Stop utilizing! A plea for plain language
There was a time when those who could write, wrote. Then came e-mail, and blogs, and Twitter. Now we are all writers, putting out impossible amounts of content on a seemingly infinite array of platforms, and with COVID-19 we’ve seen an explosion of content – not all of it clear, and very little of it consistent.
But are we actually communicating? Or are we just sending out more words?
Once, I thought I was a pretty good writer. Then I took a job where I was surrounded by professional editors. They would send me comments like “this doesn’t mean anything,” “there is too much jargon” or the worst, “can you come see me?”
I had to break a lot of bad habits and consider my readers. I started taking a few courses and changed my approach. I was feeling pretty good about my progress, and then, it happened.
At the time, I was the National President of the Canadian Public Relations Society, and I was on tour with Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications. We were co-presenting on brand journalism, and he was giving an overview of plain language and good writing to open the session. We were all having a chuckle at terms like ‘leveraging synergies’ and feeling pretty good as communicators when he asked, “Why do people say utilize instead of just use? They do it to sound smart.” A hush. A pause. Some embarrassed laughs and guilty glances. We all did it.
From that day on, I saw utilize everywhere! That’s the problem with plain language. Once you get into it you can’t unsee the carnage that surrounds us. To this day I can’t bring myself to use the term utilize, although I understand why it is a comforting way to appear more formal and serious in your writing.
I’m not alone, there are advocates all over the world promoting the value of plain language and a draft ISO standard for plain language is underway.
In the meantime, here are five things you can consider now to improve your writing.
- Simplifying is not ‘dumbing down’. This was a tough one for me. As a communicator working in some very technical organizations, I felt I had to show my colleagues I could keep up with their technical knowledge through my writing. I learned that my value wasn’t in writing for my colleagues but translating their technical material into something that connected with our audiences. I learned the power of admitting I didn’t understand a concept until it was explained to me in terms I, and my readers, could understand.
- Take it from Brené Brown: ‘clear is kind’. OK, she was talking about giving direct feedback, but it works here too. Think of your dear readers. You like them. You want them to like you. Or at least you want them to read what you’ve written. Why make them work harder with vague, abstract language that barely gets your message across? Clear, jargon-free language is your best way of communicating with empathy and care for your audience.
- Tame your identity crisis. Remember me, myself and I? Don’t worry, neither does anyone else. Emails bring a flurry of ‘if you have any questions, feel free to contact Karen or myself’. I get it, entire childhoods of being corrected for the wrong use of ‘me’ or ‘I’ has spurred us to abandon both and cling to ‘myself’ as a formal-sounding alternative. The problem is, it’s incorrect. (“Feel free to contact Karen or me.”).
- Don’t be passive. This post is being read by you, and these words are being written by me…OK, I’ll stop but you get the point. The passive voice is awkward, unclear and clutters up your writing, and yet we hear it every day in both corporate and government communications I don’t know if it is fear of attribution or an attempt to appear ‘neutral’ but the passive voice limits your ability to communicate clearly.
- Avoid jargon and corporate speak. Sometimes we resort to corporate language because we think it makes something ‘easier to hear.’ It rarely works out that way and can have the opposite effect, diminishing trust between an organization and its audiences. This is especially true when the news is bad. I recall an instance where a pipeline explosion was referred to as a ‘high-pressure release of hydrocarbons that subsequently ignited’. No kidding.
And finally, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is “think, write, edit – in that order.” When you sit down and just ‘let it flow’ it shows. Taking time to think about what you want to share, whom you want to share it with and how to organize your thoughts pays off when you sit down to write. And, if you have someone else willing to edit your work (as painful as it is), that’s even better.
Plain language is hard work. But the payoff is clearer communication, shared understanding and content that connects with your audience. And you might even enjoy it.
Interested in improving your organization’s communication? Argyle offers a plain-language workshop designed to cut through the jargon and build understanding and trust with your audiences and stakeholders. For more information contact Kim or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org
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