Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Down with obfuscation!

As we begin a new year (and one of the "leap" variety, at that!), I wish to share with you further commentary from Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars. Recall that I mentioned this book in a recent post. The reality is, there is much of what he's written which lends itself to issues we deal with.

He points out that "It is no fun to have to read twice a sentence which, on the second reading, we find we didn't even want to read once. Skillful handling of language will tend to reduce the amount of cognitive effort one's audience has to expend in getting at one's meaning. If my expression is confused and ambiguous, I risk losing your attention."

Surely you can relate to cases where clarity is hard to find, and information shared is unnecessarily obfuscated (but then again, is it ever necessary to introduce obfuscation?). At times it seems that some speakers and authors wish to go out of their way to make something more complicated than it needs to be.

Hitchings cites Noam Chomsky, who stated that "language's main purposes [are] to transmit information, establish relationships, express our thoughts or clarify them, pursue knowledge and understanding, exercise our minds creatively, and play. In all but the last two of these, lucidity is vital. Precise and conventional use of language averts painful misunderstandings."

I have been told that one of my gifts is the ability to communicate in a very lucid manner; this may be due to my need to be lucid for myself, let alone the audience, to ensure that I understand what I'm communicating! I first became aware of this skill when I taught a business mathematics course at the University of Baltimore, while pursuing my MBA, more than 30 years ago. It was essentially a survey course, which touched on many areas of math, including algebra and basic calculus. I didn't feel the need to impress the students with my knowledge, but rather to convey the knowledge to them so that they could understand it. I succeeded, and thus realized that I could, in fact, share complex material in a, well, lucid fashion!

A few years ago, at a Performance Measurement Forum meeting, we had a speaker explain a particular risk measure. While I cannot speak for my fellow attendees, I found the presentation difficult to understand. And so, I slowed the speaker down, and asked some very basic questions. As a result, I was able to grasp a much better understanding then I would otherwise have obtained. Meaning, sometimes it's up to the listener to ask for clarity.

Of what value is it to overly complicate information? An oft cited quote, attributed to Einstein, is to "make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." A good idea, I think!

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