Content in the shallows

October 9, 2013 § 10 Comments

My daughter is working on a huge project for English, so big that the teacher insisted that each child hand in a section halfway through to ensure everyone was making progress.

My child is diligent and creative, and she spent hours painstakingly putting the first part of her project together, and making a beautiful cover that I know I couldn’t even have conceptualised, let alone executed. And on the appointed day she took her partial project in for its first assessment.

The teacher, by all accounts, cast a cursory eye over the content of the project, gave her 9/10 for the work submitted so far, and sent her away with the admonition that she needed to work a bit more on her presentation.

Even with a good dose of parental bias thrown in, I was gobsmacked. First, what kind of message does that send to a child – that 90% is not good enough? No wonder we have kids committing suicide over school marks.

More concerning, though, was the emphasis on presentation over content that I’ve seen before: a book review earlier in the year had to be presented as a scrapbooked page, for example, and some children were made to redo their page because the scrapbooking wasn’t up to the teacher’s standards. I would be far more concerned with which books the kids had read, and what their impressions were given that the subject is English and not Art, but perhaps that’s just me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m the last person to suggest that things should be presented in a slapdash way. But it got me thinking. All of this is a microcosm of the world we live in, isn’t it? We live in a world where form seems to be trumping content more and more, and I find it desperately sad.

As one wag quipped on Twitter recently, it’s depressing that some people have a favourite Kardashian. Paris Hilton is famous for being famous . People who can’t really sing are making money hand over fist as singers, but they are autotuned in studio to such an extent that their ‘live’ performances either feature them lip syncing to everything, or singing live and making a mess of it. And let’s not even begin to talk about politics, which is all about smoke and mirrors.

I’ve even encountered it in my own career – a few years ago I gave up paying work when a magazine asked me to take the little parenting column I’d been writing for them for years and “make it more boutiquey – feature cute prams and dresses and stuff”. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

I could go on, but there are too many examples. I think it suffices to say that we appear to be getting more and more shallow, and on a global scale.

So, it’s taken me a while to get there, but all of this has relevance for business communication. Think about some of the company websites you encounter. They’re beautiful, they have all the bells and whistles and features that open and shut, until you try to find some useful information, or engage with the content in any way. Within minutes you find yourself floundering in a sea of business buzzwords and platitudes that say precisely nothing and leave you feeling bewildered and confused.

Here’s the thing: if you focus too much on what things look like, and less on what they say or how they work for those reading or engaging with them, one thing is certain – people will move on, and they will move on quickly. The distractions of modern life mean that we imbibe an enormous amount of information daily, and if something is confusing, insubstantial and not useful to us, we move on to the next thing very quickly. And when that happens, you’ve lost a potential client, or perhaps even an existing client.

So I’ll just continue to beat the same old drum in the hope that someone out there finally gets it: content is king, plain language rocks, and adding real value to your clients’ or customers’ lives is what you should be aiming for with your business communication.

Once you’ve done that – and only then – do you start to worry about making it look pretty.

PS. Here’s a free tip: if you have a ‘contact us by email’ form where people can make enquiries, do make sure someone monitors it at least on a daily basis. I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve asked to contact me about a product or a quote and the deafening silence continues years later.

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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?

Cut the crap

June 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yes, that’s right, you heard me – cut the crap. That’s what I’m tempted to say to people often when I have to persuade them that plain language is an imperative in business writing today.

It’s the biggest obstacle I face when I teach business writing – people who cling to their purple prose, complaining that plain language is dumbing things down, that their writing will lose its ‘elegance’.

The truth, however, is that most of the affectations people adopt in their writing are just that – affectations. They don’t add any value and they certainly don’t make the message clearer. Instead they often serve to confuse and cloud issues instead.

Big words and convoluted turns of phrase don’t make you sound clever. It’s not about showing off your education or your way with words. Business writing – or transactional writing, as it’s also called – is there to do a job. And your fancy phrasing is preventing it from doing that.

Trust me: plain language is always preferable to what you’ve just produced and patted yourself on the back for – that turgid email or report or presentation that’s groaning under the weight of all those meaningless buzzwords and complicated clauses. It’s elegant, it’s effective and it gets you noticed.

If you want business communication that does all that, look at that piece of writing again. Systematically weigh every word you’ve used and get rid of all the dross.

What am I trying to say? What’s the take-home message?

You’ve got it – cut the crap!

Business buzzwords

May 2, 2013 § 4 Comments

I’ve spent the afternoon giving feedback on some assignments – business writing assignments issued at a course I recently taught for Allaboutwriting. The course was for a group of communication officers at one of South Africa’s major banks, and it’s very interesting to see how the corporate lingo filters through in their writing, even in an assignment that requires a conversational, less formal tone.

So we have ‘stakeholder’, ‘engagement’ and… surprise, surprise… ‘stakeholder engagement’. We don’t know who these stakeholders are or what engagement entails – dinner and a movie, or just a diamond ring when you pop the question? (And isn’t that taking customer service just a step too far?)

‘Strategic’ is another buzzword people love to fling about with gay abandon. Everything is strategic today, even when it’s not. Why, I do believe I’ve even read about ‘strategic stakeholder engagement’ recently,’ whatever that is.

And then there’s ‘concretizing’ and ‘leverage’ and ‘capacity’ and ‘synergy’ – these words have just been so overused and misused (what on earth does concretizing entail?) that no-one really knows what they mean. I tried to rewrite two sentences for one of my students to demonstrate that plain language really could say the same thing more simply and more elegantly, but I struggled to translate his corporate language because I really wasn’t sure what he meant. And therein lies the problem.

Good communication is about ensuring that the message you send is exactly the same as the message received. That means it must be accurate and crystal clear with no room for ambiguity. Using buzzwords is far more likely to obscure your message – which is why politicians love them so much.

As I was writing this, a junk email for a business conference arrived in my inbox, with these words: “Kindly find attached information pertaining to…” Why so many words? (Also, there was no attachment.) But what’s wrong with saying, “Here’s the information about…”

It’s not about dumbing things down – I’m not saying you shouldn’t use ‘big’ words ever, or that you need to write in words of one syllable. But you should always consider your audience. Do you want them to understand what you mean the first time they read what you’ve written, or do you want them to furrow their brow slightly and hit ‘delete’ when they don’t know what the hell you’re on about?

Plain language really can make the difference.

Broken English

March 20, 2013 § 3 Comments

When I teach Business Writing, I try to teach people that every bit of communication that leaves a business impacts upon its brand. So you can pay millions to ad agencies and PR agencies and publicists, but all of that expense is undone by the misspelt, badly written emails that go out from your employees’ computers, or the presentations to clients that are riddled with grammar and spelling  mistakes.

I go so far as to say that even the sign on a cubicle door proclaiming that a toilet is out of order is business writing if your clients come into contact with it. And given how many times I’ve been in offices where the sign says “Out of Oder” (sic) I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch. And yes, that particular error amuses me far more than it should.

But it got me thinking about plain language again. Why are things so often “Out of Order”? Why aren’t they just broken? Does calling something out of order make it any less non-functional? It is really so offensive to call something broken? And why do we feel the need to sanitise (if you’ll pardon the pun) everything?

I have the same problem with the endless euphemisms for death. Whenever I hear someone say: “He lost his father yesterday,” it takes every ounce of my self-control not to remark, “Careless!”

Actually, his father died. He did not expire, pass on, pass away, go home, or shuffle off his mortal coil. (Only Shakespeare can get away with that last one.) His father died. Calling it any of those other things really doesn’t soften the blow at all. The person is still dead, and their loved ones are still grieving. And saying someone has gone home is particularly confusing.

I imagine by now you think I’m a raving lunatic, and quite possibly you’re right. I just think we have over-euphemised (yes, I know that’s not a word) the language we use so much that we hardly know what we’re talking about anymore. In our attempts to sound businesslike, professional, educated, or even “fancy”, we just make our communication more and more cloudy. And that, my friends, means that many of us communicate in broken English.

Plain language, dammit

March 14, 2013 § 9 Comments

I want to let you in on a little conversation I had on Friday evening on Twitter.

The conversation was, at first, between me and whoever does social media for M-Net Series. Later, Barrie Bramley joined in. (In case you want to look him up, Barrie is a keynote speaker on a number of topics, one of which is social media and its impact on how we communicate and engage with each other. You can view Barrie’s profile here: http://bit.ly/ZiiY33.)

Because I’m digitally inept and have no idea how to do screenshots, etc, I’ve retyped the whole conversation for you, and I’ve left in all the Twitter handles and hashtags so you can see who’s talking to whom, and exactly what it said. It went like this:

@MNetSeries: Please note due to #VampireDiariesSA being on hiatus in the US, the show will be pre-empted for two weeks.

@MandyCollins: Pre-empted? SMH @MNetSeries: Please note due to #VampireDiariesSA being on hiatus in the US, the show will be pre-empted for two weeks.

@MNetSeries: Hi Mandy this is only for two weeks.

@CollinsMandy: I don’t watch the show. It’s your choice of words that bothers me.

@BarrieBramley: @CollinsMandy @MNetSeries ‘pre-empted’ is Twitter speak for… ‘we gonna play old episodes for the next two weeks’. #140characterconstraints

@CollinsMandy: @BarrieBramley No, it’s meaningless corporate speak. There’s always a way to be simple and clear. @MNetSeries #140characterconstraints

@BarrieBramley: @CollinsMandy @MNetSeries you feel strongly about this 🙂

@CollinsMandy: @BarrieBramley I do. Assuming the point of having a presence on social media is to build your brand and talk to clients… @MNetSeries

@BarrieBramley: but it’s such a fancy big word. I’m not sure you fully appreciate how long they’ve wanted to use @MNetSeries

And then, two days later, on Monday:

@MNetSeries: Hi your concern is noted, however these are television terms most fans are familiar with. Thanks

Okay, so perhaps I was a little grumpy, and perhaps I shouldn’t have picked on this person. But I had spent the morning running a business writing course at a big company, a course that covers plain language and clear writing as well as using social media effectively, so this rankled somewhat.

Frankly? This kind of thing is a problem in all forms of business writing – people have forgotten how to use simple, everyday language, and seem to think that business writing must be peppered with big words, jargon, and technical terms. We utilise instead of using things, we talk about competency and skillsets and critical mass, and nobody honestly knows – least of all the writer themself – what the hell anyone is on about anymore.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider this tweet from one of my favourite Twitter editors, Patrick Neylan, on March 6 this year. His droll comments on writing often have me rolling in the aisles:

“@AngrySubEditor: I’ve just saved our readers from “hires evidencing illiquidity”. Think of it as reductive syntactic philanthropy.”

Meaningless phrases are everywhere; you really don’t have to try to hard to find examples. And in a world where we have less and less time to read the deluge of information that comes our way every day, simple, clear communication is a must.

But back to my little Twitter conversation. I’m sorry, @MNetSeries, but I honestly don’t believe that ‘pre-empted’ is a term that “most TV fans are familiar with”. I am a huge TV fan. I used to write about television for a living. I had never come across the term in this setting until you used it.

Besides, do you even know what ‘pre-empt’ means? It has a few meanings – to take action in order to prevent an anticipated event from happening, or to acquire or appropriate something in advance, for example. It does not mean ‘we will screen repeat episodes until such time as we have something new to show you’.

I’m convinced this is a classic example of industry jargon (and really meaningless jargon, at that) being communicated to entirely the wrong audience.

Imagine if your doctor told you with a grave face, that you had severe pharyngitis and he was sending you to the otorhinolaryngologist – how would you feel? But if he said: “It’s a bad throat infection, and I want you to see the ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT),” that’s an entirely different story.

I think there’s a lesson in there for companies and brands in the way they communicate with clients. They should always be aiming to use ordinary, everyday language, not the corporate language they use around the office. As I said in the tweets, surely the aim of brands or companies using social media, is to connect with clients, to engage with them – to get a conversation going? Using jargon and overly complicated language, as some do, has quite the opposite effect. It alienates, confuses and obscures rather than encouraging people to engage with you. And therefore, I think, it does your brand no favours.

And please don’t confuse using plain language with dumbing things down. They are not the same thing. You can use plain language simply and elegantly without having to resort to words of one syllable. All you have to do is say what you mean and mean what you say – it’s not complicated, really.

What are you trying to say?

February 20, 2013 § 3 Comments

I’ve been doing a lot of writing coaching lately. Most of us learn grammar and spelling and punctuation at school, but very few of us learn how to write. And so I try to fill in that gap for people, one-on-one, because most of us have to engage in some form of writing on a daily basis. In my view, it’s an essential life skill.

Good writing is a separate skill from ‘being good at English’ for example, which is something I hear a lot. It’s a metaskill, as it were – and it’s something that can be taught. Yes it requires that you use good grammar and spelling and punctuation, but those are not enough. There are plenty of people who have good language skills, but who still struggle to write well.

By far the most common problem people have, in my experience, is that they battle to express themselves clearly. They use big words and complicated sentence constructions, and the results are sometimes incomprehensible. Just the other day I was helping someone with their MBA thesis and I came across a sentence that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. “What are you trying to say?” I asked. She told me what she wanted to say. “Then say that,” I replied.

People look at me like I’m nuts when we have that exchange – when I started coaching her, she couldn’t believe that was all there was to it. My own husband looked at me strangely when I was helping him to edit his M.Sc thesis, or to write a referral note for one of his patients. Over and over I would ask him what he wanted to say, he would tell me, and we would write that down.

The bottom line is that there’s no need to overcomplicate things. You don’t need to use big words to impress people – even in an academic setting. In all of my recent academic pursuits I’ve written exactly the same way I write when crafting a feature for a magazine or newspaper – in simple, conversational language. And each time I’ve been complimented by fusty old academics on the quality of the writing. If you need more proof, the selfsame MBA student mentioned above took her marks from the lower sixty percents into the eighties simply by working on her writing. And by working on writing simply.

So next time you’re stuck writing something – whether it’s a presentation, a speech, an e-mail or a note to your child’s teacher – just stop and ask yourself: what am I trying to say? Answer your own question, and then write down the answer. It really is that simple.

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