Writing in Plain English

Writing as a form of communication is an indispensable job of our work and our lives. As knowledge workers, it’s part of our job to write every day. We write emails, memos, SMS messages, social media updates, and more for our organizations.

The problem is that we work in organizations where language has lost its humanity and nobody knows what the people in charge are talking about. This kind of thing is happening everywhere — in schools, banks, companies…you name it. What we fail to understand is that we’re not dealing with entities (organizations) — we’re dealing with people behind the entities. Communication happens person-to-person (not person-to-company or company-to-company), but we communicate as if it happens that way. Communication forms the basis of human relationships. Bad writing gets in the way of proper communication, which breeds misunderstanding.

We tend to throw away our humanity with pretentious language. What we see in most organizations today is that we use corporate-speak and business jargon when we should be communicating simply and effectively. You’ll find that plain talk is difficult to achieve, especially in the corporate world. More often than not, we let our vanity and egos get the better of us.

We use legalese, officialese, corporate-speak, and business jargon (or whatever you want to call it) for a few reasons:

  • These could be related to our habits, inertia, fear of change, false notions of prestige, etc.

  • We think if we don’t use jargon we won’t sound important, and if we don’t sound important, we won’t be taken seriously by others. This kind of thing is especially true the higher you go up the ladder in any typical organization.

  • We use jargon as a form of laziness.

  • We don’t have to be transparent, and that makes us less accountable in the eyes of others.

In organizations, we think that we’re safe hiding behind jargon and corporate-speak so we aren’t discovered for our mistakes or wrongdoings. We believe we can get away with avoiding transparency to our customers. We don’t want to make ourselves intelligible for the fear of coming across as being simple. We forget that our responsibility lies to the facts for the sake of our customer, and not to the vanity of ourselves or to our colleagues. We should be able to give control to others rather than keep it. That’s how you make leaders, but that’s another conversation entirely.

You’ll especially see the use of jargon in any governmental bureaucracy. They over-complicate things to boost their own self-importance — all at the expense of costing other people (the ones who they are meant to serve) valuable time, attention, and money. They make things up to create artificial power. These kinds of things only end up building barriers between organizations and their people. The effects of these are even greater when important information is shared between the two.

Using esoteric or fancy language or complicated writing is perceived as an intellectual strength, though it only shows a form of laziness and/or weakness to communicate clearly. It indicates a failure to think clearly, and the lack of ability to organize one’s thoughts.

Conversely, we think that a simple style of writing reflects a simple mind. Au contraire — writing in plain English is a result of a lot of hard work and clear thinking. It doesn’t come easily. Most things that look easy aren’t easy. In the end, it makes it easy for the end-user, and that is what we want.

When faced with pretentious language and empty jargon, we feel a sense of despair. This kind of writing lacks humanity. It makes it difficult for the reader to understand. Even if they do understand, it will take them significant time and attention to do so, which no one has.

The use of such language in organizations makes it easy for those in high-ranking positions to be less transparent. When there is a lack of transparency, there is no accountability.

The point is that everyone has the right (and should have) access to clear and concise information. The simplicity of the written word cannot be understated. We want our writing to have clarity, simplicity, conciseness, and humanity.

The kind of plain English I’m talking about is what everyone wants: parents from schools, customers from banks, insurance companies, and hospitals, employees from organizations, patients from doctors, managers from executives, clients from their legal/financial firms, students from educators in business schools, stockholders from their organizations, and so on.

In the next piece, I cover the benefits of writing in plain English as well as ways of writing effectively and avoiding jargon.

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