Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Plain English Always Works

Someone recently posted a question on LinkedIn that caught my attention because the issue is so common yet rarely discussed.  The question that was posed centered on whether communications people intentionally over-complicate things, sometimes doing so through language or jargon.

I chimed in with agreement.  Yes, all too often, people in PR intentionally used contrived language to make what we do sound more lofty.  My point was and is that if your plans and strategies are well thought-out, and the communication is clear, it will all work together to achieve a high level of value.

We don’t need to introduce to our clients and others language they don’t understand and don’t appreciate.  I’m talking about terms like, “earned media,” and “mind share.”

I will cut to the chase and make my point, then follow with my support.  My point: Plain English is always the best way to communicate.  If you can communicate complex concepts and ideas using plain English, you will effectively connect with your audience.  And that’s all that matters.

Now here are my three touch stones to help flesh this out.

A Literacy Program
Years ago, I had the assignment to help a client transform its internal communications so that the majority of the work force could understand company communications.  This was important because the work force had a high level of illiteracy.  We did many things to accommodate the audience, but a few of the major lessons that I took away and carried forward to today are:

1.       Use pictures and visuals whenever possible.
2.       Use simple language whenever possible.  What constitutes simple?  A one-syllable word is better than one with two.  It’s that simple.
3.       Use face to face communication as much as possible.

Strunk and White
My copy of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” is old and dog-eared.  I still refer to it when in a pinch.  Here are a couple of excepts from the book in defense of plain English:

·         “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a 10-center handy, ready and able.”

·         “In this, as in so many matters pertaining to style, one’s ear must be one’s guide; gut is a lustier noun than intestine, but the two words are not interchangeable, because gut is often inappropriate, being too coarse for the context.”

Harry Truman
Harry Truman is one of my favorite presidents, mostly for how he maintained the Office of the Presidency while connecting with regular people in his plain speaking style.  Here are few of his gems:

·         “All the president is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they’re supposed to do anyway.”

·         “It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job, it’s a depression when you lose yours.”

·         “You want a friend in Washington?  Get a dog.”

·         “I never did give anyone hell.  I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

So what’s the lesson here?  When it comes to communication, there is no substitute for clarity, and when it comes to clarity there is no substitute for language everyone can understand.  In this country, plain English is never a mistake.
Here is actor James Whitmore's take on the former president:


No comments:

Post a Comment