30 November 2012

Obstacles to plain language

Business writing, as a style, is bankrupt. Today's audience seeks a plain-speaking, authentic voice.

But this is the funny thing about plain language: While universally acknowledged as a good thing, it 's actually quite difficult to find examples of it in real-life business.

These are the commonly cited obstacles to the use of plain language:
  • Misconceptions about what plain language really is. The most common of which is that plain writing is just a matter of replacing complex words with simple ones.
  • A lack of writers who are trained to communicate plainly. Every writer I've met say they're trained to write clearly. Some may even say they write with flair. But I've never met any who's trained to write plainly.
I've suffered the problem of gobbledygook—also known as “business writing style”—for years now. Not just from reading others' writing (i.e. as a gatekeeper) but from vetting my own as well. It's pretty obvious the problem isn't going away any time soon, that throwing more writing training at professionals won’t improve things.

The true obstacles to plain language, in my mind, lie in psychological, cultural and institutional factors. No brand or organisation can market themselves or communicate clearly unless it reckons with these problems.

First, blame our teachers

First, let’s get the usual suspects out of the way. That’s right: we should blame our schools.

The problem isn’t the cliché that those who teach English aren't necessarily the best writers. It's the very way that English is taught in schools, which shapes students’ writing in counter-productive ways.

What often amazes me about drafts and manuscripts isn't that they're all filled with abominable grammar. (They're not.) It’s how, despite coming from different individuals, departments and organisations, the writing shares the same style:
  • Sentences have uniform length across the entire manuscript, as if there was an deliberate effort to do so. All sentences have two or more clauses—not a single sentence with just one clause.
  • Sentences always begin with a demonstrative (this/that/there, etc) or a gerund. You’ll seldom find a pronoun anywhere in the copy.
  • Sentences never start with a conjunction, or end with a proposition.
It's almost as if the whole country was taught to write out of one single, boring style book.

Speaking of style, many professionals and clients I've worked with know only two "styles"—"casual" and "formal". By "casual", they mean “careless”, and "fit for use only among friends". Conversely, a "formal" style implies "good" and "fit for business". To me, this crude dichotomy explains why, 10 years since the blogging revolution started, organisations still struggle with the idea of using blogs in their business.

I also often have clients and stakeholders who challenge editorial edits on the basis that “this is not what they teach in school”. Apparently, English teachers cast a long shadow over their disciples.

More inexplicable, however, is many people's general insecurity over sentences that are "too short". When for clients ask for their copy to be padded out, they often cannot explain their discomfort with sentences and paragraphs that are short.

In this fast-evolving age of online communications, high-school writing habits are handicapping professionals’ effectiveness. People are blindly applying rules for academic writing to the business context.

The need to impress

Professionals write in order to impress their boss, their peers, the press, and their competitors, instead of their customers. They use buzzwords because no one wants to be the person who doesn't know how to use them. (Ironically, the same people stand around the water cooler, mocking their colleagues' jargon-laden presentation in the boardroom.)

Impressing the reader is an unsaid but powerful motivation underlying all business writing. It's not always an explicit, personally driven agenda. People write that way simply because they ‘re expected to—or at least, they think so.

Professionals also write to impress themselves. Come on, be honest: we all do this. And I don't say this to be snide: Anyone who writes seriously—when they write seriously—makes the effort rise above the chaos of their thoughts. But a common side effect is this: when we have an important idea to share, we're not satisfied at merely communicating the idea. We also want to communicate its importance.

And so we tell ourselves that plain language has limited applications: "A plain style can only be used to explain simple ideas. It can't explain my big idea."

Silos vs accountability

No rant about content strategy is complete without the mention of silos, so here it is.

By necessity, large organisations operate in teams and departments of specialised people. Product development is done by product specialists; marketing, and communications with the customer, are handled by the sales force, the call centre, etc. In other words, we have silos.

Unfortunately, silos also create the non-optimal situation in which the writers actually know too little about the product to articulate its benefits. This, or those who do know the product get to write about it, and do so poorly.

Poor writing creates problems downstream. Problems, such as the call centre’s hotlines getting jammed by customers who can’t make sense of the user documentation. Unfortunately, the specialists who wrote the gobbeldygook aren’t affected at all by the customer unhappiness. They don’t feel the cost implications of their poor writing.

Further downstream, I’ve seen cases in which where customer relations request the writers to be vague on the availability of support channels.

And then there’s that situation when the lawyer writes your marketing copy.

Different departments have different functions. People will always have different agendas. When people who are not accountable for the content gets to have final say, you have a communications problem on your hands.

The expert syndrome

Working with subject experts to develop communications and marketing material can sometimes be fraught with conflict, because experts often perceive plain language writing as oversimplification.

When writing in plain language, jargon is often replaced, and whole sections are removed. The whole process can be very confronting to subject experts. They often can’t come to terms with the fact that diminished meaning isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially when it's not essential to comprehension or persuasion.

They’re also uncomfortable when their content is not presented in a familiar format. For example, lawyers are uncomfortable when legal copy doesn't begin with definitions, not realising that no definition is needed once you omit any jargon that needs to be defined.

Subject experts sometimes wonder if improvements on their content is even possible. They are reluctant to outsource the copywriting because they know that copywriters cannot know the subject better than they do. It will take too much time to get the copywriter up to speed on the subject, and it’ll take too many iterations to get it right. It’s simply faster to do it themselves.

The reality is that plain, effective writing is full-time work. Just correcting for grammar alone will need sentences and whole paragraphs to be rewritten. But to achieve plain language standards, major edits are often needed: the key idea may have to be replaced, and all the supporting facts realigned.

Plain language writing is a highly iterative process. Professional writers rarely achieve clarity in one pass, much less non-professional, non-full-time ones.

The solution isn't more education

I don't believe that sending non-marketing personnel for writing training is a solution to gobblegook. Writing well is a function of time and practice, not knowledge. Taking a one-day writing workshop isn't going to fix one's poor grammar, much less achieve plain language standards.

Also, non-marketing and communications staff have little incentive for writing clearly. It's not as if they're being graded on their performance in English writing. Honestly though, if clear writing was a problem for an organisation, can anyone blame them for asking, "Why do we have a marketing department for?"

I do believe, however, that there are solutions.

Pick the right writer. Contrary to common belief, plain language is not a common writing skill, even among professional writers. If you don't think there's anyone in your team who can write clearly, you should outsource it.

If you decide that plain language is the way to go, you don't necessarily have to choose a writer who's written about your subject. Plain language transcends genres and subject matter. Instead, look out for writers who have written clearly on complex subject matters. (Ex-journalists excel at this.) Never judge a writer using the yardstick your teacher used on you—the size of your vocabulary.

A warning is due: competent writers seldom advertise “plain language” skills, because few clients know what “plain language” is. The term “plain language” is, ironically, also jargon—people may well wonder, “Why would anyone advertise that they write boring copy?” So there’s no way to identify plain language writers outside of reading actual writing samples.

Use analytics. If plain language is a business objective for you, you should measure the performance of your content. Measure all of your content: Not just your direct response mailers, but your website, search engine and social media traffic. Start connecting your content channels with your CRM system.

If page views on a web page is low, you should find out why and fix it. Or unpublish the page—no one will miss it. Keep your content accountable.

Don't a token job of your measurements. The whole point of the exercise is let your business units know that the choice of words in your copy isn't  a subjective matter, but something that affects the bottom line. Having KPIs in place gives you an objective basis on which you can push back when business units challenge your copy or layout. If there is a conflict, you also have an objective, numberical basis on which you can work out a win-win solution.

Use a style guide. Pick a sensible style guide to align your marketing and communications. Don't use the Chicago Manual of Style (or whatever you used for your graduating thesis) if you’re not in the academic publishing business. For press releases, use the AP Stylebook or The Economist style. For web pages, use the Yahoo! Style Guide or even a technical writing style, like the Microsoft Manual of Style.

And for some half-serious fun, include a buzzword ban list in your style guidelines. Remind employees that buzzwords only benefit the people who originally came up with them, who probably did so to explain some new idea. For everyone else, buzzwords are liabilities and to be avoided. Make employees realise that the best way to stand out is to explain their ideas in their own words.

Have a calendar. You know the story: Product managers who give themselves months to write documentation, but expect copywriters to take no more than an hour to "adjust" or "check grammar". But if you send it back to the experts for clarification and corrections, they accuse you of busting their deadline.

Businesses often give their marketing departments insufficient time to work on their documentation and marketing copy. To avoid this, set down an editorial calendar for creation and acquisition, and a content audit calendar for reviewing old and existing content. Calendars help keep your business units accountable for publishing milestones, and it keeps everyone’s expectations on the same page.

The calendar also lets you bill urgent jobs for extra credits, if you have a costing system in place. ;)

Get your CEO's attention. Get senior managers involved in copy approval. This may seem like adding red tape, but it’s useful if you happen to have a publicity-savvy person at the top of your organisation.

If you're in luck, bad writing will get your CEO's attention on its own, without any intervention on your part. During my 10 years in the public service, I remember no less than four occasions (in different organisations, remarkably) in which the big boss fired angry send-all emails complaining about poorly written speeches or publicity materials in his inbox. In one particular instance, the boss ordered all policy writers to be sent to speechwriting class--something the corporate comms department couldn't do for years.

The bottom line? To achieve plain language and clear writing, you have to make everyone accountable for it.


popcorn philosopher said...

when you read something that zips along smoothly with clear understanding, it means the writer has suffered much pain making sure the sentence is constructed for the reader's convenience said...

You had me at
"the specialists who wrote the gobbeldygook aren’t affected at all by the customer unhappiness. They don’t feel the cost implications of their poor writing."

I'm more and more convinced that it is the hidden COSTS of poor writing that are the major obstacle to plain language in the workplace. As a researcher, I have the luxury of a sabbatical to study these obstacles. I hope you'll weigh in on my own comments in this area at

Kok Hong Poh said...

Sorry for the late reply, I've been away from my blog for far too long.

About the costs of poor writing: marketing is probably the only profession that (usually) takes the pain to measure the performance of their copy. That's the unfortunate situation for the rest of us writing in other fields, e.g. technical communications and public relations.