What are words worth?

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Paulo Freire challenged established notions of education in his famous book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In one particularly sharp sentence, he uses the contrast between active and passive voice to highlight the hierarchy of traditional educational roles: “The teacher teaches and the students are taught”.

Words are trouble, words are subtle

I first encountered Freire among my father’s books. His long academic career was mostly spent at Sussex University from the late ‘60s to the early ‘90s, and I grew up surrounded by talk of higher education, university life, and – heaven help me – students. Now I’m a parent, and among my four children are one Oxford graduate, one Sussex graduate (dad would have been so proud), a current UCL student, and a sixth-former just receiving offers. Somewhere in between, I was a student myself. In my own career, I have followed a counter-intuitive trajectory, from publishing primary research journals with the British Psychological Society and promoting international HE policy with the Association of Commonwealth Universities, to the late, lamented (by some) sector skills council Lifelong Learning UK, via corporate comms in different HE and related institutions, and now at the sharp end – so to speak – as a visiting lecturer at the University of Greenwich. Throughout, I have sought to understand and explain the value, and values, of higher education – with varying degrees of success, no doubt.

Yet Freire’s observation about the political impact of verb choice still resonates, perhaps even more so in the digital age, and will be a familiar concept to anyone who has read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, the fourth of his oft-quoted six rules being, “Never use the passive where you can use the active”. Orwell’s point, of course, was to critique language “designed to make lies sound truthful”, referring to habits in the way leaders speak and write which are as common today, in the era of so-called fake news, as they were in 1946. Obfuscation and evasiveness in language not only undermine the accountability of leaders for their actions and decisions, but also weaken the fundamental purpose of leadership.

This is apparent from leadership communication specialist Kevin Murray’s 2012 book The Language of Leaders, in which he concludes; “you have to be crystal clear about the mission, and you have to communicate it to everyone in the organisation”. Well-worn leadership communication terms like ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ have a cheesy business-world flavour that rarely inspires the best response among any audience, including academics. As Simon Hooton has pointed out elsewhere on Wonkhe, for years university mission statements were derided as cut-and-paste exercises, made up of “the same stock phrases”. Nevertheless, being clear about what is expected of everyone in a complex organisation like a university is more important now than ever. Or, indeed, being clear about what is expected from a complex organisation like a university.

The obvious case in point is the recent furore over the letter sent to all UK vice chancellors by government whip Chris Heaton-Harris, requesting information about how – and by whom – courses that cover Brexit are being taught. The reaction was largely one of horror at what University and College Union leader Sally Hunt called “the acrid whiff of McCarthyism”. Leaping – or, some might say, shuffling – to the defence of his parliamentary colleague, universities minister Jo Johnson observed that “[a] letter which could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent.” Surely, a letter which could only have been misinterpreted should never have been sent.

Words are stupid, words are fun

But perhaps we’re too quick to judge Heaton-Harris. Who can honestly say they’ve never written something that “could have been misinterpreted”? Given the endless opportunities for misinterpretation via the written word, particularly on the tiny screen of a smartphone through the constricted aperture of a social media feed and the fleeting opportunities of one interaction among so many, shouldn’t we be doing more to ensure that our writing meets Kevin Murray’s test of being “crystal clear”?

There are plenty of resources for academics looking to write better papers, journal articles, and books. Helen Sword’s offerings – particularly Stylish Academic Writing (2012) and Air & Light & Time & Space (2017) – provide comfort and encouragement to academics who find themselves “crushed under the weight of expectations and [the] rubble of our fractured workdays”. My varied career in communications, prior to going freelance, taught me to cast my net wide for resources and inspiration and to appreciate the most unlikely juxtaposition as a potential source of innovation. After all, to borrow the words of Steve Jobs, “creativity is just connecting things”.

In 2005 I had the privilege of attending a residential course for business writers. The course, enigmatically entitled Dark Angels, was about infusing business writing with creative ideas and tools. It was, if Orwell will forgive me the cliché, a game-changer, and led me to develop a deep interest in, and occasional source of income from, helping people who may believe that their day-to-day writing responsibilities preclude the use of anything that isn’t properly ‘work’. This applies as much in the higher education sector as anywhere else.

“There’s no denying that universities – or rather, the people in them – produce vast quantities of writing,” said Paul Gentle, former Director of Programmes at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE), when I spoke to him for this piece. And while a great deal of that writing is done in the service of creating and disseminating knowledge, he points out that “so much of what we write is churned out under tight deadlines, drowning our passion for our work in a sea of noise”.

Support for the benefits of clear and effective writing among a university’s leaders, whether they hail from an academic or a management background, is harder to come by – yet no less necessary. Gentle cites the example of one institution whose vice chancellor made the decision to have its Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) submission re-written at the last minute, to “bring alive” the university’s personality. It’s hard to say whether that contributed to the subsequent Gold Award, but it may well have done.

Words of nuance, words of skill

That should be the aim of all university leadership writing, says Gentle; not just to win awards, of whatever variety, but to remake HE institutions as “more inspiring, fairer” places to work. “Even in an age where demonstrating impact can have monumental consequences,” he adds, we tend to “settle for techno-rational bureaucratese instead of writing that speaks of who we are and what we value”.

John Simmons is an expert at bringing alive the personality of an organisation through its written output, and is the man behind the Dark Angels course. As a director for some twenty-five years at global advertising agency Interbrand and predecessor agency Newell and Sorrell, he is regarded as one of the founding figures in the field of brand language and tone of voice. With numerous business books, a collection of short stories, and two novels to his credit, Simmons knows how choice of words can mark ambition for good or ill. He is adamant, too, that every organisation has a unique tone of voice, whether or not it wishes it.

His focus, though, has always been on writing as a craft, which is why he starts his own projects with pen and paper. “To write at your best, to be as effective as you possibly can in your writing, you have to craft, which means there is a process involving two or three stages in the writing, of which writing by hand is the first.” It seems unlikely that Donald Trump drafts his tweets by hand before he sends them, but it might be fun to imagine what would happen if he did.

As a regular contributor to LFHE leadership training programmes, Simmons was well aware of the potential for HE managers to resist anything that smacked of either the murky world of marketing, or the rarefied airs of poetry and fiction. While the training may have taken some out of their comfort zone on occasion, the overwhelming response was a sense of pride, born of “feeling that they’d done something creative, not just learned another management process”.

Simmons and Gentle have recently set up a new service to foster the idea that better writing means better outcomes for all in higher education; for management teams, as much as for researchers seeking an audience, or students sitting final exams. Their goal is to put good writing skills in every university leader’s toolkit, so that they can achieve the clarity, emotional connection, and institutional momentum that are central to success in today’s challenging environment. In the age of Presidential diktat by Twitter, Russian troll farms, and algorithms that analyse our online preferences to force-feed us more of the same, we might do well to revisit Orwell’s view of language as “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought”. And if not in universities, then where?

2 thoughts on “What are words worth?”

  1. hamish says:

    wonderful Ezri – great to read, Hamish

  2. ezri2014 says:

    Thanks Hamish!

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