Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Keep Your Language Simple


Guest post by Rob Ashton

We've all had times when we've struggled to get our ideas down on paper. We've started writing and ended up tying ourselves up in knots and overcomplicating the issue.

It's amazing how a simple idea can get lost in translation once we start writing. And often if we don't like what we come up with first time, we throw more words at it, which compounds the problem.

Quite often, the opposite is the best solution - to keep it short and, more importantly, simple.

Consider this recent example from Suffolk County Council's website: 'The purpose of this Forward Plan is to give sufficient notice to people affected by key decisions to exercise their rights to see papers and make an input into the decision-making process.'

Why not simply say: 'This Forward Plan enables residents to exercise their rights to see council documents and input into decisions that affect them.' Or try this example from a recent invitation to tender (we've changed some specifics to protect the offender's anonymity):

'Description/objective of the contract: To provide evidence on the extent to which north west organisation's needs for enhanced and modified skills and knowledge among their existing adult employees are being met.'

This one isn't terrible and it's possible that it even makes sense to you. But it's unlikely that the author would have explained the contract's objective like this if someone had asked him or her about it in conversation. Instead, they might have said something like this: 'We want to discover how much employees of companies in the north west have improved their skills and knowledge.'

Writing as we would speak isn't always the best rule of thumb when it comes to writing clearly, but rehearsing something as you would explain it to a friend or colleague is a good starting point for writing in a more simple and clear style.

It's as if something stopped this author from using simple language when he or she started writing. Sometimes people in business feel that they have use over-complicated language or corporate jargon in order to impress their readers. When in fact, such language often alienates readers who just don't have the time to make sense of complex documents.

If you produce something that is too wordy, too long and in parts unclear, you are running the risk that your document will simply get lost in the pile of other letters, emails and documents business people have to wade through every day. We all suffer from information overload and inefficient and overly complex writing simply adds to the problem, wasting valuable time and resources.

It's not uncommon for documents to be four or five times longer than they need to be. In turn, this means that business people spend far longer than they need to reading them. If they get read at all, that is. As a result, many good ideas simply get lost in the quagmire of information overload.

Here are some tips to help you keep it simple - and get your documents read:

* Think through your key message before you start and write a short three-sentence statement to summarise the issues you want to cover.

* Plan before you write. This helps to separate the thinking process from the actual writing. If you do the opposite and try to work out what you think through your writing, you are likely to confuse - and probably, bore - your reader.

* Be less verbose and use shorter and punchier words. This doesn't mean that you can't use jargon. Some jargon is fine as long as you're certain that your reader will understand it. But just make sure that you use plain language between the jargon. Reading overly flowery language is like wading through treacle. Why say, 'We are currently involved in the implementation' when you could simply say, 'We are implementing it'?

Rob Ashton is Chief Executive of Emphasis. Emphasis is the UK's leading organisation dedicated solely to business writing training and consultancy. As the leading business writing company in the UK, their trainers and business writing consultants provide adept, in-company writing training and consultancy to a huge range of private and public-sector organisations.

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