In government communications, there are so many rules and regulations that need to be met, and it’s easy for that to take over the writing. But we all know that kind of writing is hard to understand. Writing in plain language is critical to improving stakeholder/customer satisfaction. If you’re working on eliminating the jargon, or if you have a boss who hasn’t jumped on the plain language train yet, here are some ideas and ways to convince them.
Point any investor in the direction of the “Wizard of Omaha,” infamous investor Warren Buffet, and they’re sure to follow. Buffet is known to write about complex topics in easily digestible ways. Plain language gains trust among investors, proving that no one is attempting to hide any bad news in jargon. If a company appears to be beating around the bush with difficult news, investors’ suspicions will rise.
Investors have no time to break down complex topics in order to find the real guts of the message. Giving it to them straight will save time and won’t leave them wondering, “what am I supposed to do with this information?” Not only does putting things straight make it easier and faster for investors, it makes things a lot more fun. Buffet demonstrates his poetic delivery like a financial prophet: “It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.”
Not only is how you say something important, how long it takes you to say it makes a difference as well. The verbose professional rarely gets a point across in a 1000 word email. Experts say that most people’s interest fades when paragraphs reach lengths longer than 42 words, with sentences greater than 14 words, and words with more than two syllables. While these are tight guidelines for most writers, it’s proven that when glancing for important content, if it’s not found quickly, the reader will move on. Even if you’ve avoided jargon, being too long-winded can derail your message.
If you’re struggling to find a way to improve clarity in what you write, it’s a great idea to read it out loud. Similar to having another set of eyes look at your work, saying the words on the page out loud brings a new perspective. You’ll recognize the flow (or lack thereof) and if things simply sound “too wordy.”
Evidence shows that plain English versions of documents will win over readers at greater levels than documents filled with jargon. When presented with the same information in plain English as well as a more complicated format, research showed that the plain version increased comprehension. Mutual fund buyers were given a profile prospectus in Joseph Kimble’s Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please. The plain English format was preferred in areas of layout, length, and content, and how easy it was to navigate. Sometimes, a company will steer away from this kind of writing as a result of fear regarding legal requirements, but this doesn’t have to be the case.
Government communicators specifically must take the Plain Writing Act of 2010 into consideration when delivering messages to constituencies. The goal of the Act “is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” The average citizen cannot easily interpret legislation, and so the Act ensures that information is presented in plain writing to the public. If complicated jargon is used, there are consequences. Similar ideas can be implemented in all business communications, making interpretation easier and information more accessible for everyone.
When following SEC and FINRA regulations, writers often overload the reader with extra words to be sure they are covering all their bases. But, it’s possible to write less and still convey everything important. Consider using links to articles and references from within your organization. Every detail doesn’t need to be filtered into one sentence or paragraph; spread the details to improve readability.
It’s easier to be more critical of other people’s writing than our own. Take this idea and use it to open the door for change with your executive. Show them a long, jargon-filled example and then your “after” version where you applied the ideas we’ve discussed. If you can show the improvements in another person’s writing, this will open the door to discussion about communications coming from their desk as well.
It can be difficult to hear criticism of our work, so know that when attempting to make changes in other’s writing, it’s important to be gentle. If you approach with changes instead of criticism, it’s more likely your ideas will be met with approval. Offering “alternate” rather than “better” ideas will help your efforts.
Old habits die hard, but with these tips and some patience, you will be able to influence someone in the right direction. It’s hard to make a case against someone trying to improve company communications, so use these recommendations to train your executives to write more clearly.