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The fast-paced, digital business environment presents increasing challenges for team members who need to read and write multiple emails, reports and other communications. The Digital Age has not only revolutionised the way we work, it is also transforming the way we read. We are evolving from being deep readers invested in comprehending complex information to skim readers who ‘browse’ text. The ability to write in plain English is critical, not only out of respect for our readers, but also for increased workplace efficiency.

The cost of poor communication

Plain English is not a new concept. The insurance company NRMA over 30 years ago was one of the first companies to recognise the importance of plain language policies. Yet many team members today are either not trained in plain English writing, or don’t use it. Consider the following typical scenario.

Before heading off on her holiday, Jody needs to write a handover email to her team member Ramira regarding an upcoming conference. It’s Friday afternoon and Jody is in a rush to leave. She reasons that the email is only going to a team member rather than a client, so she doesn’t need to take too much care writing it. Jody has also never received any business writing skills training.

On Monday morning, Ramira opens Jody’s email and reads it several times, struggling to make sense of the long sentences and jumble of ideas contained in the one, long continuous paragraph. As it’s not possible to contact Jody while she is on holiday, Ramira consults several team members and sifts through multiple files on the shared drive.

Ramira misunderstands several instructions in Jody’s email which results in incorrect speaker biographies being included in the conference program. To rectify the program, the printer needs to re-do the proofs and charges the company for this re-working.  In addition to this unnecessary expense, Ramira and her team have lost three hours of productivity in one week.

Had Jody taken more care to write her email and set out the instructions clearly and logically, the errors and lost productivity could have been averted. Crafting her email more carefully may have taken Jody a few more minutes, but those few minutes would have saved hours in lost productivity.

The changing nature of reading

Although Jody’s poorly written email cost her company money, her colleague Ramira did take the time to try and understand the email and do the right thing. But what about those readers who don’t read carefully?

As we move into digital-based modes of reading, the ‘deep reading’ processes our brains have developed over the past 6,000 years may be under threat, according to emerging research. The reading circuit in our brains is not a genetic blue-print like vision – it needs an environment to develop and will adapt to that environment. If the dominant medium, such as the current digital one, is fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, the reading circuit will adapt to this.

Ziming Liu from San Jose State University has conducted a series of studies which indicate that the ‘new norm’ in reading is skimming rather than reading and comprehending the text deeply. Many readers now sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. Educators also increasingly report that students no longer have the patience to read denser, longer and more difficult texts. 

Getting the message across in the Digital Age

We can no longer assume that our readers will take the time, or have the ability, to grasp complexity in what we write. We need to make it as easy as possible for them to get the information they need. Plain English will help us achieve this.

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.

Typical hallmarks of a plain English communication include:

  • shorter sentences that get to the point (average 15 to 20 words per sentence)
  • straightforward rather than complex words (e.g. ‘confuse’ rather than ‘obfuscate’)
  • shorter paragraphs
  • logical structure free from repetition
  • headings and bullet points to break up text.

At Concise Writing Consultancy, we train team members to write in plain English for readers who are both time poor and who skim text rather than read deeply. Writing in plain English is no longer an option. It’s simply good 21st century business sense.

For an obligation free consultation about how we can transform your written communications into plain English, contact us today on 02 9238 6638.

Or download our brochure Avoiding a communication meltdown: A 5-step business transformation program 

For more information about reading research see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf