Write like you mean it

In the age of information avalanche and carefully crafted spin, organisations that want to stand out or build trust need to be transparent as never before. Language and the written word traditionally sit front and centre as critical factors in engaging the widest possible audience on a subject, but the slow creep of management jargon and officialese into public relations and mass communication is making it harder for people to find and understand the facts.

The rising tide of protest against public language that is mostly written to manage risk and avoid accountability has its roots in the British Plain English movement, but Australian authors such as Don Watson and Neil James have built compelling cases for the need to reinvigorate public language.

In a book as sobering as it is amusing, Don Watson’s ‘Death Sentence’ paints a picture of the decay of public language. In an example of the kind of clichéd verbal ‘clag’ that government and organisations use to persuade the public they are being better served, he cites a letter to a customer from a certain Australian telecommunications company:

‘At xxxx, we are paving the way for better, more enhanced ways of doing business, and these enhanced systems are designed to deliver on that commitment. These improvements will allow for more flexible and efficient billing options as we move forward.’

Enhancing could mean anything, and commitment, when it’s used like this, sounds lifeless. The second sentence opens in the future tense, so the overworked ‘moving forward’ could be safely dropped.

Similarly, Martin Cutts, author of the Oxford Guide to Plain English writes of the need to challenge language that ‘stands on a pedestal and tries to sound posh’. He recounts the story of a Derbyshire bus driver who got national publicity in 2001 when he decided to re-write his employer’s book of 183 rules to be more readable and useful. Instead of:

‘Ensure machinery for issuing and endorsing tickets is confirmed as in working order and is set in accordance with approved procedure’, he wrote ‘Check the ticket machine is showing the correct date and price’.

Written communication and public language are governed by the classic tenet of good communication: tell your audience the who, what, where, when and how. Without this information you have murky sentences that are close to flat-lining. Here are five general pointers for writers and speakers in any field:

1. Keep your verbs strong – limit nominalisation

Nominalising is taking a verb or adjective and treating it like a noun, often taking the action (and the actor) out of a sentence. Be committed to something rather than ‘reflecting your commitment’. Apply for something rather than ‘making an application’. Renew something rather than ‘carrying out a process of renewal’.

2. Make your writing more personal – give tired clichés a break

Watch out for misplaced jargon, clichés and jaded buzzwords: synergy, going forward, adding value, discussions that center around, in relation to, in terms of, potential options for consideration in service development, commitment to the provision of, working together collaboratively.

3. Use the passive voice sparingly – write actively the rest of the time

Who’s doing what to whom? Often lambasted by writers and Orwellian conspiracy theorists alike, the passive voice has its place. Sometimes a writer doesn’t have enough detail, or they may want to remove themselves and appear objective. But be careful you don’t get into the habit of writing ‘a recommendation was made by inspectors that consideration be given by the company…’ when you could more actively say ‘inspectors recommended that the company consider…’.

4. Don’t be afraid to use everyday words – they’re popular because they work

Recognise the power of words you use in conversation every day and use them in your writing when you can. Many business writers are taught that longer words and sentences are the mark of an expert. Certainly your writing will sound more formal and technical, but unless your audience already knows about your subject, you risk sounding pompous and cold.

5. Write for the target audience – 80 per cent of the time

Few organisations have time or money to spend testing their publications in readability focus groups, and many publications don’t need this level of scrutiny. The 80 per cent rule is that documents written as simply and directly as the subject allows will be understood by 80 per cent of people. Research by the Plain English Foundation suggests that time and money are better spent writing effectively for the 80 per cent rather than customising content for different audience groups.

By Alan Fitzpatrick