Thursday, September 10, 2009

Learning to speak and listen to the language of the internet

Speaking with the locals can be one of the most rewarding - and most frustrating - experiences when traveling to foreign-language countries.

If you make an attempt at their language - no matter how feeble - they will generally respect your efforts and go out of their way to be helpful.

However if you simply try to speak with them in your own language or, worst of all, shout at them in your tongue, you may be snubbed or disrespected.

How are these examples relevant to government?

When government departments go online they often continues speaking in their native tongue - using 'govvie speak' - which often uses different words and definitions than everyday speech.

This usually isn't a deliberate attempt to obfuscate. Often departments are trying to communication well, spelling complex meanings out clearly and precisely.

Generally career public servants, public sector lawyers and specialist communicators work hard to find exactly the right words to communicate what their department wishes to say.

So where can this go wrong?

After highly skilled professionals slave over website content, which is then approved by senior public officials, there is often no step to get approval from the highest authority of all.

The 'average' punter - the person reading (and hopefully understanding) the message.

Most communicators understand that if their message isn't coded in a way their audience understands they will be ignored or viewed as less credible.

When delivering fixed length communication pieces, such as advertisements or publications, extensive audience testing is often used to ensure that the message is clear and effective.

To use govvie speak, this testing is a risk mitigation strategy to assert that the contents of a communications piece are widely understood and resonate with the target demographic, thereby achieving an effective policy or program outcome for the government, the department, and for the public purse.

Or, in plain language, testing makes ads work.

How often do we in government test every line of a website's content to make sure it is understandable to its audience in itself and within the context of the entire website?

Even when we do test, how often do we impose layers of approvals after testing?
These can turn a piece of plain language into a swamp containing patches of govvie speak quicksand, which the average punter can easily get swallowed up in.

Of course testing won't take us all the way. Generally there isn't time or resources to test every line of a website in context.

We have to rely on employing professional writers who understand our audience and speak their language. And then we need to trust them and leave their words alone.

As government engages further with the internet, moving from 'look at me' websites to listening and conversing with the public, we need to 'mitigate the risk of audience dislocation, ineffective consultations and ministerial complaints'.

In other words, to make our online discussions work and stop people getting upset when they do not understanding or trust our words it becomes even more vital that our language goes native.

In conclusion, government departments need to blog like the bloggers do and chat like the chatter do. When we listen and communicate respectfully we will earn the respect and credibility of the online world - our citizens.


  1. Hi Craig,

    It can be tough for anyone to find their voice online, particularly when starting out. But I agree with what you're saying - the net is all about relevancy.

    It's also complicated because from different levels of government, we need to be communicated too in different styles... sometimes we need to be told, talked to, reassured, inspired... or just have open conversation.

    David Meerman Scott has a nice analogy he uses - was just out last week for a social media masterclass. It's Social Media as a Cocktail Party well worth a read.

    Cheers Brett.

  2. Thanks Brett,

    I've heard the analogy of the cocktail party before :)

    I also like to think of social networks as nightclubs, given how they grow, are popular for a time and then must reinvent or lose their audience to the snazzier club down the street.

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