Category Archives: Business Writing

Plain Language Part 3

Imagine you’re attending a social event in your community. You start talking to a personable young woman who tells you she’s a pediatrician. Later, at the same party, you talk to a personable young man who tells you he’s a children’s doctor.

Which one is more qualified to treat sick children?

Participants at a recent business-writing workshop had a lively discussion about this question. At first several members of the group thought the pediatrician was more qualified because she would have been through specialized university training for treating children. Soon, though, they realized that any children’s doctor would have gone through that program.

So what’s the difference between a pediatrician and a children’s doctor? The answer is none. They’re two names for the same thing. The only difference is that pediatrician is derived from a Greek word (paid) meaning “child.” Children’s doctor is English.

Ironic, isn’t it? We’re proud that we can speak English, a language that’s used all over the world – but we also harbor an unconscious prejudice against it. The uneasy feeling that a “children’s doctor” is less qualified than a “pediatrician” is a remnant of an old misconception that Latin and Greek are better languages than English. For many years schools did most of their instruction in those two languages. (William Shakespeare attended one of those schools.)

The result is that we often lapse into Latin or Greek words when we want to sound smart and important. In reference to sounds more intellectual than about. Cogitate sounds better than think…and so on.

* * * * *

I’ve always envied couples who have mastered the West Coast swing, a smooth and sexy dance that never looked quite right when I tried it. Some years ago I saw a local dance teacher doing a tantalizing West Coast swing with one of her students. I called her the next day and set up a few lessons to learn the moves she was doing.

About 15 minutes into the first lesson, I started to realize why that particular dance had always eluded me. The teacher showed me a better way to count the beats of music. She corrected my posture and head position. She showed me how to work through the parts of my feet – toe, arch, heel – more precisely.

A few minutes later she walked over to the CD player to choose another song. When she came back to the dance floor, I told her I was going to keep coming back so we could work on all the ballroom dances – foxtrot and waltz, rumba and cha cha, two-step and hustle, and all the rest.

Years have gone by, and I still take one or two lessons with her every week.

 * * * * *

Ballroom dancing has its own vocabulary, and my new teacher could have tried to impress me by talking about contra body movement position, proprioception, hip abductors, guapacha timing, and so on.

But she didn’t. Instead she focused on teaching me what I came for: becoming a better dancer.

When I go to a doctor, a dry cleaner, a service station, a dance studio…I look for signs that the people there know what they’re doing and can provide whatever it was that I came for: a cure, a clean dress, a car repair, a chance to learn.

And there’s something else I look for: someone who can answer my questions without making me feel inferior. Businesses should encourage their employees to think about this question: Do you use words to put yourself on display – or to help your customers?

(How would you answer that question?)

In my next post – the last in this series about Plain Language – I’ll be talking about using words as a bridge, a badge, or a barrier.

                  Ancient Roman Forum

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Plain Language Part 2

The Nun’s Story is probably my all-time favorite novel. Kathryn Hulme’s 1956 bestseller (subsequently made into a Hollywood movie starring Audrey Hepburn) recounts the struggles of a devout Belgian nun who works in an African hospital. When World War II begins she finds herself back in Belgium, where she defies convent rules to work for the Resistance.

When I first read The Nun’s Story as a teenager, I was too absorbed in Sister Luke’s story (and probably too young ) to appreciate the novel’s sustained irony. Again and again, the convent’s rules and customs get in the way of true spiritual values – but the nuns are too absorbed in their quest for sanctity to realize what’s happening.

Today, though, I’m going to focus on a different aspect of the novel – the languages spoken in the convent. Because Sister Luke is a nursing nun from an upper-class family, she speaks French. Other nuns are assigned to the laundry and kitchen because they grew up on farms and have limited education: they speak Flemish. So we could conclude that Flemish is an earthy, robust language that can’t handle the linguistic demands of a modern corporation, hospital, or university.

And we would be wrong. After WWII, the people of the Flanders region began to rebel against the requirement to use French in schools and business. A strong push for their own language began, and today Flemish is the language of commerce, education, and science.

Linguistics experts tell us there’s no such thing as a “simple” or “primitive” or “coarse” language. Every language has the capacity for subtlety and sophistication. I once knew a counselor who studied sign language so that she could work with hearing-impaired clients. She told me that the sessions where she “talked” with her hands were no different from those where she used spoken English.

So let’s talk about English, a sophisticated and worldly language that’s never been subjected to that kind of prejudice…right?

Wrong. After William the Conqueror and his army invaded England in 1066, French became Britain’s official language. Anyone who wanted a prestigious job made it their business to master the French language. The result was a split in our language that lives on today.

Let’s use roast beef as an example. Wealthy French-speaking families could afford to buy cows for their meat. Poorer families (who spoke English) used cows for working animals and sources for milk and butter. And so we continue to call the live animal a cow (an English word); but when it shows up on a plate, we give it a French name – beef (from boeuf). Today – almost a millennium later – the language is still full of these French/English pairs: legislator/lawmaker, paternal/fatherly, attire/clothing…you get the idea. When we want to impress someone, we automatically switch from English to French.

In my next post – the third in this series of four – I’ll talk more about the prejudice against English that has so often led to mistakes, confusion, and inefficiency.

The Nun's Story

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Resistance

In a recent post I talked about Natalie Goldberg’s book The True Secret of Writing. Since then I’ve been thinking the topic of resistance that she talks about in her wonderful Practice chapter.

Resistance works two ways. Writers don’t want to sit down to tackle a writing task (it’s called “writer’s block”), and readers can be just as unwilling to absorb what we’re trying to tell them.

I’m saving writer’s block for another day.  Today we’re going to talk about resistance from readers and listeners. It’s a phenomenon I run into whenever I do a Plain Writing workshop.

First, some background. Congress passed the Plain Writing Act in 2010, and President Obama signed it. It calls upon federal agencies to use “clear Government communication that the public can understand.” Here’s an example of bad business writing:

It is requested that employees extinguish illumination when the necessity for such illumination expires because of the conclusion of work-related activities requiring such illumination, such as the end of the working day.  JARGON

And here’s the Plain Language version:

Turn out the lights when you’re leaving.  BETTER

Although local and state agencies aren’t covered by this legislation, many of them are making a huge effort to simplify their documents and publications. Bravo! (You can go to www.PlainLanguage.gov for some wonderful examples and tools.)

Ever since the Plain Writing Act was passed, I’ve been conducting workshops for various local agencies. And here’s what I’ve discovered: every employee is heartily in favor of plain writing – until you ask them to give up their jargon.

Erk! RESISTANCE. Lots of it. “We’ll sound stupid!” “You don’t understand the way we do things here.” “My clients won’t respect me.”

Today’s post is going to be the first of two about this problem. I’m going to talk about a) why readers sometimes fight back and b) how to overcome that resistance. A future post will deal specifically with Plain Language.

 *  *  *  *  *  * 

Every writer wants readers to be enlightened by what we’re telling them. But here’s the thing: when your audience instantly accepts your message, there’s a good chance that they haven’t heard you at all. Genuine communication often provokes agitation, unrest, confusion, and disbelief. You’ll hear some loud voices. A few tomatoes may be lobbed at you.

Those Plain Language workshops I conduct every year are a perfect example. When I talk about strategies for communicating effectively with the public, my listeners smile agreeably and nod their approval.

But when I ask them to apply the principles of Plain Language – mutiny!

So what’s the answer? Today I’m going to cover one of my favorite strategies: Drill down into an apparently simple idea to show how complex it really is.

I’m going to use a story one of my friends told me. She was horrified one day to hear her daughter and several other teenagers talking about how much fun it would be to have a real, live baby.

Alarm bells! But what to do? My friend had already delivered the usual birds-and-bees talk, along with some warnings about the problems of single motherhood.

Her solution was a lunchtime trip to a nearby shopping mall, where she and her daughter just happened (or so it seemed!) to stroll through a store that specialized in furniture and products for babies. Her daughter was charmed by the bassinets and toys – and aghast at the prices and the sheer number of items needed to care for a baby. Over lunch Mom casually shared some long-ago memories about what it was like to be the brand-new mother of an infant.

A couple of weeks later, my friend overheard another conversation from the teen-aged group: they were talking about all the fun they were going to have in college.

Huge sigh of relief! Caring for a baby is much more challenging than taking care of a baby doll. Daughter saw some of the complexity (the furniture and products in the store) and heard about it (her mom’s stories).

In my next post, I’m going to talk about the hidden complexities of business writing. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll think about drilling down into some everyday topics that seem simple until you look closely at them.

How do you:

  • settle relationship disagreements 
  • invest your money
  • manage your time
  • buy a house
  • plan a vacation

Think too about your job, your religious beliefs, your political philosophy, a problem you solved recently…any area that absorbs your time, energy, and attention. Drill down until you find something fresh and unexpected. Take whatever you find to your readers, and watch them fight back! That’s where real communication begins, in all its frustration and glory.

I’ll have more to say about Plain Language in the next post.

Resistance

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Polish Your Resume

I just read a terrific article about resumes. If you’re searching for a job, you’ll find some excellent advice by reading “Gone in Six Seconds” by Danielle Krause. (You may have to do a Google search to find it – I’m having problems getting the link to work.)

What really excited me were the writing tips. For example, Danielle Krause recommends listing your specific achievements instead of describing yourself in glowing terms (“dynamic,” “innovative,” “strong communication skills”). Have you won any awards? Implemented any significant changes? Completed any important projects? Krause’s “be specific” advice applies to almost every type of writing.

The usage tips are just as useful. Krause says she reads many resumes that contain the following mistakes:

  • errors with capital letters
  • inconsistent punctuation with bullet points
  • inconsistent verb tenses
  • mistakes in parallelism

I see these mistakes repeatedly in many types of writing tasks. So here are some tips:

  • Capitalize brand names and organizations – Apple, Excel, Chamber of Commerce.
  • Don’t capitalize job titles, college majors, or careers – administrative assistant, accounting, nursing, law enforcement. Languages are the exception because they’re always capitalized – English, Tagalog.
  • Don’t use periods with bullet-list items unless they’re complete sentences (like these).
  • Stick to present or past tense. Don’t mix tenses.
  • Parallelism adds a professional touch to your writing. If a sentence contains a list, make sure all the parts match. (You can learn more about parallelism at this link.)

Resume Dollar

 

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More about Plain English

I just finished reading a fascinating history of Facebook (David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect – highly recommended). According to Kirkpatrick, Facebook has a number of carefully designed features that have contributed to its colossal success. One is founder Mark Zuckerberg’s insistence that nothing should be allowed to interrupt users’ experiences with Facebook. For this reason, popup ads have always been banned from the site.

There’s a lesson here for writers. Anything that interrupts the flow of ideas should be banned from your writing. Look for ideas that wander away from your main point and – the subject of today’s blog – extraneous words slow down and interrupt your readers’ experience. To put it another way: Writing plain English should be your goal.

Here’s a list of words and phrases to watch for. Each one is followed by a recommended substitute:

single click (click)

pulldown menu  (menu)

large in size  (large)

utilize  (use)

if or when  (if)

preregister  (register)

preplan  (plan)

prearrange  (arrange)

for the purpose of  (for)

if the event that  (if)

a rainfall event  (rain)

blue in color  (blue)

And here are two words you can often delete: individual and different. Take a look at these examples:

Individual members will receive two tickets to the conference. (What’s the difference between a member and an individual member? Nothing!)

Members will receive two tickets to the conference. CORRECT

Three different people asked me for directions. (What’s the difference between three different people and three people? Nothing!)

Three people asked me for directions. CORRECT

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