When we speak, most of us naturally use plain English. For example, we are unlikely to say, ‘Prior to the commencement of the development of the new business model we will instigate an organisation-wide survey.’ We are more likely to say, ‘Before we start developing the new business model, we will survey team members.’
Yet, many people believe they need to switch to a complicated, formal and bureaucratic style when they write. Several decades ago, your employer may have expected such a style in written communications. It is certainly not appropriate today.
Plain English is simply clear, concise language that is focused on the needs of the reader. The aim of plain English writing is to be understood on first reading with minimal or no room for misunderstanding. This makes good business sense.
Yet there are three pervasive and damaging beliefs that continue to prevent people from writing in plain English.
Trap 1. I will sound less intelligent if I write in plain English.
It is actually possible to write about complex concepts in plain English. Communicating a complex concept using complicated language does not make the content of the communication any more intelligent or worthy. It just makes it more difficult for the reader to understand.
If we deliberately use complicated language and jargon terms unfamiliar to our reader simply to sound ‘smarter’, we are blocking communication. We are also creating an unequal relationship by putting ourselves in a ‘one-up’ position.
Long and complex sentences full of unfamiliar terms not only cause confusion, they can even lead our clients or colleagues to believe we’re deliberately hiding something. This fosters a relationship based on suspicion rather than trust.
Trap 2. Plain English is dumbing down the English language.
Plain English may not have been the way you were taught to write in high school English class. When writing analytical essays about English literature, you were probably encouraged to write extensive paragraphs, and use terms like ‘multifarious’, ‘anaphora’, ‘pastiche’ and ‘intertextuality’. For creative pieces, you might even have gained extra marks for using an extensive vocabulary (even if secretly you didn’t understand what those words meant).
Don’t be trapped into thinking this is how you need to write at work. Plain English is beautiful language in its own right. It is elegant in its clarity and in its lack of clutter. I like to think of it as a classic design that is timeless because of its simplicity.
Trap 3. I only need to use plain English when I’m writing to the public.
Many organisations recognise the importance of ensuring their external communications are easy for their customers to understand. Some organisations, such as banks, law firms and insurance companies, even use the promise of plain English communication as a marketing tool.
Plain English is equally important for internal communications to promote productivity. Clear, to-the-point emails help everyone in the organisation do their job efficiently, and avoid costly and time-consuming errors. Clear policies and procedures help team members take the right action. Poor written communication, on the other hand, can have far reaching consequences including loss of income and reputational damage.
Whether we work for the government or in the private sector, we have an obligation to communicate clearly and concisely in writing to the public, our clients and our colleagues. We need to take the effort to revise our communications and make sure the message is crystal clear, like an ice cube after first boiling the water. This focus on clarity and conciseness is particularly important in a complex world where we need to read and understand thousands of words every day at work.