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Appreciating words that are fruitful, but few…

Even a cursory glance at the Department of Health and Social Care website reveals something almost universal in healthcare policy. There is no shortage of it. Documents, guidance, white papers, explainers, plans, reams of words. The kindest thing is to keep things brief.

I never got the hang of writing poetry. The odd limerick is no problem, and as a teenager I wrote the odd impassioned verse, just like everyone else. But I am genuinely in awe of those who can deliver the full poetic goods.

Take that near perfect description of this time of year as the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, written by John Keats back in 1820. So few words, and yet such an impactful image.

Or, nearly as good, try Thomas Hood’s wonderful November which starts with “No sun – no moon, No morn – no noon. No dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day”, and ends with “No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! – November!” Yet again the astute selection of words delivers so much meaning with so little padding.

What a contrast with, for instance, politicians and other assorted official spokespeople. Their aim seems to be to use the greatest number of words to deliver the smallest amount of content. When faced with a tricky interviewer, they will spin out several paragraphs of verbiage to avoid ever having to say the words, “I don’t know”. They really don’t fool any of us.

At one of Kaleidoscope Health and Care’s final events before the pandemic struck, the great Michael Rosen was one of our speakers. He read his beautiful and moving poem – These are the hands, written for the 60th anniversary of the NHS. As a tribute to the values and the caring of NHS staff, it is brief, clear and immensely powerful.

I have always believed that if experts are unable to explain something simply, it probably means that they don’t really understand it.

Keeping things short and simple is a great art. Poets can do it. Tabloid journalists can do it. All of us could do with learning it – learning how to get a message over in a few memorable words. I have always believed that if experts are unable to explain something simply, it probably means that they don’t really understand it.

Choosing your words carefully is the key to great communication. Choosing words to obscure your truth is a deliberate act too. In the world of health and social care, truth is one of the key enablers of trust. Words really do matter.

David Haslam8 November 2021


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