. He knew a thing or two about getting a point across…. even if 400 years on no-one knows what the hell a ‘cheveril glove’ is (some sort of loose animal skin apparently).
By the way, at the same time as I was posting this entry, this article appeared on LinkedIn. Similar sentiments but much better written than mine!