June 10, 2021
July 7, 2023
by
Claudia Pritchitt
PB Comms

Failing the plain English test usually causes confusion

Why is it so hard for business and government to grasp the benefits of plain English?How is it they fail to see that using big words when there are simple alternatives, or phrases that they’ve just invented, get in the way of the message. Or, even worse, confuse audiences so that they are lost. If audiences are puzzling about the way things are said or written, how can they focus on the message? It was once described to me as “ripples in the copy stream”. It distracts.There’s been a couple of good examples lately.Who in the Federal Government thought it was a good idea to rename the Howard Springs quarantine facility the Centre of National Resilience at Howard Springs?Whatever does that mean? And what does it possibly have to do with mandatory quarantine. It sounds like some touchy-feely retreat, which is exactly what quarantine isn’t.Howard Springs quarantine facility said exactly what it was, but having some grand sounding - but obtuse - new name in the middle of important communications, muddled the message. Perhaps that was the idea, but it had to put a little ding in the Federal Government’s image.Similarly, at a recent ANZ investor presentation, the audience was told a “focussed approach ensures a systematic cadence that adds velocity to the benefit realisation”.The Australian Financial Review had a lot of fun with this, especially as the bank’s corporate affairs gave one explanation of what it meant and the CEO another.Could there be a better example of why plain English is so important in communication? Even if, in the end, the CEO conceded the phrase was “utter nonsense” it was, once again, another small, but unnecessary and self-imposed, ding in the bank’s image.I saw a LinkedIn post recently that had a link to a memo written by Sir Winston Churchill when he was UK prime minister during World War 2 - https://www.businessinsider.com.au/memo-winston-churchill-on-brevity-improve-writing-2017-5?r=US&IR=T. In it he asked colleagues and their staff to keep their reports short and to cut out woolly phrases that are mere padding, “let us not shirk from using the short expressive phrase” he wrote.Unfortunately, Churchill’s suggestions and examples don’t seem to have taken root. Another example of his keeping things simple was changing the name of the UK’s Local Defence Volunteers to the Home Guard. It simplified its description in a way that said exactly what it was. The renaming of the Howard Springs quarantine facility to the Centre of National Resilience at Howard Springs was the complete opposite.Indeed 80 years later, with the growth of businessspeak, managementese, and jargon, things are even worse. Churchill’s memo would act as an excellent guide for business writing today and is well worth the read.

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