Plain Speaking

Having spent my working life in schools and, in recent years, engaged fairly closely with politicians and public servants I have spent plenty of time reading and listening to jargon. I never cease to be impressed by the capacity of school folk and bureaucrats to find long, complicated and confusing ways of saying things that are often quite simple. Sir Humphrey lives.

In schools I think we are sometimes afraid of saying what we really mean for fear of hurting someone’s feelings, because we think it’s too risky or confronting to tell the plain, simple truth or perhaps because we want to be ‘constructive’ with our advice. Nowhere is this more evident than in school reports.

Government employees have the same problem. It’s one thing to engage in deep philosophical thought about public policy and to articulate it in ways which reflect the complex issues involved. It’s another to produce material for public consumption which is capable of interpretation only by those ‘in the know’. Perhaps that’s the purpose of the exercise. The work of the bureaucracy can of course be reflected in the public utterances of politicians and is given an additional dimension by the media advisors and spin doctors.

So my hat goes off to the policians and public figures who have the ability to condense complex thought and understanding into plain, simple, everyday language. Like him or loathe him, John Howard had the ability to talk to the public on their level.  Tony Abbott might have taken it too far in opposition. Kevin Rudd struggled and I suspect Julia Gillard took too much advice from advisors about how to craft her message. Face to face most politicians can talk in simple terms but when appearing in public the knack sometimes deserts them.

In my line of work the best I’ve seen is Richard Teese from the University of Melbourne. Richard is an academic and a researcher and has a wealth of data at his disposal. But when he talks he simplifies issues in a way that all can understand; it’s the ability to draw on vast experience and deep understanding and to convey that simply to others.  My former regional director Ron Lake had a similar gift. Ken Lay from the Victoria Police has it. I wish more did.

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