The CEO had a great idea for moving the sprawling and far-flung organization forward.
“We’ll use an analogy throughout our strategic plan,” he said. “The azimuth.”
“What’s an azimuth?” someone asked.
“You know,” the CEO said. “The nautical term. How you determine the position of the sun as related to magnetic north so you know where you are.”
“What’s magnetic north?” someone asked.
“Think of an azimuth as a form of triangulation,” the CEO said. “It’s where something is in relationship to the observer, as measured as an angle from true north. It’s the calculation you make to find out the position of a star, for example.”
The people around the table looked at each other until someone broke the ice and everyone joined in.
“Our operation is land-locked. A nautical term will throw people off.”
“How is true north different from magnetic north?”
“Are you saying your office is the star?”
The CEO could not be talked out of his fancy word. The design team loved it because they could get creative with the nautical elements. Everyone else spent a lot of time coming up with simple ways to define azimuth and explain its relevance.
Mid-level staffers just shook their heads and chuckled at their egg-head boss: Yeah, whatever. Just tell me what he wants me to do to meet next quarter’s goals.
Lower-level employees got nervous. If they couldn’t even understand the basic premise of the boss’s big idea, then how would they figure out what was expected of them?
The analogy proved to be apt, but people got so bogged down in it that they couldn’t focus on the strategic objectives and goals it described. The organization was strong and continued to thrive, but this campaign hindered it when it should have helped.
There is a time and place for fancy words. But understand that if you use a word your readers aren’t familiar with, they will probably either take the time to look it up, or they will skip over it and keep reading. The first option takes them out of the story (and you might never draw them back in!), and the second deprives them of whatever meaning you intended, in which case you could have left it out altogether.
And in both cases, you risk making readers think you are a pompous know-it-all, even if you, like this CEO, are not.
--Ann Kellett, Ph.D.
Ann Kellett Editing