Plain language paradox

July 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

When I teach business writing courses – and emphasise the importance of plain language – one of the most common complaints I hear is this: “If I write like that my boss won’t accept it.” They are often referring to the same boss who sent them on the course, which is something of a paradox.

But the complaint is a very valid one – many of the top dogs are, in fact, dinosaurs when it comes to modern business correspondence. And I’m willing to bet those same bosses are surprised that their employees sprout fewer buzzwords rather than more, by the time they’ve finished the course.

Here’s an example. Last week someone called me and asked for my help – he’s coaching someone and the person being coached needs someone to look at their correspondence and give some pointers before it’s sent. (It took him about 15 minutes to explain what I’ve just said in a sentence, so mired was his speech in ‘stakeholders’ and ‘outcomes’ and ‘engagement’.) On Monday I sent him an email to say I couldn’t make the suggested meeting time, and this is the response I received:

“No problem. Subsequent to our brief discussion last week further developments on John’s side have pushed out the need for the communication. I shall keep in touch going forward.”

This is fairly typical business English, and it makes me want to go and curl up under a cabbage leaf and die, frankly. Here’s a translation:

“No problem. Since we spoke things have changed, and John’s letters are no longer as urgent. I’ll keep you updated.”

Do you see what I mean? The message is the same in both versions. My version has a more friendly tone, you know exactly what I mean, and there’s no slight furrow in your brow when you read it.

The writer of this email is the MD of his company. And he wants John to learn how to write better. Does anyone else see the irony here?


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