Read many corporate news releases or internal announcements, and you’re likely to stumble across trite phrases, key messages that are buried in jargon, and information that could have been summarized in one short sentence instead of a rambling paragraph.
Case in point: In a recent news release, General Motors announced layoffs – or what it called a “staffing transformation” – as well as plant closures, or sites that it said will be “unallocated.” The Quartz at Work website even took the time to translate the entire news release into plain English. The revised version makes for a more straightforward (and entertaining) read.
But what if reporters, employees, customers and other audiences didn’t have to go through the trouble of translating corporate-speak into everyday language in the first place? As communication professionals, we often fall into the jargon trap. However, we can be on the front line to help remove the gobbledygook; ask better questions to define what’s most important to share, why and how; and/or provide a much-needed filter to encourage greater clarity, readability or even action.
Here are four tips for writing in plain English or good reminders to put into practice in the coming year:
1. Search and replace. The GM news release is riddled with euphemisms and meaningless terms. Unfortunately, many business leaders have become accustomed to using worn-out phrases like right-sizing, thinking outside the box, creating synergies, optimizing “X” (pick your noun), moving the needle and driving cost efficiencies. Check out this list of the 50 most-overused phrases, or go through recent materials from your organization or client, and you can compile your own list. Flag the most cliched phrases and find different ways to more clearly get your point across. For example, “break down silos” might be “cooperate with each other.” Here are other word swap options.
2. Put your audience first. With each piece of content, ask yourself: Who is this going to, and how can I make this most relevant to my audience(s)? For example, industry analysts may easily decipher the financial terms of an acquisition, while front-line workers need to know what the business change means to their day-to-day jobs. Focus on the language your audience uses and appreciates, and what information matters to them. Consider pre-testing messages with selected audience members and incorporating their input.
3. Measure and improve readability. There are free tools to help review your content’s readability and clarity. For example, turn on Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics (under Options/Proofing on PCs) and you’ll get a report about the readability of your content every time you do a spelling and grammar check. You can paste your content into The Hemingway App for various helpful pointers on simplifying your copy in ways that would make Ernest Hemingway proud. Of course, the easiest way to improve readability (with or without tools) is to use shorter sentences and words with fewer syllables. Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” puts it best: “Omit needless words.”
4. Get a second set of eyes. Before distributing your content, share with a colleague or fellow writer who isn’t close to the topic or situation. Ask the person to read for understanding and clarity – and to identify any words or phrases that seem trite, ill-defined, complicated or unnecessary. Can they summarize the key point(s) you’re trying to get across? Then, use their feedback to put your content into plainer English!