Words matter – we need to keep cleaning up our “muddy words”

I started out writing an entirely different blog post and had to stop to write this one.

Imagine that you park your rarely-used car next to a dirt field, in an area with frequent wind and rain. Over a few days, it collects a thin layer of dust – barely noticeable, not worth worrying about. So you don’t.

A couple months later, your car is a shapeless muddy blob.

It’s almost definitely a car under there, but one person walking by might assume it’s a dented ’86 Honda Accord and another person might assume it’s a shiny new Tesla. Each person’s interpretation would be shaped by their own experiences with car maintenance (and, perhaps, their tendency towards off-roading).

This happens to our words at work continuously. They get muddy.

Muddy words* are phrases, descriptions or abbreviations where everyone forms their own interpretation.

How Muddy Words Happen

We shorten a phrase to save time, and accidentally lose meaning.  We summarize an idea, assuming that everyone else in that meeting gets the implied context.    Instead, our words are “clear as mud”.

We learn new information that changes our underlying assumptions (and don’t properly communicate it to everyone else on the team). The world is always going to bring us new information. Our customers’ expectations and needs will change. Our own knowledge about what’s feasible and practical will change. We don’t revisit initial assumptions and redefine “known” bullet points. They get muddy.

Our discomfort with uncertainty leads us to choose vague words. This isn’t always malicious and it isn’t always something we consciously do. If we aren’t sure about something, and we’re headed into a big meeting or an active discussion thread, do we really want to give someone a chance to tell us we’re wrong? (If your leadership has demonstrated that this will go unpunished and you’re in a high-trust, high-context environment, this happens less often.)

What are some examples of “messy words”, and why should I care?

  • enterprise-ready
  • all-natural
  • good neighborhood
  • high performance culture

When Kai hears “enterprise ready”, she might envision a technology that can scale to handle millions of concurrent transactions.  Pat might envision a technology that supports dozens of IT admin controls and limits.  If Kai and Pat are in a meeting both using the same “enterprise ready” terminology to mean wildly different things, there’s going to be a very expensive problem in their future.

A few more:

  • “too junior”
  • fully customizable
  • “tech-savvy”

Abi’s a developer, and she thinks of “tech-savvy” as describing other developers like herself. Her API documentation is clear but minimal; she wrote it with the goal that it should suffice to get any developer up and running within ten minutes. Ken is a marketer who has edited WordPress themes and used a bunch of low-code tools to automate workflows. He considers himself “tech-savvy” — and is disappointed by the lack of “how to” in that same API documentation.

Muddy words give us disappointing outcomes. We build products customers won’t buy. We design marketing pages that don’t answer fundamental questions. We fail to meet customers’ expectations (since we weren’t clear on what they were).

*Aren’t these just ‘weasel words’?

Weasel words implies deliberate malice or avoidance of responsibility.  Consider “Unarmed citizen in police-involved shooting” vs. “Off-duty officer shot unarmed citizen” — that’s weaselly.  The construction of the sentence shifts your attention to the victim, hoping to distract you from the responsible party.

There are always jerks trying to cast doubt or mislead with weasel words. I like to think they’re in the minority.  More importantly, when we associate “bad behaviors” with “bad people”, it’s easy for us to excuse ourselves – oh, I’m a nice person, I have good intentions, I don’t need to examine my language.

Muddy words exist on a spectrum – from calculating intent to mislead to deliberately being a little vague to CYA to genuinely not realizing how ones’ words could be misinterpreted. It’s not helpful to be accusatory when someone doesn’t intend to be unclear.

(On the other hand, to borrow a metaphor from D&I training, ‘if you don’t realize that you’re stepping on someone’s foot, that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt them; also, you should still get off their foot and apologize.”)

How can I prevent muddy words?

You can’t.

Choose your words with care. Read your written emails or docs out loud to try and find assumptions and vague parts. And even the most perfect words will start gathering dust as soon as they’re out in the world.

How can I stay on top of cleaning up my muddy words?

Put in place good habits of maximizing initial clarity. As I mentioned above, read your words out loud. You’ll be amazed by how much fluff you can cut, how many sentences you can simplify, how many concepts sounded perfectly clear inside your head and sound vague when spoken aloud.

Add a tl;dr summary. Even if you’ve written the most brilliantly concise and clear document or email, as soon as someone else tries to summarize it, they’re adding mud. If you include a summary, it’s easier for them to copy-paste your summary bullet points than to rewrite.

Regularly revisit your words. I don’t care if you’re talking to the same people on the same team, I don’t care if there have been no explicit scope or deadline changes. All shared information should have an expiration date. Set yourself a reminder for every 2 weeks or once a month to revisit, “just to re-confirm, when we say X, we mean that Y should happen and Z is the highest risk”, etc.

Leaders, enthusiastically thank people who question your muddy words. By default, most people are anxious about confronting the boss. If you throw out “fully customizable” and someone says, “Um, can I ask what exactly we mean by that?”, THANK THEM. Praise them. They probably just saved you a bunch of hours and/or a bunch of dollars.