Owning our future: why dropping jargon matters

My blog on jargon in UK housing generated a great response and was my most popular post of last year.

I’ve not had time until recently to follow through on my promise to turn the feedback into an online resource. Today’s Twitter discussions about the importance of having a shared narrative and housing ‘owning our future’ (or #OOF) makes this a timely post.

Mind your language

I agree with the sentiment of the importance of a clear narrative for the industry. But it must focus on the people who matter (or target audiences, if you like) and address their needs. That means the language has to be suitable and easy to understand. Things are improving in this area, but too often this fundamental test isn’t met. Let’s face it, if the sector is to own its future, people have to ‘get’ what it’s going on about first. Narratives succeed or fail on this basic test.

Sadly, the sector is littered with poor language. This ranges from standard management speak (‘going forward’) to the uniquely incomprehensible (‘reverse stair-casing’).

It’s such an issue that the NHF publishes extensive (and expensive) jargon-busting documents to help people learn the language of UK housing. Keeping up with this is a full-time job. If that’s the case for people who work in housing, what chance does the public have in getting the narrative?

Housing’s comms challenge

I’ve said recently that this sits at the heart of the sector’s challenge to be heard. If 2016 is the year housing providers hit mainstream consciousness, the message needs to be simple. It must focus on the benefits affordable housing brings to the public rather than its *offer* or some abstract, process-driven concept.

This motivated me to start a conversation last year, to get a sense of what impedes our ability to communicate. More than 20 people responded on social media and by email. Some of the responses (thanks, Max Salisbury) I hadn’t heard before.

You can see some feedback in this Google Sheet, which contains examples of jargon and acronyms highlighted to me. I also looked for examples of where this bad language was used and tried to suggest simpler alternatives. Many examples cited are quotes from housing sector leaders and politicians. I didn’t intend to cover every odd phrase used by housing professionals; there are plenty of other resources that do that far more successfully and I didn’t have the time to go there. It also doesn’t cover phrases that aren’t housing-specific. This ruled out management phrases like ‘going forward’ and (ahem) ‘stakeholder engagement’.

People can edit and add to this if they wish; it’s still very much a ‘work in progress’.

Phrases that irk

Using this small, unscientific sample, there seem to be three areas worth highlighting.

#1. Technical alternatives to homes such as stock, dwelling, voids and units caused most objection. Decant (to move residents to another home) was also highlighted as one to avoid. And quite right too!

#2. Some people highlighted the politically-charged use of affordability and types of tenure, which have become more difficult to understand and explain as the sector has diversified. Transparency and clarity about how much different types of homes cost to rent would help to clear the fog surrounding this issue. This would help people understand the difference between social and affordable (or intermediate) homes without having to get under the skin of the debate.

#3. One big area of conversation in the West of England and London surrounds the use of the terms like greenfield and brownfield in relation to development. This is an area where over-simplification hinders understanding. Being clear about what’s meant by these phrases will be crucial if people are to grasp serious issues around housing need.

Clarity isn’t just for comms teams!

Management speak isn’t a new problem for organisations, as this Prime Ministerial memo from 1940 attests!

In many ways, we are in a better place than we were a few years ago. Government bodies have improved the information they provide for people online. Housing communications teams are doing some terrific work. But this is more than a ‘job for the comms team’. A narrative won’t work without the support and commitment of colleagues who are speaking to people every day.

This is about leadership, defaulting to simplicity, listening to residents and important stakeholders and encouraging everyone who works in the sector to adopt this mindset.

This isn’t easy, but people are showing that it’s possible. The sector can own its future. People just have to understand what we’re talking about.

* Thanks to those who’ve given their feedback including Tim Abbott; Ben Black; Alistair Heron; Neil Goodrich; Theresa Knight; Jon Land; Tom Murtha; Helen Reynolds; Max Salisbury; Keith Searle and Tim Wilcocks.

2 thoughts on “Owning our future: why dropping jargon matters

  1. Erm. “mainstream consciousness” ? Instead of saying you think this year is the year housing providers will attract the interest of ordinary people outside the industry, I think you added “mainstream consciousness” to see if it got a reaction. 🙂

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