You’re sitting in a doctor’s office. The doctor is talking in a neutral tone of voice, without showing any visual cues of positive or negative emotion. You aren’t familiar with medical terminology, and you’re uncertain whether the doctor is telling you that you have an illness that’s easily treatable or one that’s life-threatening. How do you feel? And how do you feel about that doctor?
You’re talking with the mechanic who’s just repaired your car. “The little ringy thing in the motor was broken, so I replaced it, and the belt that kinda keeps everything going is a little worn, but you’ll probably be ok for a while. We can wait to fix it til you really need it, so bring you car back then, ok?” How much confidence to you feel in that mechanic? How excited are you to pay his bill?
Lawyers often get criticized (quite rightly) for language choice. We throw in Latin when English would do just as well, we use fancy words when simple ones would do (utilize instead of use, for instance), and we sometimes go a bit overboard when providing, offering, giving, presenting, sharing, tendering, providing, or contributing words.
How conscious are you of the words you choose when you’re speaking with clients and other contacts? Pitching with jargon or unfamiliar words can make you incomprehensible; leading with words that are unclear, slang, or overly simplified can make you seem condescending.
We often don’t give enough attention to the words we use, but conscious choice will help you conduct conversations on common ground. Ask yourself these questions to be sure you’re pitching you comments appropriately:
- How legally sophisticated is the person with whom you’re speaking? A nice way of making new terms understandable to someone unfamiliar with legal language is to introduce the term and then define it. “We’re certainly going to challenge this on jurisdiction, meaning that we’re going to argue that the court doesn’t have the authority to decide this matter because….”
- Are you using shorthand that’s understandable only to insiders? Litigators may 12(b)(6) something, but very few others will know what that means.
- Are you using hackneyed phrases that have lost meaning? Corporate jargon is both tough to understand and boring. Check yourself to make sure you haven’t taken the lazy route.
- Can you weave in analogies that will make sense to your listener? If you can related some aspect of the matter you’re addressing to your client’s business or industry, you’ll build connection as well as understanding.
You take the time to be certain that what you’re communicating is correct; take the time to ensure that the words you choose will get your message across.
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