For a minute there was stunned silence as Alfred Kahn stepped up to address a conference on communications. "I will not," he announced firmly, "communicate with you . . ."
"I will talk to you," added the president's chief inflation fighter, breaking into a Groucho Marx grin, "and I'm even glad to write. But I consider communicating only a couple steps better than interfacing or receiving input . . . or giving the opportunity to input. When I hear 'input' used as a verb I see a German golfer."
The crusader for clear English had struck again, this time at last week's conference of Women in Government Relations.
Kahn's reputation as an outspoken critic of bureaucratic language made him a particularly appropriate keynoter for the women lobbyists' daylong conference on clear and effective communication.
"There's only one other thing I refuse to do -- engage in outreach," said Kahn. "In my office we say 'outreach makes me upchuck.'"
About his nickname -- "inflation czar" -- he said, "It's my own particular oxymoron." (An oxymoron is a figure of speech combining two contradictory words.)
Among Kahn's other favorites: "a deafening silence, a jumbo shrimp, military intelligence and airline food."
His love of language is just part of the reason Kahn is waging a personal war on bureaucratese.
"I have a terrific need to say to people I'm not a bureaucrat. It's a personal effort to reach out to people. Also, it reflects my feelings about what a government job is supposed to be and the importance of clarity.
"Also, the response has been wonderful. A newspaper in Singapore nominated me for the Nobel Prize and I had a public proposal of marriage from a columnist with The Boston Globe. She said I don't care if you're in your 50s and married -- let's run away together. Now that's encouraging."
Kahn isn't the first federal official to discover the popularity of cleaning up government gobbledygook. In his first "fireside chat" just two weeks into the presidency, Jimmy Carter was lauded for his pledge to "cut down on government regulations and make sure that those that are written are in plain English."
An executive order of March 1978 included a section directing federal agencies to use "simple English."
This flurry of interest in straight talk also prompted organization of Plain Talk Inc., a public-interest group whose goal is to have all 50 states adopt legislation requiring that all contracts, laws and regulations be written in simple language.
"People are ripped off by bureaucratic language," says Plain Talk founding president Albert Joseph, a Cleveland-based writing consultant who has taught his art to thousands of government employes at agencies such as NASA, CIA and HEW (before it was HHS).
"The time has come for plain English," he says, "and Carter made it a popular idea."
The goal of the English professors, linguists and writing specialists is to get model legislation passed in the District, says Joseph, "then take it nationwide."
With Plain Talk advisers, Council-woman Charlene Drew Jarvis developed a clearly written Plain Language Bill and introduced it to the City Council in March. It has been languishing ever since in "the Committee of the Whole."
"It's a very good consumer protection law," says Jarvis, "because people often don't understand what they're signing when the contract writing isn't clear, with lots of jargon like 'aforetosaid.'
"But unfortunately, I think there is some resistance to getting it out of committee because it would be costly. Although the bill isn't retroactive, the code would then have both simple and complex language, requiring someday to go through it all and write it in plain English.
"And, since contracts are by and large written by lawyers, there may be an unwillingness on the part of those professionals to give up their language." a
While the District bill sits in limbo, "Things have been happening all over the country," says Joseph. "New York passed a (plain talk) law that's weak, but in the right direction.
"About three other states have passed laws and about half the states have such a law pending."
At least one government agency has acted on the executive order for "simple English" and the Civil Service Reform Act's push for courtesy and good manners in dealing with the public.
"DOT Communicates" is the theme of the Department of Transportation's current program to "get rid of gobbledygook in letters and pay even more attention to pleasantness and helpfulness on the telephone."
Booklets on clear writing and courteous telephoning have been made available to all 110,000 DOT employes. Among their suggestions for civil servants writing to the public:
Be brief. Say no more than needs to be said. Wordiness increases the cost of the correspondence and reduces the clarity of the message. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
Be plain. Choose the least complicated way of saying what you mean. Replace technical, specialized or unfamiliar terms with easily understood statements. When you must use technical words, explain what they mean.
Be strong. Use concrete words that specifically express your thought. Don't ask someone to "handle" a request when you want them to "review it to see that it has all the necessary information," "check to see that it meets legal requirements" or "approve or deny" it.
Be sensitive. Use a human tone, and make letters courteous and friendly. Replace impersonal language like "the applicant" with personal pronouns like "you," "he" or "she." Write "I" or "we" instead of "this office."
Write to express, not to impress.
For citizens or lobbyists who want to reach public officials more effectively, communications counselor Edie Fraser adds these tips:
Use simple, vivid language, backed up with public opinion supported by fact or survey if appropriate.
Present good materials. Letters should be cleanly and accurately typed, and demonstrate that you've done your hoemwork.
Remind your legislators "It's the folks back home that are speaking."