Keep it simple

Written by: Dave Waller Posted: 03/04/2018

plain English illoBusinesses are generating more copy than ever, but so many of them are doing it badly. Just why do they end up using jargon and scrambling their words? and what can they do about it?

“When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean – neither more nor less.” So said Humpty Dumpty when Alice pointed out that what he was telling her didn’t make any sense. 

As Alice seemed to be more taken aback by Dumpty’s cavalier approach to meaning than by the fact that she was discussing semantics with a giant egg, it’d be easy to write off the exchange as a typical Lewis Carroll flight of fancy. But you hardly have to venture through a looking glass these days to encounter people abusing English. 

Indeed, walk into any financial services office and you risk being urged to sing from the same hymn sheet regarding future-proofing deliverables vis-a-vis equity ETFs going forward. It’s enough to fry or scramble any brain. 

While many organisations pay lip-service to the idea of effective communication, too many still fall back on redundant, impenetrable or plain meaningless language. You find it in everything from press releases, corporate brochures and PowerPoint presentations, to websites, blogs and YouTube scripts. 

Yet in this hyper-connected age, it couldn’t be more important to convey your message clearly and succinctly to your audience – whether that’s customers, industry peers, employees or potential new recruits. And should you actually manage to grab their attention, you don’t want them left, as Alice was, “too much puzzled to do anything”.

Plain English Campaign

The old cotton-spinning town of New Mills, on the edge of the Peak District, is home to the Plain English Campaign, an independent group on a mission to cleanse the worlds of business and politics of gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information. 

The campaign began back in 1979, when Chrissie Maher stood in London’s Parliament Square and showed her disdain for official documents by shredding hundreds of them.

Maher’s team is now brought in by organisations worldwide to review, edit and apply its ‘Crystal-mark’ of clarity to their official documents – everything from terms and conditions for banking products to brochures for zoos. 

“At root, it’s about making public domain language far more accessible, democratic and inclusive – so the information that people find useful becomes as readable as possible,” says Lee Monks, a writer and editor at the Plain English Campaign.

Monks’ principle bugbear is jargon, the prevalence of which, he believes, stems from the “harassed office environment” in which many people find themselves working.

“Jargon is often used to make a flimsy middle-management role sound very complicated and impressive,” he says. “By bandying about these bits of code, you can show that you’re playing the game and are worthy of promotion. From the outside, it seems idiotic.”

And that’s the biggest issue with jargon – it’s often used with no thought for its appropriateness to the audience. “Jargon tends to go wrong when you take a simple idea and make it more confusing than it needs to be,” says Simon Le Tocq, Chief Executive at the GTA University Centre in Guernsey, and a former linguistics professor. 

“The word ‘synergise’ simply means to work together; ‘break down silos’ to share information. ‘Ideate’ – which I hate – means simply ‘to think’. Jargon creates a veil that can isolate and alienate the receiver of the message. Saying exactly what you mean builds greater trust, credibility and authenticity.”

Yet jargon isn’t the only problem in the business lexicon. When it comes to writing, people often produce what Monks describes as “reams of rubbish”, because crafting a tight piece of writing that will have an impact takes time. And while the modern business world requires increased output, it hardly gives people the space or resources to master the art. 

“You now have professionals in certain fields having to write posts or articles and they may not be practised at it,” says Dan Gallienne, Account Manager at Orchard PR, for whom over-writing is “the biggest crime”. 

“People often assume that writing an article is easy when you know the subject. But while a lawyer or accountant may be confident talking about it, too often that doesn’t translate to a well-written piece. A person needs to deliver information in a way people want to receive it.”

Yet that doesn’t happen in every case. Language sometimes seems deliberately impenetrable. If you’ve ever read the terms and conditions for an online service, for example, you’d be mistaken for thinking a giant egg had been drafted in to write them. If, that is, you’ve ever bothered to read them. 

Let confusion reign

However, that may be the point. Other companies will happily sacrifice clear language in their marketing materials in order to hoodwink punters into buying something. Certain finance companies did just this following the financial crash, using euphemistic language to cover up yet more questionable products. 

“We’ve had so many letters from people saying they bought something because they didn’t want to admit they didn’t understand it,” says Monks. 

Whatever the motives, this kind of language is now all over the public domain. Le Tocq cites Speedo’s ‘hair management system’ (swimming cap), Nestlé’s ‘affordable portable lifestyle beverage’ (bottled water), and Uber’s admission in June that it had ‘under-invested in the driver experience’ and was suffering a ‘reputational deficit’. “In other words,” says Le Tocq, “Uber had screwed over its drivers and its name was mud.”

Clear language is ultimately in the interests of businesses – at least those that see the benefit of respecting their customers. Laura Welsh, PR and Communications Officer at VG, believes the days of wilful obscurity are fading. “People don’t have the time to waste these days,” she says. “We’re bombarded by so many forms of communications now, and people are bored of wading through the nonsense. 

“They’re reading on their devices more than ever, and you really have to get points out very quickly. Financial services are complicated – so those who make it simple will win.”

Back to basics

She relates how, when she arrived at VG, she got everyone to talk to her “like an idiot”, so she could understand what they were on about. That approach made it easy for her as a new starter. It also set a good template for VG’s recent rebrand, in which the company took materials and assets gathered over 35 years of trading and updated it for the age of websites, mobiles and social media. 

“We’re normal people with a normal job, which just happens to have a technical aspect,” says Welsh. “Our MD is passionate about plain English. Whenever I speak to him, he says: ‘Short, Laura. Plain English. No nonsense, no jargon, no extra words. Get the point across. Done’. And he’s encouraging everybody to take that message on board.” 

The good news is that writing isn’t an impossible task. Simply following a few simple guidelines can make writing far more economical and engaging (see box). People certainly shouldn’t be scared of trying. Indeed, as we head even further into a world of mass democratic communication and open platforms, companies will only expect more people to contribute. 

Yet the same principles of brevity, clarity and keeping your audience at the front of your mind will apply every bit as much to short tweets and video scripts as they do to articles – perhaps even more so. 

“We’ll probably see more and more people writing in public, with more platforms available,” says Dan Gallienne. “My hope is that communications teams will become more prominent within companies, whether that’s people with communications backgrounds sitting at board level, or boards simply consulting professionals as a resource. Writing has to remain interesting, regardless of the platform and format. That’s the key.”

The Plain English Campaign claims to have reworked and approved more than 22,000 documents worldwide since 1979. Given the proliferation of platforms, and the great untrained being unleashed upon organisations’ customers and employees in ever-greater numbers, the question is whether we can ever do anything to ditch the dreaded jargon. 

“When I first started here, I thought maybe it’d be better next year,” says Monks. “It wasn’t. Nor the year after. But is it getting worse? No. You’ll always have people who get excited about incomprehensible neologisms that float into certain environments and keep them moving. And you’ll always have those who oppose that. Our job is to point it out, show why we think it’s wrong and allow people to make up their own mind.”

He couldn’t have put it any clearer. 

Or could he?

Top tips for writing

• Keep your audience in mind at all times You need to speak to them on their level in a language they understand.
• Allow time for writing Good writing is a process of drafting and re-drafting, which is often where extraneous elements get hacked out. 
• Don’t drone on The Plain English Campaign recommends limiting sentences to no more than 25-30 words. 
• Too many cooks If you have different people working on a single document, it needs to come across as a coherent piece of writing. 
• Consider outsourcing Think about working with an editorial services firm or a PR team that you can trust to honour the sensitivities of your sector while still engaging an audience. You’d employ a plumber to fix your drains, so why not use a writing expert to fix your words? 
• Set the rules Create a style guide to help internal writers keep tone and style consistent across the company, and a crib sheet for new joiners to demystify the whole thing.
• Encourage people to get involved As Laura Welsh at VG points out: “You ask some people to write and you can see the fear in their eyes; others relish it. Go to the junior members of your team to get them to contribute, not just your senior team or marketing team.”
• Don’t be predictable As Welsh concludes: “There are all sorts of ways of presenting the information – it doesn’t have to be a 1,000-word essay with a start, middle and end like at university. It can be a ‘listicle’, top tips, a day in the life or a Q&A. It’s about collecting knowledge within the company and presenting it to the world in an interesting way.”

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