Theo Coggin

A blog on communications

Archive for the month “October, 2013”

Eish! English is wonderful!

One of my colleagues is updating her skills by doing a course at University on teaching English as a second language. She says that one of the most interesting parts has been the construction of words.

English has a wonderful array of words. Being a dynamic language, it is able to assimilate new words with consummate ease.

Coat_of_arms_of_South_Africa.svgI often think that we in South Africa are luckier than most. South Africa boasts eleven official languages, and that is before one counts the unofficial languages such as those spoken by the ǀXam  people (none of their languages is official even though the country’s Coat of Arms bears its motto in a Khoisan language, viz ǃke e: ǀxarra ǁke which translates literally to “Diverse people unite”).

It also does not take into account a language such as Fanagalo, a pidgin (simplified language) based primarily on Zulu, with English and a small Afrikaans input. The language is spoken by miners whose home tongue is varied in order to ensure that they have a common understanding when they communicate deep underground. It is spoken mainly in the gold, diamond, coal and copper mining industries in the country and to a lesser extent in the Democratic Republic of the CongoNamibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The importance of English embracing changing trends has always held an element of excitement for me. Colleagues and friends who possibly have a more purist bent towards English may not necessarily agree.

But the phenomenon of English adopting new words, and seeing them used in their epicentre of English usage – I have in mind universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, let alone the palaces of the United Kingdom – has been around as far as South Africa is concerned for donkey’s years. Thus the word veld(sometimes spelt veldt), meaning the open planes of the vast South African landscape, has long been in use, as has another Dutch word, trek.

Both these words have wonderful descriptive qualities about them.

Unsurprisingly therefore, latter day words such eish, an expression that can probably be best translated as wow! is now in common usage. braaiAs is a word such as braai, meaning barbeque. These have international flavours  (pun intended!).

More localised are words such as eikona, meaning No! Then there is a derivation of a word widely used such as broeks (meaning pants of various assortments) when used in the context of “look at that house with the lovely broekielace on its stoep” (stoep being another import and used in the USA spelt stoop). In this case the word broekielace means the steel lattice work which serves as a beautiful architectural decoration in many South African homes.

English is a rich language and communicators should explore its use to the utmost.

Please let me know of any words that you come across often from any language. We would all be interested.

Reference: some of the information has been sourced from Wikipedia.

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Communicate, don’t preach!

Communicate. Don't preach!

Communicate. Don’t preach!

When running the Quo Vadis Communication courses I can always tell which of the delegates come out of a fundamentalist view of advertising, religious beliefs or political persuasion. They are the ones whose faces glaze over when I explain the first principle we consider in our media relations and Corporate Communications courses.

That principle, simply put, says that organisational communications “is not for preaching” or, expressed another way, should not smack of propaganda.

Of course that is the very antithesis of communication when one is writing advertising copy, preaching a sermon in a mosque, church, or worshipping while at shul, or in any other religious context, or trying to persuade someone to vote for a particular political party.

Communicating in a manner that promotes any one of those forms has its place. And that place is firmly in the corner of bias and a lack of objectivity.

Now the latter issue – that of objectivity – is a subject of great complexity which I shall not attempt to deal with here. But I must mention that advertisers, preachers and political propagandists naturally all believe that their message is objective! Enough said.

The point I really wish to make here is that corporate communications should always seek to influence, but not spill over into propagandist mode.  Corporate messaging that seeks to communicate through propaganda is likely to fail.

Audiences are looking for messages that are based on fact, empirical research if that is available and, where appropriate, relevant opinion from a credible source. The latter can be an expert in the field about which one is writing, or an informed spokesperson for the organisation/company about which one might be writing.

I have written before about the importance of balance, and the principle of “not preaching” has everything to do with this.

When intelligent readers look at advertising copy they will know that there is an inherent subjectivity in the claims that are made. Voters, likewise, if they are discerning, will recognise many of the promises made by politicians seeking election are as full of air as the empty drums they are beating.

As for religion, by definition each faith will promote its beliefs from its own point of view.

What the corporate communicator needs to be looking for is an agglomeration of words that ensures that the reader and/or listener sits back, gives due consideration to the argument and information presented, and makes up his or her own mind.

The challenge is to get your audience thinking. Recognise your audience as intelligent, and whose members are disparate intellectual beings, and you will discover that you are able to influence through a discerning presentation far more than any in-your-face editorial assault.

To borrow from a religious idiom, such communication is a bit like casting your bread upon the waters: you may never know what the result is of what you write.

Rest assured, however, that if you get your reader’s brain ticking, and moving on to greater heights of writing, you will have achieved the objective of influencing your reader.

By Jingo!

From iteachicoachiblog.blogspot.comThe irony of politics and language always provides a fascinating examination. And lots to learn from.

It intrigues me that, in a country that eschews the imperialist jingoism of a bygone age, so many of the authors of public documents are drawn to expressing themselves in what can most charitably be described as Shakespearean English. Less charitably one might dub it colonial English.

There is no doubt that such authors will be aghast, even feel insulted, by these observations. Regrettably any defensiveness on their part would soon wear thin.

Phrases to denote a sum of money, much loved by accountants, have entered the lexicon of such authors. So it is not good enough, for example, simply to say $532,371 but to spell it out, word for word.

And, just in case they feel they are addressing an innumerate and illiterate moron, they add the figures in brackets. Not only is this old fashioned, it is paternalistic.

Then there are the protagonists of using-several-or-many-words-when-only-one-or-two would suffice. I referred to this in my last blog when I wrote about Victorian practices being alive and well in modern English.

Who are the guilty parties? Invariably they can be found in the ranks of public servants, often the corporate world and almost inevitably in the NGO sector. That’s more or less everywhere!

English is a wonderful and dynamic language. It lives. Sometimes I even wonder whether it breathes!

That is why in South Africa, and in many other countries where English is the lingua franca, it can readily absorb words from other languages which then become common usage.

It is also a language that can be written to evoke strong emotion and portray great beauty. But when writers complicate the language by using old fashioned techniques, or long words because they “sound better” (and my experience is that often the users of such words apply them in a manner that distorts their meaning), they confuse their message and thus their audience.

So what to do? Stick to the tried and trusted method which one of the greatest communicators of the 20 century, Winston Churchill, did without fail: keep it simple, and don’t offend your audience with irrelevant complexities.

Winston Churchill

The next six-day Organisational Communication course which will teach you how to keep it simple will take place from 15 to 17 October and 5 to 7 November. Email courses@quo-vadis.co.za or phone 011 487 0026 for more information.

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