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The Precise Art of Imprecision

 Comms 1

While we may aim for precision in our use of language, we are inevitably drawn to imprecision.  From the time we wake up in the morning and remark on the cloudless blue sky, until the evening when we point out the stars twinkling against the black night sky, we accept and live with imprecision.  The sky, of course, is neither blue nor black, it is in fact colourless and the perceived colour is due to scattering of light in the atmosphere (1).  We are happy, however, to accept the imprecise statement that “the sky is blue” as shorthand for the more accurate, but less poetic, statement “when the sun is overhead, the atmosphere scatters more blue light than any other colour, so the colour that has reached my eye is blue”.

The use of brief statements as shorthand for more precise but unwieldy statements is just one of the reasons for imprecision in language.  In some cases, imprecision may be elevated to an art form in an attempt to allow flexibility in interpretation amongst different interest groups.  For instance, The United Nations in its guide on editing resolutions (2) includes examples of wording to be used in resolutions including:

  • “To encourage the representation and meaningful participation of …”
  • “To foster religious freedom and pluralism …”
  • “To make a strong effort to …”

While these may be well-meaning resolutions, they are inevitably imprecise and do not follow SMART guidelines (specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time-based).  A further problem is that there is no agreed understanding on how the rather imprecise language used in resolutions is to be interpre “In principle, before interpreting an SCR [security council resolution] one needs to know the applicable rules of interpretation.  Yet such rules have not been codified, nor have they emerge clearly from judicial pronouncements or other authorities (3).  

“In principle, before interpreting an SCR [security council resolution] one needs to know the applicable rules of interpretation.  Yet such rules have not been codified, nor have they emerge clearly from judicial pronouncements or other authorities" (3).  

Elsewhere, imprecision may be used to conceal activity, or lack of activity.  In one organisation I banned the use of the phrase “it is in hand”.  While it would be nice to think that this phrase is shorthand for “the project is on schedule with no issues requiring drawing to your attention”, it could equally mean “I had forgotten all about that until reviewing today’s meeting agenda, but I have spent 5 minutes thinking about it”.

Elsewhere, imprecision may be used to conceal activity, or lack of activity.  In one organisation I banned the use of the phrase “it is in hand”.  While it would be nice to think that this phrase is shorthand for “the project is on schedule with no issues requiring drawing to your attention”, it could equally mean “I had forgotten all about that until reviewing today’s meeting agenda, but I have spent 5 minutes thinking about it”.

Imprecision can also be used by senior executives to disguise their actual intent.  Take this statement from a chief executive to a regional manager during an emergency exercise:

“The chief executive is minded to consider that the approach proposed by the regional manager is a not unreasonable one" (4).

The regional manager interpreted this as meaning she could go ahead with the plan but would be held personally responsible if the plan failed.

Every day we use a variety of terms to reflect the likelihood of an event occurring: ‘possibly’, ‘probably’, ‘might’ …  There is a great danger here of misinterpretation as research conducted amongst students attending UK emergency management training has shown wildly different assessments of the percentage likelihood of an event occurring based on the different terms.

Consider what percentage likelihood you would allocate to the terms shown here:

  • Probable.
  • Unlikely.
  • Possible.
  • Likely.

The average results obtained in the research are shown in an endnote (5) and you can compare your assessment with those.  You may be surprised.

I am aware of only one person who has consistently used percentages when defining the likelihood of events occurring and that was the late Terry Pratchett.  One example, from when he was collaborating with Neil Gaiman on writing a book (6), involved Terry commenting on the chapter Neil had just written by suggesting that “inserting these 6 words would make the paragraph 16% more funny" (7).  It would be an interesting, but challenging, exercise to try to go through a day imitating Terry Pratchett and not using imprecise terms. 

 Now may be an opportune time to review the use of language in your organisation and encourage greater precision.  I know that I will be doing this, probably.

nStratagem can review your current organisational communication skills competencies and deliver a bespoke and comprehensive communication training programme for your executives to your “front” line employees.

Jon

Look forward to your thoughts and comments on this article.

  Jon Gunns is an Associate of nStratagem. We have a great deal of experience in helping leaders and organizations through their development and challenges. Contact us for a discreet discussion.

  1. Curiosity (2017): What Colour is the Sky [online].  Science Score.  Available from:  http://blog.sciencescore.com/what-colour-is-the-sky/ [Accessed 6 August 2017].2. United Nations:  
  2. United Nations:   Editing of resolutions at the United Nations: Presentation for the Information of Delegations.  United Nations.  Available from: www.un.org/en/ga/second/71/editorialguidelines.pdf [Accessed 6 August 2017].
  3. Wood, M.C. The Interpretation of Security Council Resolutions [online].  Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law.  Available from:  http://www.mpil.de/files/pdf2/mpunyb_wood_2.pdf [Accessed 6 August 2017].
  4. The statement was made during an exercise but the appointments have been amended to ensure anonymity.
  5. Probable: 64%.  Unlikely: 16%.  Possible: 45%.  Likely: 72%
  6. Gaiman, N. (2015) talking at the Hay Festival.
  7. The chapter involved a character reminiscing about time spent on summer evenings by the canal with his girlfriend.  The original line was: he had spent many happy times spooning with his girlfriend”.  Terry Pratchett suggested adding: “… and on one memorable occasion, forking”.

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