(“Legalese destroys the message”. Latin scholars feel free to correct.)
I’ve just started reading “Lustrum”, Robert Harris’ account of Cicero’s time as a Roman consul. The book’s narrator is Cicero’s faithful secretary Tiro.
Tiro paints a vivid picture of Cicero’s oldest friend Servius, “the most eminent jurist in Rome”.
But, Tiro continues, “immersing oneself in the law is a little bit like bathing in freezing water – bracing in moderation, shrivelling in excess”. Over the years Servius had become “ever more hunched and cautious”.
It’s a description that many a corporate communications executive might recognise.
On no end of occasions we deal with company PROs who are tearing their hair out with the media messaging they’ve been handed down on a particular issue by their company’s lawyers.
There they are trying to get their spokespeople to come across in the media like human beings – speaking to readers, viewers and listeners in a language they will understand – only to find that their chosen interviewees are in a state of linguistic petrification, not daring to depart by even a syllable from the lawyers’ diktat.
(The Oxford Dictionary, by the way, describes “petrification” as “a process by which organic matter…is turned into a stony substance” or, perhaps more appropriately, “a state of extreme fear making someone unable to move [or, in this case, speak]”.)
Sometimes the messaging you hear from spokespeople when lawyers have been at work is so tortuous and convoluted, it passes straight over the heads of the viewers or listeners.
Lawyers will argue, of course, that they need to ensure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” crossed to ensure that the company’s public utterances do not fall foul of the law or any regulatory authorities. The script must be adhered to rigidly, they will argue.
That’s nonsense. Whatever responsibility there might be upon a company spokesperson to stay on the right side of the law, there is no reason whatsoever why legalistic gobbledegook cannot be expressed in plain language and still remain legally watertight
After all, if your company has just been responsible for killing 20 of your workers in an environmental disaster – with the TV crews interviewing grieving relatives, survivors and eye witnesses left, right and centre – and your company spokesperson eventually appears, sounding as though he’s reading the telephone directory, well…don’t expect the audience to pay much attention to you.
One suspects that lawyers are guilty of some empire protection here – urging their spokespeople not to depart one jot from their script, fearing that if they do and they come across well, their verbal Byzantium might just be rumbled.
(Here, the Oxford Dictionary helps out again. “Byzantine: excessively complicated and typically involving a great deal of administrative detail.”)
We at HarveyLeach encountered this problem for ourselves when we started up a few years ago and needed a template contract for our clients. Our lawyers drew up a document that was basically unintelligible. We said to ourselves: “We are supposed to be a company dealing in clear communication. How can we possibly send this to our clients?”
We did a quick back-of-the envelope rewrite, sent it off to the lawyer and he couldn’t find a thing wrong with it. That’s the version we went with.
So, a bit more Mark Anthony, and less Servius, is what we hope for from spokespeople.
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen – lend me your ears”, rather than, “Proximately-positioned adjuncts, habitants of the Roman living platform, nationals of a geographical entity – extend beneficially your aural sensory appendages.”