For many Brits, canned foods are comfort. Many of us have memories like this:
Getting off the bus from town, you step into foggy rain. You walk the last few streets wondering when your toes will get wet.
You open the front door, drip off your stuff, and think what to have for tea.
Good — there are two bits of bread, and a soup. Crank the tin opener, empty the gloop in a pan, sit down, and wait till it bubbles.
The soup, sweet and sharp, soaks the crusts. It fills you up, drives out the damp. A bit of TV, then, and then an early bed. All’s right with the world, the wedge of world that blurs as you close your eyes.
Another canned thing that comforts: the common terms we use at work.
- Our one-on-one
- Her objectives
- The gross margin
Quick and convenient parcels of meaning. Reassuring because so real. Noun phrases making complex managerial practices as simple and solid as a can of soup.
Canned soup is comforting, but if you ate it for weeks, your body would miss other foods. Your palate would pine for freshness and change. So, too, these terms aren’t enough on their own.
- The “one-on-one meeting”, if left as a phrase and unexamined, becomes a simple update. (Here’s how to avoid wasting one-on-ones this way.)
- The “objectives” become things to fill in from time to time, rather than compass points to bear towards, all the time.
- The financial measure can make organizations rigid unless they're clear what these tools are achieving.
Sometimes we ought to unpack these phrases, not just for newcomers to our jargon but for ourselves too. How else could objectives be described? Maybe “the things she’s trying to do to help the company and her career”. Spelling out the concept like this might sound droll or naive, but it does remind you what it really means. It reminds you in a way that’s easy to forget if you just incant “objectives”.
Those three short examples aren’t so bad, if we remind ourselves what they signify. But packaged noun phrases get awkward, the more that we pack in them. As we cram nouns together in larger sticky clumps, they block digestion. (Has anyone truly enjoyed an all-day breakfast in a tin – that block of beans and mystery meat that mocks a real fryup?)
Joe Moran explains how the longer noun phrases can slow our understanding:
A common piece of sentence flab includes both noun or adjective and category: period of time, circular in shape, weather conditions. Single nouns grow into noun strings in which the nouns retool as pseudo-adjectives. In theory these strings, like supply chain resource issues or website content delivery platform, turn all but the last noun into an adjective. In practice we read them all as nouns until we get to the last one and have to untie the whole string.
- Joe Moran, "First You Write a Sentence"
These groups of nouns are not all bad though. They sometimes package complex ideas helpfully. In my field of work, the four-barrelled “component content management system” (CCMS) means something real and clear, something distinct from other software. We can define it along several lines: its functionality, technical lineage and typical use. Those characteristics all help to understand what it is and others aren’t. But once it’s been defined; once we know what the term “CCMS” refers to, it saves ourselves at least a paragraph of description each time.
Jargon has its uses. You just wouldn’t want it to hide meaning. And too much jargon makes writing feel very stale, even if you understand it. Too many nouns of any kind make writing feel stale. Especially if we use them without thought, as with the “objectives” and “one-on-ones”.
We need freshness in our writing, and that comes from plenty of verbs.
Verbs force nouns to encounter the outside world, a world where things move and change and bump into each other.
- A content management system on its own doesn’t exist meaningfully. It works when it has someone to use it, someone it can help.
- An objective is pointless stuck in a document. It needs to drive, guide, or inspire someone.
- At the last count, a one-on-one still involves two people, who as humans can both be changed by such a meeting.
- A gross margin figure is something that meets or doesn’t meet expectations (and sometimes it beats, confounds or sadly slinks away from them).
These are obvious – but are they? So often I see slides with nothing but noun phrases: in the titles and in bullets. Other work writing also falls back on too many nouns, avoiding the challenge of verbs. The challenge being that when you use a verb, you have to think carefully about the relationship between the nouns. You cannot just imply that “gross margin improvement” is a result of a bullet point above it in a document, or causes the bullet point below it. You have to spell it out, and in spelling it, you may think differently. (If highly-trained, experienced judges find that proper writing changes their minds, we should consider it too.)
Joe Moran again (you have to read this book – it’s so good):
Verbs bring a sentence to life whatever form they take. Weighing down your sentence with nouns is always bad. But verbs, behind which you can never hide because they make you say what the subjects of your sentences are doing, are always good.
- "First You Write a Sentence"
Not every verb is equally great. The “be” verb (is/am/are and its other forms) can be the barest sprinkling of dried parsley – a nod to freshness without much effect. For example, if our objectives “are hierarchically cascaded strategies”, it makes abstract sense, but until we feel how we work with those objectives and they work on us, not much will happen. The be verb affirms that its subject exists, but not what it does.
I’ll stretch this metaphor more. Sometimes the be verb joins two clumps of nouns: “A data delivery system is the solution to your information mobility challenges” (I made that one up but you’ll have heard similar.) These barely linked, unexamined, messes of nouns are like the awful two-can recipes that used to be presented as thrifty tips in magazines. They’d read like this:
To impress your guests on a budget, just pour a can of cream of corn soup onto drained canned green beans, then sprinkle with pepper for an exotic look!
If you think I'm exaggerating, look at this concoction:
No, what we need is real freshness from a variety of verbs. A bunch of verbs. The most fragrant verbs are technically the finite ones – often the “doing words” that say how someone or something relates to something else. Other verbal forms such as gerunds (I like cooking) are better than plain stodgy nouns alone, but lack the life of finite verbs. Let’s take that previous sentence and prepare something slightly more appetizing. From:
A data delivery system is the solution to your information mobility challenges
A system to deliver data solves the challenge of moving information around your organization
Longer but clearer. Making it more verbal helps it come to life, which nudges us, the writer, to examine the ideas more. We’re “moving the information around — to whom?” What does it do when they get it? What can they then do? These questions could help us make the point clearer – or even change it, to make a better point.
For sure, these are not the kinds of questions you might want to dive into if you just have to put a quick set of slides together, but what are the slides for? If you want the slides to change the audience’s behavior – “to ‘do’ something and not simply ‘be’ a document” as I put it previously – maybe you should make time to work more on the message.
When you use fresh sentences with more verbs, people pay more attention. They say things like “it finally made sense to me” or “that was actually interesting to listen to”. Deeper listening has a different flavor to the semi-attention you get when you feed people pre-packaged ideas. You get more real reactions, including tough questions that people might hide if they’re not sure what you’re trying to say, and they don’t want to sound foolish asking.
I used to watch a lot of “Masterchef: The Professionals”. Those working chefs often used the programme to boost their career, so when the famous host would ask them about their approach to food, it was their chance to shine individually. But since nouvelle cuisine, chefs worry about seeming pretentious, so they all said pretty much the same:
“I believe in fresh ingredients prepared simply”.
And the famous host would nod approval. (Though then the chef would cook something like “lamb liver five ways with an acacia oil vinaigrette tuile and chiffoned soil on a bed of vanilla molecules”. They knew that simple food does not win TV competitions.)
When it comes to sentences, let’s use that chef-y principle. “Fresh ingredients, prepared simply”, is a good verbal diet. Use concrete language with occasional spicy twists to keep people listening. Then for those common work terms, the one-on-ones, objectives and so on? Sure, use stock terms for convenience. Canned beans save time, and so do canned phrases where it’s clear what they mean. But verbs make us see those nouns afresh and feel how they relate. Verbs are the produce, the herbs and tender vegetables. They bring things together. They make your words digestible.