Key points from this blog
- It is hard for public affairs messages to cut through in Brussels.
- People use policy jargon to show they are part of the ‘EU club’.
- Replacing jargon with plain English will help your message stand out from everyone else’s.
Brussels is a crowded landscape
How can you make your message stand out in a crowded policy town like Brussels?
Organisations often struggle to cut through and be heard here. This is partly because Brussels is small and there are a lot of players fighting over a finite amount of policymakers’ attention. It’s also because a lot of the time, organisations’ opinions and messages aren’t hugely different from those of the other players.
I’m thinking specifically of climate change policy here but have no doubt other topics produce similar results.
This is where replacing EU policy and climate change jargon with more colloquial language is helpful.
Jargon is about belonging to a club
There are many reasons why using jargon isn’t as clever as it feels. But a key one is that it makes the user sound like everyone else. And this becomes a problem if you want to stand out and be remembered.
Using jargon often signals that someone is part of an exclusive club. Membership is reserved for those who also speak the language and people take pride in using this terminology to show they fit in and look clever.
The status anxiety of not being seen as an expert can be huge. This in spite of people who are confident in their status taking pains to avoid jargon and being understood (think Frans Timmermans).
There is huge pressure for people working in Brussels to fit in and use jargon quickly. They do this even if they don’t understand it themselves. (Trust me, it happens far more than you might think).
Don’t copy the EU institutions’ language
This is further exacerbated when lobbyists are too literal in their interpretation of what it means to fit in with the policymakers’ agenda.
For example, in a recent (ish) interview with Politico, Xavier Prats Monné, former Director General of DG Sante (health policy) said:
‘It is very important to understand and speak the language of the Commission, rather than your own. Meaning, to understand how your agenda, your priorities, can actually fit into the agenda and priorities of the European Union and the Commission itself.
It may seem obvious. But usually it doesn’t happen that way, because most people, especially in mission-driven organizations, feel very passionately about their own issue. But what is really important is not to say what is important for you, but how you can contribute to the agenda.’
Prats Monné’s basic point is astute.
It’s rule 1.01 of communications that you have a better chance of influencing your audience if you use messages that land in their interest zone.
But that does not mean public affairs people have to slavishly mimic the actual words of the institutions to be successful. In fact, some studies indicate it’s really a bad idea if you do.
Use plain English to stand out
Put another way, can you imagine how boring it must be for an EU official who is on 300 emails a day, who then has to wade through 30 identikit position papers that all read the same and use identical language?
How will they remember what you said if you sound the same as everyone else?
If you want your message to stand out, don’t use the language of the in group, however tempting it may be. You can keep the core idea of the message but, simply changing the words to plain, every day English will help you stand out a bit from everyone else.
This is not about writing like Shakespeare. It’s simply about swapping technical terminology for more direct, lower concept words.
For example, I hear identikit versions of this message every week from clients:
‘It is essential for stakeholders to prioritise and accelerate the energy transition and Europe’s decarbonisation agenda in a timely and efficient manner’.
This could easily be replaced with the punchier:
‘We need to get Europe off fossil fuels and onto clean energy much faster than we had thought’.
Or, as a cheeky afterthought, here is one that I asked ChatGPT to write for a 12-year-old:
“It’s important to quickly change to cleaner energy and make Europe less harmful to the environment.”
Simple is not always short
Note, both the alternatives are not shorter than the original phrase.
Being simpler and more direct doesn’t always mean that you will be shorter.
A lot of the longer, more abstract words are shorthand that work for expert audiences but don’t cut through to a wider audience or stick with a busy policymaker.
And they certainly won’t help you be memorable.
In the media
Some of you may know I am writing a book about how to improve policy messaging in and around the EU institutions. It’s a slow, hard and sobering slog but it’s starting to come together.
I tested some of the ideas out when I was on the PLUXCAST podcast with Patrick Keating and Conrad Allen back in October. If you’re interested you can have a listen below.
I was also interviewed by ORF (Austrian National Broadcasting) about the EU’s use of technocratic language. (in German)