What George Orwell can teach us about demos

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What George Orwell can teach us about demos
What George Orwell can teach us about demos
George Orwell, Demo Prophet?

What George Orwell can teach us about demos, is a lot. George Orwell published a number of books, articles and essays – you probably know him because you read Animal Farm or 1984 in school.

In April of 1946, which was in-between the publishing of those two books, he published an essay called “Politics and the English Language.” And while he published this essay more than 75 years ago, it’s just as relevant today as it was back when he wrote it.

[*Note: Orwell, likely because it was the 1940s, only uses the pronoun “he.” I am leaving the quotes as Orwell wrote them, however, I recognize that this language is not inclusive.]

In this essay, he does not pull any punches when discussing the sad state of writing – like a mean English teacher, he picks apart 5 different (independently written) paragraphs, and then offers the following analysis:

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

“Tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house” is what really stood out to me. In just a few words, he provides a powerful visual that sums up the problem perfectly. And, based on this essay, that’s the point – a powerful visual, even with language instead of a picture, has power. Power that is ignored by so many when talking about technology.

Let’s go through some of the “tricks” he calls out that people use to avoid writing good and stuff:

Dying metaphors: “There is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves…’stand shoulder to shoulder with…play into the hands of…no axe to grind…many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning.”

Think of the last few meetings you were in, and you can probably come up with a few phrases that were thrown around:

  • This is like Netflix/Amazon/Uber…”: Tons of presenters compare what they’re doing with a well known technology. This can work, but it can end up being pretty limiting, especially if your competitors are doing the same thing. As an aside, back in my martech days, my friend Jay Henderson used to walk around trade shows asking people what “Tinder for Marketing” would be. No one had a good answer.
  • A single pane of glass.” Do they still even make screens out of glass? And what if I’m running multiple monitors?
  • “This isn’t my first rodeo.” I don’t know about you, but I grew up in Boston and now live in Chicago. Not too many rodeos around me.

It’s bad enough that people use these phrases to begin with, but it gets even more difficult when working with an international audience. For example, “you knocked it out of the park” makes sense in the US because baseball is popular here, but not everyone will understand what you mean.

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing…it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

So many words in tech are meaningless:

  • Digital transformation: I know what salespeople are trying to communicate with this one, but if often falls flat, because we aren’t really taking “analog” things and making them digital. “So we’re going to transform your already digital thing (spreadsheets) into another digital thing (your software).” Spoiler alert – clients have literally no idea what you’re talking about with digital transformation, but consultants get paid a lot to throw that phrase around and sound all fancy-like.
  • Streamline: You might be surprised to see this word here, but ask yourself this – when you say “streamline,” what are you really saying? I was once leading an in-person (remember those) training, and asked a table of 7 people what streamline means to them. I got 7 different answers. To some, it was about reducing steps, to others, it was about reducing time, and some people thought it was about eliminating friction with existing processes. These things are all similar, but aren’t exactly the same.
  • Single source of truth: Another one that, on its face, sounds pretty good. Except every vendor promises this. Every. Vendor. ERP, CRM, business intelligence, marketing, HR, you name it. So if everyone recognizes that siloed data is a problem, but then they are all going to create a “single source of truth,” aren’t we then going to end up with 10 single sources of truth? And, at that point, aren’t those just silos? It gets a bit circular when you think about it.
  • Leverage: This piece was born out of the simple fact that I hate the word “leverage” with the fire of 1,000 suns. Unless you are talking physics, finance, or high-level corporate strategy (not something tactical like a software purchase), it’s not leverage. Just say “use.”

Finally, Orwell closes the piece with 6 rules of writing that we can all follow:

i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

75 years later, each of these rules is just as relevant as when he wrote them. Shakespeare got it right with “brevity is the soul of wit” (am I breaking rule number 1 with that quote? Maybe, but we’re going with it).

When you’re in front of a customer, you have limited time to make your point. I’ve been in situations where I was supposed to have an hour to present, and, instead, got 5 minutes. And, prospects sometimes show up for a bit, but then get called to something else. It’s in your best interest as a presenter to communicate as plainly as possible. Because if you confuse the client, or just aren’t relevant, you may not get another shot.

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