The way ESG/sustainability professionals typically write in blogs, LinkedIn articles, corporate reports and even marketing claims is an echo chamber saturated with insular buzzwords and acronyms folded into a complicated style. This causes misinformation and misconceptions for anyone outside of our little club – such as stakeholders, investors, regulators and the general public. Buzzwords and complex language impede decision-making for executives, boards and even customers. Other stakeholders may struggle to make informed choices. This lack of clarity leads to misguided policies, investments, and strategic decisions, potentially resulting in missed opportunities or unintended consequences.
In my opinion, the importance of using simple language and avoiding buzzwords can’t be overstated. Yes, there may be times/places for technical and complex communication, but those are specialized and infrequent. Here are a few considerations and tips to improve ESG/sustainability communications:
- Technical terms and acronyms may serve as shorthand within our own circles, but they pose significant challenges in getting ideas across to a broader audience. Work to avoid our industry jargon, or at least minimize its use. When necessary, ensure specialized terms/acronyms are clearly defined in simple terms.
- Images, charts and diagrams are useful devices, but can suffer from overcomplications. Consider engaging data visualization or design experts to find simple, clear visuals that enhance – rather than distract from – the blog, report or article. LinkedIn is littered with good and bad examples – invest time in looking at both.
- Another ESG/sustainability affliction – “writing to impress” – can be quite a turn-off. Overly-complex language is hard to understand and creates a sense of exclusivity, alienating people or clouding the message. Enron used this technique to intentionally confuse financial experts and cover up their fraud until they collapsed in 2001. That’s not an example to follow, especially given transparency is theoretically at the heart of ESG.
- It is possible to go too far the other way and be overly vague, general or simplistic. Some may interpret that as meaning you or your company aren’t engaged in the matter and/or have no clue. This can happen when, for instance, marketing/communications staff lead corporate ESG reporting efforts without adequate involvement from other departments. It isn’t necessarily easy, but you need to find a balance between simplicity and complexity.
- Be concise and brief. Size matters – few people want to read a 200-page corporate ESG report or a 50-page article. Everyone has time constraints and large documents can be intimidating (think Atlas Shrugged or War and Peace). If a document or report is unavoidably lengthy, break it up into smaller and quickly digestible sections with an intuitive table of contents to assist reader navigation. Consider adding data and references to appendices at the end of the document rather than in the body.
- Conferences act as buzzword “superspreader events”. There is no inoculation available and plagues will continue propagating. Sadly, I expect the “interoperability” pandemic to permeate 2024. Be mindful of spreading a buzzword virus upon returning from meetings and conferences.
Just for fun, I asked chatGPT to opine on “problems with using buzzwords and complex language that reflects a limited technical audience, making the discussion inaccessible to a general audience.” The response itself was written in an overly-technical and off-putting tone, eliciting a smirk of irony from me. ESG/sustainability professionals should strive to be Hemingway, not Nathaniel Hawthorne – at least in terms of writing styles. Make your own choice about following Papa’s lifestyle.
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