When I was an 18-year-old learning how to write for my college newspaper, I encountered a textbook titled "Eschew Obfuscation." The author—a professor at a local journalism school—wisely counseled his students to write in simple language and to never use a long word when a short one would do.
This is excellent advice. But anyone with a passion for writing might be forgiven for hoping that no one else would follow it. After all, if everyone wrote in plain English, wouldn't we communicators be out of a job?
I thought of this fear again when I heard about a recent international three-day conference held in Washington, D.C., May 21 to 23. Sponsored by Clarity International, a worldwide group of lawyers, managers, and heads of government services, the event intended to coalesce a sentiment for speaking and writing in a more accessible manner.
Oops. What I meant to say is the event wanted to encourage plain English.
"How can you have a democracy when the citizen does not understand what the government is saying?" Annetta Cheek, board chair of the Center for Plain Language, said at the event.
Although in 2010 the United States adopted a law encouraging the simplification of administrative language, Cheek and others say the damaging effects of jargon were seen in the global financial crisis in 2008. Remember? That was when waves of mortgage owners failed to read the contracts they were signing.
"If they had understood that in five years their interest payments would go through the roof," less harm would have been done, according to Cheek.
I agree. And I get it. "Pay" is far clearer than "remunerate." "Improve" is much easier to understand than "optimize." And "use" trumps "utilize" every time.
But here's the thing about groups like Clarity: They're a bunch of lawyers and bureaucrats! Good for them for wanting to be clear and all, but there's no way they're ever going to replace real live communicators. That's because most of them don't understand the power of a story.
To show you what I mean, let's pay a visit to the blog for the 2010 Clarity Conference, which was held in Portugal. Here's an entry that made me weep:
"The image of the conference session 'Plain Language and Government' illustrates some of the characteristics of graphic recording. The map is divided into three panels, one for each speaker. The presentations were about twenty minutes each. The images were drawn in real time during the sessions. They all include elements of the big picture as expressed by the speakers. The first presentation was about assessing and sorting out sets of laws and regulations, so I drew a trashcan for the laws that didn't pass the test. The second presenter described the process of implementing plain language as a road with different obstacles, including some resistance in the organization. In the third presentation, the call centre seemed to stand out as the central solution of the project, so I worked around this central image. These images function as the focal point around which other themes and words are organized. Color is used to add an extra layer of visual organization."
Isn't that unspeakably dull? Where is there anything to make anyone care about this event? The words are mostly simple—although I would have red-penciled "characteristics" and replaced it with "features." And the sentences are mostly short (an average of 15.9 words per sentence which is pretty close to ideal). The passage even does moderately well in readability statistics, ranking in the grade 10 range and earning a Flesch Reading Ease score of 50.23.
But there's no story in the blog entry. It may be clear, but it's empty. Journalists and corporate communicators know that to make readers interested in something, they need to tell a story. Not just the hint of story, but the full-meal deal—with characters, tension, and plot.
If you want to see a PR writer who's done that, take a look at this blog post by Rohit Bhargava. He's a professor at Georgetown University and a member of the Global Strategy and Planning group at Ogilvy. But if you want to know how engaging he is, check out his multiple bios. (I confess: I particularly love his Lego avatar.)
So, here's where I stand on the plain English movement. If a three-day conference from Clarity is going to persuade a boss I know to eschew the words "architect," "liaise" and "monetize" as verbs, well then I'll be very grateful. But I'm not worried about losing work because all the lawyers, bureaucrats, and department heads I know will still need a professional communicator to help tell their stories.