A pet peeve of mine is having to read over something umpteen times before I understand it. It happens every time I look at a legal document, or when I’m trying to understand banking regulations that come along with a credit card bill.
So I had to laugh the other day when I came across an article by Joseph Kimble, a professor of law, republished at the Plain Language Network. He “translated” some Federal Aviation instructions about who can sit in emergency seats on airplanes. Here’s a paragraph from the original document:
“No air carrier may seat a person in a designated exit seat if it is likely that that person cannot lift out, hold, deposit on nearby seats, or maneuver over the seatbacks to the next row objects the size and weight of over-wing window exit doors (approximately 24 1/4″ x 39″ and up to 53 lbs.)…”
And here’s the plain English translation:
“To sit in an exit seat, you must be able to reach the emergency exit, open the door, lift out the door (about 50 pounds)…”
The person reading the plain English translation would quickly know whether or not he or she is qualified to sit in the emergency exit seat. But anyone who was reading the original? That poor person would be left wondering how an object can have both approximate and exact measurements at the same time. (Or maybe just wishing the airline supplied tape measures.)
The more serious issue here is that no one should be baffled about whether or not he or she is a good candidate to sit in the emergency seat on a plane. If the aim of language is to instruct, it should never obscure essential, basic information.
Of course there is a time and place for elaborate, complicated language. Most typically that kind of language, the kind that is open to interpretation, is found in literature. Business documents, on the other hand, should always aim for clarity.
I guess I’m not alone in being frustrated by documents that overcomplicate because there’s a rapidly growing interest in the business world in what’s called “plain language,” or “plain English.” Plain English doesn’t mean language that “dumbs down” the message though; plain English means using language that clarifies meaning.
There are a number of good websites focusing on plain English, including Plain Language.gov. It neatly sums up what plain English is all about:
“Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it.”
But it’s not just about the clarity of writing, it’s also about knowing whom you’re writing for – your audience.
Frequently, particularly in professions with a long, established history of a certain style of writing, the audience is rarely considered. I’m thinking about the law, or medicine. The tendency to use a lot of internal jargon is also true of newer professions though, such as Information Technology. However, even complicated concepts may be clearly stated so that a layperson can understand them.
My hope is that people in professions who tend to use jargon or highly specific language will realize they need to write (and speak) clearly, when communicating with a broader audience. I’m glad to see that this is already happening in some areas. For example, the Canadian Public Health Association acknowledges that “plain language is a key to ensuring that the health information you provide to patients, clients and consumers is easy to read, easy to understand and easy to act on.” They offer a service “translating” complicated health documents into language patients can understand.
Regardless of what kind of work you do, if you want to communicate so that your audience/client/customer can easily understand you, plain English is a good philosophy to embrace. Here are some key points you may want to consider:
First Steps to Using Plain English in Business Communication
- Keep it simple. Formal language and elaborate sentence structure may confuse readers.
- Use short sentences when possible. If necessary, break one long sentence into two. According to the Plain Language Association, an ideal average sentence length is about 25 words.
- Avoid jargon. If there is a way to say something in common, every day language, it will be understood by a greater number of people.
- Use precise words to convey your meaning. For example, you wouldn’t say “jog” if you really meant “run.” In general avoid words that are subject to interpretation. You could use “dash” or “bolt” or “sprint” to mean “run,” but “run” is the word that is most precise, and therefore least likely to be misunderstood.
- Write instructions in the exact order they should be carried out. As well, within any document each paragraph should flow logically from one idea to the next.
- Most importantly, always keep in mind you are writing for your audience. You want people to quickly understand whatever it is you are trying to say.
I should also point out that even when using “simple” words it is possible for the writer’s meaning to get lost. Some “headlines” from the United States government’s plain language humour page point out this danger. For example, “Kids Make Nutritious Snacks,” or “Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers.” It just goes to show, it never hurts to look closely at your plain English document to make sure your audience will understand the message you want to convey. I’m pretty sure that child welfare organizations and the local police detachment would heartily agree.