“If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.”
What the?! This could simply be written as: “If you have any questions, please phone.”
Okay, so this is a bit of a hokey example, but it is no exaggeration that while the business trend is towards speaking plainly, we still find this kind of bureaucratic doublespeak cropping up.
“Tell me in plain English” is a request we are hearing more and more often. But people who are able to speak with clarity and articulate complex ideas in speech, seem when writing to fall into a kind of language designed to impress rather than inform. Others worry that simplifying their writing is dumbing things down and contributing to a decline in the literacy standards of the free world.
But what happens when we use convoluted sentences, inflated vocabulary and specialist terms? Instead of impressing our reader we probably confuse and annoy them.
If you want your message read, your meaning understood and action taken, then here are four things to keep in front of you while writing emails, letters and reports.
1. Use only as many words as are necessary to carry the message. Padding it out and buffering your key idea only confuses the reader who has to search for the reason you are writing. If that is hidden in a bushel of other language, they may give up and not read to the end or look any further than the first paragraph.
2. Avoid long words, jargon and acronyms. Living in our own little world, we often forget that others do not know what a CIO might be or the relevance of the AQTF to their training request. Use the everyday word for things and write as you speak, in short sentences. Using jargon, acronyms and long sentences makes the message more confusing and the likelihood of the letter going into the too hard basket or the bin that much higher.
3. Use short sentences. Aim for between 15-20 words where possible to help your reader take in the information swiftly.
4. Don’t be afraid to give directions when you are writing instructions. We often see sentences like ‘You are required to return the form’ instead of ‘Return the form.’
Tim Costello recently remarked in a radio interview that the main reason we don’t trust politicians is because they don’t speak to us in plain English. So this is not just a communication issue, but a way of building trust with the people you work with every day.
By the way, I have just put this article through a readability test and it comes up as written to a Year Nine US reading level. That’s not because I think you can’t read beyond that level, but because I know you are busy people who want to take in the message and get the action hints as quickly as possible.