What’s in a Name? Using Language Precisely

How important is it to use clear and consistent names in your work?

Consultant and author Mark Haas (who writes daily tips for the Institute of Management Consultants blog) recently fielded a question from another practitioner, regarding a client who would not use clear names for even basic things like a team, a project, or a report. Everyone had their own way of referring to things.

Does your team talk about “the change project” and “Mike’s team’s project” and “the green report project” — and they’re all trying to refer to the same thing?

Yes humans are adaptable — and that is both a strength and a weakness. If we rely on that adaptability to bridge the gaps created by imprecise language, we are running needless risks.

Contrast the client language just described with something else — the language used in a really technical discipline. We want our doctor to discuss our symptoms with a specialist using the most exacting possible language, with minimal ambiguity. We want our surgeon to tell her assistant to “clamp the descending abdominal aorta between C2 and C3” — not “clamp that reddish thing right about there”.

Precise language is good. It reduces uncertainty and ambiguity. It reduces the mental load on those we talk with and write to — they no longer have to use their flexible human brains to sort out what they think we might mean, and can use those mental cycles thinking about our actual point.

One way to get others to be precise is to lead by example. If there are not clearly defined terms, create some. Write a glossary and start sharing it. You’ll get some things wrong and people will jump on you — and in so doing will provide better and better definitions.

When people speak ambiguously, slow them down and ask questions and translate their words into something more precise until you’re absolutely sure you understand what they mean. Most folks don’t mind it — in my experience, if you’re polite, you’ll find they like the fact you care enough about what they are saying to try to understand it better.

Invest the time and develop the habit of speaking more precisely about your work. Refer to projects and deliverables, decisions and ideas, clearly and without ambiguity. You will come across as a true professional who understand the subject in detail and who can help others grasp ideas more easily. Your clients and coworkers will find you even more indispensable.

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