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The View from England: Sending the right signals

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The world’s first, and still largest, broadcaster is 100 years old. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) was formed on Oct. 18, 1922, by a group of leading wireless manufacturers, including the Italian inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937). The company became a corporation when it was nationalized in 1927.

Marconi had been building transmitting devices since 1894, and moved to Wales in 1896 at the instigation of his mentor, Caernarfon-born Sir William Preece (the General Post Office’s chief engineer). Marconi sent the world’s first wireless transmission (from Flat Holm island in the Bristol Channel to Lavernock Point near Cardiff) on May 13, 1897, and transmitted the first transatlantic radio signal in December 1901.

Marconi went on to deliver Britain’s first live public transmission in 1920, and began daily radio broadcasts, for the BBC, from his London studio (2LO on the Strand) on Nov. 14, 1922.

Television (literally ‘far off sight’) wasn’t broadcast by the BBC for another 14 years (November 1936), but Scottish electrical engineer John Baird (1888-1946) had conducted the world’s first demonstration of transmitting images to multiple sites (albeit only silhouettes) in March 1925 from Selfridge’s department store in London. Baird was a prolific inventor, including attempts in his 20s to create diamonds by heating graphite. His first ‘proper’ broadcast (of human faces) was on Jan. 26, 1926 to scientists at the Royal Institution.

During its founding years, in the aftermath of WWI, the BBC was guided by the Victorian paternalism of its first director-general, the imposing Scottish mechanical engineer John Reith (1889-1971). A strict Presbyterian, Reith stood almost two metres tall (6 foot 6 inches) and had a pronounced scar on his cheek from a sniper’s bullet.

Reith helped establish the state broadcaster’s enduring reputation for clarity and impartiality. He summarized the BBC’s purpose in three words: inform, educate and entertain (which remain part of the organisation’s mission statement).

The first two of Reith’s simple corporate instructions, to inform and to educate, are useful guidelines for business communications today. They are also invoked in a book published in February by marketing expert Kevin Duncan. In his ‘Bullshit-Free Book’, Duncan argues that we need to reclaim our language by communicating clearly.

The book starts with an examination of why we use so much jargon and non-sensical phrases (for example “reaching out,” and any percentages over 100%), and then lists and analyzes 100 examples of bullshit. The book ends with a manifesto to help anyone achieve clear communications.

Corporate ‘guff’ is certainly not a new concept. In the mid-1990s, for example, Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway was mocking business jargon, and exposing the hidden meanings behind corporate press releases.

The English language is full of ambiguities, especially when used by the British. For example, when we say “with all due respect,” it means nothing of the sort, we actually mean “I think you are wrong.” Similarly, “that is an original idea” means not that you are a genius, rather you’re daft. For some reason we are often misunderstood by foreigners.

An article by Gillian Tett in the Financial Times earlier this year applauded Duncan’s crusade, and discussed the need for clarity. Tett noted that many linguistic characteristics are cultural (the English dislike giving offence) but can cause confusion and misinterpretation. Most people who use English as a foreign language are much more direct than the British in their translation, they speak/write what they see.

Hollywood and the internet have facilitated global communication, and English (or is that American) has become the lingua franca for large parts of the business world. This penetration is monitored annually by Miami-based Education First in its English Proficiency Index (most recently published in December 2021), which ranks 112 countries and regions by their levels of English usage and comprehension.

There are some 7,000 languages in the world, yet more than half of the population speak just 23 of them. Of these languages, English is the most understood (followed closely by Mandarin), with 18% of the global population able to communicate in it. English is spoken by some 400 million people as a native language (it is an official language in 67 countries), and spoken by a further 1 billion as a foreign language.

In business communication, we need to avoid corporate confuscation, jargon and the vernacular of local speech, and learn to speak and write like fluent foreigners; clearly and to the point. Unlike the BBC, mining companies don’t need to entertain, but they do need to inform and educate; Reith would surely approve.

Dr. Chris Hinde is a mining engineer and the director of Pick and Pen Ltd., a U.K.-based consulting firm. He previously worked for S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Metals and Mining division.