Many moons ago, I sat in a meeting between a well-respected brand agency and advertising agency. The brand agency were pitching an idea and the ad guy wasn’t pulling any punches:
“What do you mean a ‘connections’ idea? What even is that?”
As the brand guy gave his response, the sheer volume of buzzwords that came out of his mouth was impressive. His response sounded smart, intelligent and highly plausible, and he was confident in his delivery.
I fell for everything he said, even though I still had no idea what he was on about. Even the client sat there nodding with approval. But the ad guy wasn’t having any of it. In his eyes, the brand guy didn’t, or more to the point, couldn’t, answer his question. And he was right.
Under interrogation the brand guy did what so many marketers, consultants and agency folk are experts at; bullshitting in times of need.
Looking back on that meeting, I realise it taught me two important lessons.
The first was that in an industry like ours, it’s all too easy to hide behind complicated language and jargon – to mask our own lazy, or misguided thinking, with fancy-sounding buzzwords. The sort of stuff that makes us feel as though we belong in the room. The stuff that can make what we’re selling sound infinitely more desirable because, if the truth be told, using complicated language makes things easier for us. It’s a handy shortcut to disguise a lack of true understanding. And if all this can still make us money, why would we want to change?
But we do need to change. We have a duty of care. Bullshit is bad. Bad for our clients, bad for our employees and, most importantly, bad for ourselves.
As Einstein famously stated: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. So as professionals, we owe it to ourselves to take a stand against taking the easy option. To challenge our own thinking to make sure that everything we say, write and recommend is clear, straightforward to understand, and properly thought through.
And that’s not easy. It requires us to step out of our comfort zone and beyond the confidence-boosting halo afforded by jargon. For it’s far easier to make something complex than it is to make it simple.
Getting to clarity is not easy though. It’s not a talent or gift you’re born with. It takes time, effort and commitment. But if you believe in the power of simplicity, and you strive to embed it in everything you do, your thinking will always stack up under scrutiny – particularly if you ever find yourself being questioned by an agitated ad guy.
The second lesson I learnt from that meeting was about bravery and sticking to your guns. Just like the ad guy, you should never be afraid or embarrassed to seek clarity.
For most of us, this starts by questioning our own ability to make things clear and simple. Ask yourself if you really understand your subject matter. Can you make it clearer? Simpler? Easier for people to engage with what you’re saying? Do you really need all those words?
Be honest and challenge yourself. Get into the habit.
And challenge others too. Call out bullshit for what it really is.
At best, people will find you annoying. At worst, threatening, particularly when hierarchies and ego come in to play. But take comfort that it’s not about being difficult or arrogant, it’s about striving to make things the very best they can be.
So stay strong and stay committed. Fight the good fight.