Pop, splat: The case for clear language in the EU bubble

You hear that? It’s the sound of the EU bubble bursting. For those communicating from and within the Brussels policymaking community, it is high time to cut out some bad habits and learn to communicate in plain language. Not only will it make communication more effective, our democracies may very well depend on it.

The battle against Eurish

Professional communicators in Brussels are all at the front lines of the same fight: the endless struggle to push back on “Eurish” or “Eurospeak”, the lingua franca of the Brussels bubble. It’s our daily bread to pepper sentences with dreadful terms like “synergy” and “strategic challenges” and render them mind-numbing. Speaking this confounding dialect signals knowledge of goings-on and insider status.

On one hand it seems natural enough that a community of people working in the same sphere should form their own lingo. We could argue that it is a necessary evil. Jargon serves as shorthand allowing people to cut through layers of common reference. That doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea to use it.

Breaking bad habits

Jargon is not unique to the EU policymaking sphere. Occupation-specific language plagues writing in many areas: Law students are spoon-fed a style that purposefully bewilders, the corporate world is infamous for its adoration of empty buzzwords (“growth hacking”, anyone?), and don’t even get me started on academia.

The way language is used and abused in these various professions goes beyond the necessity of creating a shorthand. Much of it simply amounts to bad habits: Lengthening sentences and packing them with code to make people sound more knowledgeable. Overusing words to the point of losing all meaning. Occasionally a lone crusader will cry into the wind about making language more accessible, but most happily pay the price to be members of their exclusive club.

Comprehension ≠ engagement

The thing is, just because you understand a text, doesn’t mean it gets your attention. As Brussels-based media coach Laura Shields points out in a recent blog, jargon makes the user blend in with the rest. “How will they remember what you said if you sound the same as everyone else?” she asks. Stating your points in plain, everyday language helps your message stand out among a very crowded policy landscape.

While a core principle of effective communication is to know your audience, the rules of clear language are pretty universal. It comes down to putting your core message front and centre. It’s astonishing how often people manage to obscure their main message even in a short social media post. Here are three basic rules to start with:

• Main message first – Don’t focus on the “what” (e.g. your event) but on the “so what”
• Cut the fat – eliminate all non-essential words (you can start here)
• Include a clear call to action – read, vote, etc.

So let’s get to the point already

No matter who the audience is, clear writing gets the message across more effectively. Getting straight to the point rather than obscuring it with jargon helps people achieve their goals. Let’s not forget that the EU is also fighting a broader battle for the hearts and minds of the general public. It’s no secret that the EU has a public relations problem, with disastrous ramifications (Brexit’s jargon alone is still haunting us).

Luckily I’m not alone on my soapbox: communication experts like Shields are fighting the good fight, as are institutional insiders like Rosie Ter Beek, Deputy Head of Editing and Clear Writing Unit at the European Commission, who published a manifesto on fighting eurojargon. She is also helping to organise Clear writing for Europe 2023, a conference on supporting European democracy and transparency through clear language.

These efforts are heartening, because we simply cannot afford to exclude and alienate.

Nothing less than the future of our Union itself is at stake.

Is that clear enough for you?

That’s right! There’s always more.

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