On being … a deep dive

By Ingrid Sapona 

A friend of mine went to a celebration of life last week for a colleague who passed away unexpectedly about six weeks earlier. Because the memorial was at the family’s home on a beautiful summer afternoon, my friend and I talked about what he’d wear. He settled on business casual: dark pants and a button-down shirt with a sport coat that he could take off if he felt over-dressed. 

Afterward, I asked him how the memorial went and whether he felt he’d dressed appropriately. He chuckled and said it was a pretty casual event. He explained that his late friend’s (grown up) kids were wearing black t-shirts that said: Eschew Obfuscation. Apparently, the deceased loved words and language and that was one of his favourite (tongue-in-cheek) mottos! 

I love that motto too and I sure wish it’d be taken to heart by more folks. Indeed, I’d love to find a way to get the consultants I’m working with on a project to adopt it. This project is on ways financial institutions can influence companies they invest in, and lend to, to adopt policies and take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The work came to me unexpectedly and it’s really interesting. I’m working with three different teams or, as they refer to themselves: workstreams. Each workstream is made up of a team that includes consultants from a few different firms. Everyone is bright, hard-working, and committed. In other words, my kinda folks. My work mainly involves substantive editing of their reports. 

I’ve worked with consultants before, but it’s been a while. Given the subject matter, we can’t avoid scientific terminology altogether. But, one of my roles is to make sure we explain concepts in as plain language as possible. Sometimes I have to go a number of rounds with the technical experts before we land on a balance between technical/scientific jargon and plain language explanations the experts can live with. For the most part I don’t mind the tug-of-war. I get that their expertise was hard won and I think they think people won’t respect their expertise if they don’t use the jargon. 

But what I’ve been really surprised about is all the corporate speak the consultants use – or, as they’d probably put it: utilize. To them, examples showing the carbon emissions of two or three companies are “quantitative analyses”. I don’t know about you, but if I see “Quantitative Analysis” on a table of contents, I figure I better get a cup of coffee because it’s going to be a tough slog to get through. And for some reason, instead of saying “a company may use this data when deciding about (whatever)” – they want to talk about the “use case” for the data, for example: “the use case can inform the company’s decision about (whatever)”. Honestly. (Or should I say, really?) 

And then there are appendices labelled: “Deep Dive Into (name the topic)”. The first time I came across that heading in a document I was editing for this group the “deep dive” amounted to a half page of information – bullet points, no less. I just couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a doctoral dissertation on the topic, but I expect a “deep dive” to be a lengthy discussion or explanation of some topic that’s deemed worthy of additional detail. But then again, maybe in the age of Twitter – where you have just 280 characters to make a point – a bullet list IS a deep dive to some. Anyway, I (politely) explained that I didn’t think the bullet points really constituted a deep dive and that, instead, we could weave them into the text. In other cases, where their “deep dives” are a little more detailed – but not exactly profound – I usually re-named them: “A Closer Look at (name the topic)”. 

I can’t imagine that consultants intentionally want to sound like they’re trafficking in obfuscation, but I think it comes off that way a lot. I know that – when pushed – they can explain things in simpler terms. So sometimes, when they revert to corporate speak, I think it’s just laziness. But then, when they push back against attempts to re-phrase things, I wonder if it’s because of insecurity. Is it that they fear their advice won’t be as highly valued if everyone understood it? 

I don’t know… maybe it’s something I’ll take a deep dive into when this project is over. If you have any insights into this, let me know. If we pool our theories, I’ll bet we can come up with more than a half-page bullet list. 

© 2022 Ingrid Sapona


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