Talking by Ear

Last week, wrapping up a conference call, I told the other meeting participants I would “ping” someone else after the meeting.

I immediately felt foolish.

Pinging someone is one of those biz buzzwords. Originally it was a technical computer term — to ping someone’s IP address to check an Internet connection. Now it’s a generic term for e-mailing or IMing or texting someone  — “I’ll ping Erika after the meeting and let her know what you need.”

I could have said, “I’ll e-mail Erika” or “I’ll call Erika,” or simply, “I’ll let Erika know.”

Instead, I pinged her.

I doubt the other guys gave it a second thought, but jargon is one of those things that writers are taught to be acutely aware of. Particularly with this client, who has a whole initiative around what they call “Straight Talk” and what has been around for years as the “Plain English” movement. Basically, it’s the idea that you simplify writing, removing complexity (like legalese — the party of the first part, and all that) and often meaningless jargon (business-speak — bandwidth, net-net) to write more clearly.

It’s true, particularly in Marketing, that you can do an awful lot of writing that says nothing (it’s a lot like blogging 🙂 ). Not doing it is hard because it forces you to think about what you really mean and demands a deeper understanding of the subject. Frequently, I don’t have that deep understanding — I just need to bang out something that sounds semi-intelligent and let the SMEs* sort it out. When they insert their knowledge, I can go back and “plain up” the language.

A few years ago, a game even sprung up to make fun of the way the business world talks (Meeting Bingo or Bullshit Bingo). You can be sure “ping” is on the newest release. And while I realize that much of this language is inappropriate for formal business writing, I think it’s very appropriate in informal, day-to-day speech. It’s part of the business culture, the lingua franca. Every profession has its way of talking, whether medical or construction or manufacturing or retail. (Or writing…*SMEs [smees] = subject matter experts. Writers have lingo too.) 

People talk to each other in terms they understand. In business, everyone knows what you mean by the bottom line, by scope creep, by taking something offline. It really was OK that I pinged someone, even though I felt hesitant because I’d never put it that way before. I just wanted to fit in (sniff) — and using the common language does that. It’s the verbal equivalent of Writing by Ear — Talking by Ear — saying what sounds and feels right for the audience and gets your point across.

In other (better) words: When in Rome…

After many years and many meetings, I’m comfortable in that business world. Where I feel totally out of my element is in the Web world — message boards, RSS feeds, custom CSS. I try to figure things out when I have questions on my blog by reading the FAQs on the WordPress site, and sometimes wish I could look puzzled, smile sheepishly, point to a map, and politely ask, “Do you speak English?” Same with the whole Texting-iPod-BlackBerry-Palm world.

I could use a tutor. I wonder if Rosetta Stone speaks ‘Net?

Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.
                                                                                     ~ Carl Sandburg

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