How Plain is Plain English?
‘Why should I write like I’m in kindy?’
‘I didn’t spend a small fortune becoming educated for nothing.’
‘Our clients will think we’re amateurs!’
‘Why should I ‘dumb’ things down?’
‘How can I build trust with my clients writing like that?’
‘Big words sound SMART!’
‘I spent years at university learning B I G W O R D S, so why shouldn’t I use them?’
‘I disagree with the whole ‘plain English’ movement, because it sounds childish.’
I hear this in almost every. single. workshop.
Having taught English for many, many years, I began training plain English to corporates as recently as January 2011. Funny that I had the idea to start (what I thought was) a business vocation, but scraped the idea when I got promoted to writing parliamentary briefs instead. There was NO time for business ventures back then.
Low and behold, someone, of course, had the same idea as me, and naturally had built up a very successful business. It was early 2011 that I scored a job there, and off I went – doing what I do BEST! Teaching English to corporates!
Every workshop was a roaring success, AFTER we got past morning tea.
From 9.00 – 10.30am, I felt like I was in ‘Confession’, busy turning the knob on my academic dial, while reaching for my emotional puffer (in between).
Maybe it was my fault for asking the group what they thought about the idea of plain English!
I soon learned NOT to ask this question.
It surfaced ANYWAY!
It’s a new concept for many, so it’s perfectly natural to resist the whole idea, right?
After all, I used to love BIG WORDS myself.
I got over it.
Because (too many) big words and linguistic macrame EAT into MY time. I’m no longer a ministerial officer; I’m an independent contractor and business owner. This means that EVERY. SECOND. IS. PRECIOUS, because time is money!
What’s even more important is connecting with my audience.
It’s a total misconception that using BIG WORDS and convoluted sentences build credibility.
Sure, your audience might, JUST MIGHT think you’re smart for a second, but what’s more attractive; a star on your forehead, or a glass of Angove, Sauvignon Blanc on the table come Friday night? (my favourite * wink*)
Let me put it another way;
when was the last time you gave money to a sales person, or service provider whom you DID NOT understand?
Let’s say we go into a shop to buy a new mobile phone.
The salesperson spots you and winks to let you know he’ll be over shortly.
The shop is buzzing with people.
While you wait, you walk around the store. There is plenty to see, but your eyes are fixated on a magnificent looking piece of potential Pokémon Go, infra-red with rounded edges.
WOW…you think to yourself.
Now THIS one looks like plenty of pixels for your buck.
So, the salesperson comes over to you, and you ask him about this amazing looking phone.
Gary, the sales guy tells you it’s one of their most popular models.
‘This is a great phone; good choice!
Not only can you load it up with multi-dimensional apps, this model has an A-GPS for quicker pick up and an A2DP that allows blue-tooth to better link to stereo headset receivers. The CMOS sensor will be financially more viable and the TFT LCD provides better picture output than the VQVGA traditional settings. It’s comparable to Nokia’s S40 and S60 interfaces, which have the touch screen version. This model also comes with WAP that connects to the Internet, despite it’s not as advanced as the GPRS or EDGE.’
Now, you can ask Gary what all this means if you have another hour up your sleeve, or go elsewhere.
Chances are, you’ll probably stay and ask the BIG 4, because you’re impressed by the fact he knows his S…(stuff).
Star on the forehead for Gary!
You’re feeling overwhelmed, because you’ve already been in the shop for 1.5 hours and now feeling like you need a glass of the Angove.
You tell Gary that you need to think about it and so…
You walk out.
Gary feels slightly peeved, but hey….
He’s a ‘star on the forehead’ boy, who shrugs it off as – ‘it’s their loss'.
So, you ask, what’s this got to do with writing?
The point is that you wouldn’t buy something that you don’t really understand.
You have more than one currency.
You can spend money, or you can spend your time.
MONEY or TIME.
If you won’t spend your money on a ‘try-hard sales person’, you probably won’t spend your time on a ‘try-hard’ email either.
Then again, if you’re under the hammer, you may waste 15 or 20 minutes working it out, because you’re paid to know what it means. You may have to get on the phone and talk to Harry upstairs to get clarity so you can respond to Clancy’s query. This email may well contain important information that you need to include in your written submission, so HELL YEAH, you’ll spend whatever time it takes to get it right!
Get the picture?
OK, so let’s do a tiny bit of fact finding.
The plain English movement has risen significantly over the past 25 years. Talk of plain English began as early as the 1970s, but didn’t really take off until the early 90s. It has risen within the Australian corporate landscape due to a massive amount of complaints that were being received by the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Office, year in and year out. Many dissatisfied customers were increasingly complaining about their utilities: gas, water, electricity, rates and so on.
People were being overcharged; signing up to contracts they didn’t understand; entering into deals that were heavily bordered with ‘red tape’; paying for ‘extras’ they didn’t understand, or want, etc.
Remember the gym membership scandal a few years ago?
What about your house insurance?
Do you know if you’ll get reimbursed if you wake up to a sink hole in your back yard?
What about warranty on that fabulous Mazda you got for such a bargain six months ago?
Your gasket has blown, and you thought you were going to get a new one.
Now your Aunt Grace died last month and left you her three carat diamond ring, worth around $70 thousand dollars. Your cousin isn’t too happy about that, and off she goes to her solicitor to contest the decision. Grace didn’t worry too much about the wording; she figured it was all in the bag.
When you read food labels, are they perfectly clear? Do you buy labels that read – NO ADDED PRESERVATIVES?
Hmmm, this is a whole new blog, actually.
There are a whole range of industries losing money due to poor writing.
Certain providers DO NOT want to write like ‘babies’.
They want to look like experts.
They want to look P R O F E S S I O N A L!
There are two problems with this:
- Businesses lose lots of money from staff who struggle with writing
- Businesses lose lots of money from customers who complain AND win!
Here’s an example of a potential number two (in the making) that I experienced in 2015.
I had a participant in one of my workshops who was challenging and extremely bright. She was about to start her degree in medicine. She said she didn't like plain English because she thought it removed credibility. She said that a doctor should never sound ‘simple’. She was one who was hard to convince.
I gave her, and the rest of the group an example, which I often use during my workshops.
Do you remember Torvill and Dean, the world champion ice-skaters? Watching them skate looked so seamless and simple, didn’t it? Their weight and timing seemed so light and effortless. They perfected Bolero like no one else on ice. What the audience saw was the final result; the flawless achievement that had come from years of practise, broken bones, bruises, falls and sheer determination.
So what’s the point here?
The point is that they had to get through complicated trials and errors to get to the simple!
You have to go through the bad to get to the good. You have to go through the good to get to the GREAT!
Writing is the same.
Writing simply and elegantly always starts off with having to struggle with complicated and nonsensical paragraphs; written bruises, broken sentences and falls from ‘the boss’.
Let’s look at an example:
The marketing department came furiously close to a fortuitous undertaking that demanded a great deal of time and laborious effort. They made sure not to ignore the considerations that weren’t initially included in the minutes after the weekly meeting, to which a unanimous decision on the finalization of the project be reached by 15th August.
Put the stop watch on to test how long it takes you to fully understand this paragraph.
Go on… this STOP WATCH.
How long did it take you to work out the meaning?
It took me 28 seconds and I WROTE IT!
So, what does it mean?
You can debate what’s important about this message. However, it simply means this:
The marketing department has committed to finishing the project by 15 August.
You don’t need the rest of the information. It’s redundant.
Clear, elegant and comprehended in less than three seconds.
Another important point to remember about writing in plain English is the notion of trust.
People buy from those they trust. I’m not going to bore you with this NON revelation. We’ve all heard this a million times, I’m sure. I’m mentioning it because it’s simply a good reminder.
There’s a heap more I could say, but hopefully there’s enough in this blog to get some dust on your index finger.
O.K, time to sum it up.
Take away from this blog?
- Writing simply and clearly frees up time, which means saving money.
- Writing simply is not the same as simplistic. These are two different things, which I didn’t cover here; that’s going to be another blog.
- The majority of people will take notice of those who know how to ‘get to the point’ – FAST.
- We buy from people we understand and trust.
So, if you’re not convinced that writing in simple and clear language is smart, let me tell you, plain English is here to stay (and rising). Many companies are taking it on board.
How refreshing for Joe who just put in a claim for a fallen fence in his back yard due to Wally the bandicoot that he thought was a cute visitor!
He could actually understand his insurance policy. Great eh?
Guess where the REAL value was apart from making a claim?
Yep, he’s told at least five of his friends, of which two have switched insurance companies.
Until next blog…
Love your writing!
Psst....I'll bet you can't get Bolero out of your head, right?