Beyond Words


It’s not the world’s best-kept secret - lawyers like words. Sometimes, big words. We also like analysing, arguing, deciphering, interpreting… It’s both a blessing and a curse. I’ve always been fascinated by the art of communication and the legal industry makes for an interesting case study - unfortunately, more often on "what not to do".1000-words-227x300

Generally, us humans use words to communicate a message. We’re able to do that because words are loaded with meaning – without the meaning, words are just weird sounds (seriously, "fork" and "donkey" have always amused me) or some cursive lines on paper. How do we decipher that meaning? There are a lot of books and articles on the topic of semiotics and theories for communication, which I won’t bore you with here. What I love (yes, geek alert!) about communication is that it’s not an exact science – "right" will not mean "correct" 100% of the time. It makes sense that a 60 year old, married Japanese fisherman may interpret "catfishing" differently to a 19 year old single American student. Lawyers, we’re advisors – and we generally advise non-lawyers, like accountants, engineers, doctors, insurers, builders and everyone in between. We therefore have to [or should] choose our words depending on our audience. But, too often we think that we can improve the chances of our message getting across by using more words. Words become a life raft and pretty soon we’re all drowning in words like "subject to but notwithstanding the aforementioned clause". Someone once said to me (and I think Einstein said something similar) -

If you can’t explain it simply in a few sentences, then you don’t understand it well enough.

And really, this theory can be applied to all professions and most things in life.

The plain English movement (yes, there’s a whole movement dedicated to stopping lawyers from using big and unnecessary words) has gone a long way towards rectifying this problem. But there’s still a common misconception amongst the legal community that words are more likely to successfully communicate a message than any other medium. I’m just saying, let’s think beyond words. Visually… Never mind that over 90% of what we say isn’t in the words coming out of our mouth. Behaviour experts have long pointed to body language, tone of voice and expression as the key communication tools. But we can’t exactly resort to interpretative dance to explain a liquidated damages regime to our clients (although, who wouldn’t pay to see that?) So how does that theory translate to written mediums?

Beyond Words - flow chart

See what I did there? It’s been proven that sight plays a major role in our ability to absorb information. At some point, we’ve all subconsciously started drawing a little venn-diagram to get our heads around a complex idea. It makes sense that one channel of communication won’t be right for every audience and every message. People are as varied as our communication tools should be. I’m not saying that a pie chart or powerpoint is always going to be better than the report / memo / letter. I’m just saying that there is a choice beyond words.

Do I realise that I’ve just used 541 words to explain this to you? I didn’t say I’d nailed it… yet!