Sheep from goats

By | 4th August 2011

As a lawyer, I am all too aware of the tendency of my profession to wrap up ideas and concepts in language which, to the average outsider, sounds like impenetrable gibberish.

The ability of so-called insiders to construct a special language marks out a territory to which outsiders are not admitted or are only admitted upon sufferance or the payment of a hefty entry fee. Lawyers do it, accountants do it, even litigation support professionals do it! Technology is no exception.

Even lovers do it! They have pet names for each other, private jokes and they laugh at things the rest of us do not find funny.

Nothing wrong in that but it is just another example of keeping out those who are not in the club. If you are trying to sell your services, however, that strategy is doomed to fail.

One of the first things I always do when speaking at a seminar or looking at a piece of marketing material is to assume that my intended audience has absolutely no idea what I am talking about. You soon realise that to use jargon is completely pointless because the audience really will not understand you.

It has always struck me forcefully that probably the greatest barrier to persuading lawyers to accept technology is the almost complete inability of the litigation support professional to explain what the technology brings to the party in terms that the lawyer can understand. For that reason I set out some time ago on the right hand side of this page the A to Z of terms commonly used in the industry with a plain English explanation.

My thanks go to EY’s  Jonathan Maas (@MaasJonathan) for pointing me, via LinkedIn, to an article in BBC News Magazine: Americanisms: 50 of your most noted examples. It starts off with that all too prevalent phrase these days “Can I get?” used by increasing numbers of the under 40s to ask for a cup of coffee or a drink and for all I know anything else they want. The article lists the 50 “worst” Americanisms which are creeping into our language. Some of them are truly mind bogglingly awful/sloppy such as “gotten”, ” that’ll learn you”  and “eaterie”.  If you thought this was going to be a rant about the creeping use of Americanisms into English you will be disappointed. I forget who it was who first described Britain and America as two countries divided by a common language but you get my point. If language is to be useful it must be understood by those to whom it is addressed. The problem with the new Americanisms is that often we just do not understand what is being said and in the world of business that just is not clever.

I am very happy to enter into that sort of exchange with anyone who is interested as there are definitely words the use of which really gets my goat. Now where did that phrase come from? But now is not the time.

Talking of goats, I was struck the other day by a goat in Bishop’s Square. For those of you who do not regularly walk round the old Spitalfields market in the City of London, this area is now a collection of the sparkling glass new and the shining white old (Wren’s Spitalfields Church). Even so, it is a little incongruous to find a statue of a goat in the middle of the entrance to the square.

The Spitalfields Public Art programme aims to provide an “exciting array of sculptures and soundscapes in and around Spitalfields market” and Kenny Hunter‘s amazing white goat standing on a pile of packing cases is a fine example!

Apart from goats and Americanisms I have been struck this week by numerology. Cricket lovers will know that last week’s Test Match at Lord’s (won by England by 196 runs) was the 2000th Test Match and the 100th between India and England. Add to that the possibility that Sachin Tendulkar might score his 100th international century and it was all going to get too much. Alas, for him and India, he did not. Since then the 2001st match and the 101st between India and England has been completed in 4 days with England again the victors by the astonishing margin of 319 runs. (Nowhere near as extraordinary as the win by 675 runs achieved by England over Australia in 1928, but that is truly another story).

All this is much easier to get your head around than the algorithms much beloved of litigation support professionals and so I am not going to go there.

However, “technology speak” seriously puts lawyers off. Its proponents should beware. After all it is obvious that if you are trying to sell something and the intended purchaser cannot understand what you are talking about, then you have erected a huge barrier for yourself.

And when it comes to the day of judgement, it might just separate the sheep from the goats!