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Let me be clear: just say what you mean

Written by Tracey Wimperly on Tuesday, February 17, 2015 at 09:17AM
Filed in: Communications Writing
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“The next time you feel the need to reach out, shift a paradigm, leverage a best practice or join a tiger team, by all means do it. Just don’t say you’re doing it, because all that meaningless business jargon makes you sound like a complete moron.” - Forbes Magazine

Several years ago, I worked at a large organization in Human Resources (HR). Although I’m not an HR professional, I had been assigned to this department as a result of a re-organization in the company. My peers were terrific people, but one memory in particular remains seared into my brain about this short-lived experience.

I was one of about 50 people invited to attend a presentation that three of my HR colleagues were giving. I listened as the trio launched in to their 45-minute Power-point presentation, describing an initiative they were clearly very excited to be sharing with us. As I sat there trying to digest the information coming at me, two thoughts went through my head:

First, I had no idea what they were talking about. They used so many acronyms and HR-specific jargon that I was completely lost – it all sounded like a strange, new language.

Second, within five minutes, I lost interest. I didn’t care about trying to follow the presentation any more and just checked out. I was grateful for the darkened room so I didn’t have to pretend to look interested. I overheard a few other attendees talking about the presentation afterwards and one didn’t mince words: “There’s an hour I’ll never get back.”

By sharing this story, my intent is not to single out HR professionals or any other group. The point is that on any given subject, only a few people are experts. Which leaves everyone else – our readers or listeners – just hoping for an explanation that doesn’t require specialized knowledge of the topic. We don’t have to look too far in business settings for similar examples of poor communication: an email goes back and forth between two or more people, while everyone tries to figure out what the message is or what they’re being asked to do. Or, a report is submitted for approval, and the reader is left struggling to make sense of what is being pitched or recommended. With Twitter, 140 characters isn’t a lot, but there’s plenty of public evidence that it’s more than enough to scramble a message.

Write to express, not impress

When did communicating with one another become so complicated? How did simple explanations become so confusing, and straightforward requests become so vague? Whether our message is straightforward or complex, why is there a tendency to over-complicate the message with convoluted sentences, bureaucratic bafflegab, acronyms and clichés? It just adds up to a gap between the writer (or presenter) and his or her audience.

When we write in business settings, often there’s a “call to action” for the reader: we want to gain support, seek approval, or ask for an opinion. Our co-workers and customers are busy, distracted people, so to get their attention in the right way, communication has to be clear and to the point. Emails, reports and proposals that get read – and acted upon – are written with the reader in mind.

To be clear - WIPE!

Use WIPE as a handy mnemonic to remember to “write in plain English”. It’s not about dumbing down your message or over-simplifying your content. It’s about communicating clearly, concisely and in an accessible way.

Ten ways to WIPE:

  1. Organize your thoughts before you start writing: a list or mind map can help.
  2. Keep your sentences short: 15-25 words is a good rule of thumb.
  3. Each sentence should contain one main idea.
  4. Use simple rather than multi-syllable words. “Now” not “presently.” “Usage” not “utilization.”
  5. Avoid jargon, acronyms or technical terms unless you are absolutely certain your reader is familiar with them.
  6. Stay away from clichés (e.g., “end of the day,” “no holds barred”) as they can be perceived as over-the-top and act as barriers to communication.
  7. Use active verbs as much as possible (e.g. “the dog ate the biscuit” not “the biscuit was eaten by the dog”).
  8. Double-check for grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. They make any business writing appear unprofessional and distract the reader from your key points.
  9. Be human! People communicate with people. Your writing should be approachable and friendly - and maybe even a bit humorous (depending on the context!).
  10. A WIPE reminder from George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Interested in improving your writing skills? Then join me for “The Business Writer,” a one- or two-day workshop, offering participants a hands-on opportunity to improve and hone their writing with the help of customized tools, techniques and gentle feedback. Interested? Download The Business Writer workshop brochure or check out the online details here. This workshop is co-facilitated with Dene Rossouw, Principal of Possibil.com.

About the author
Tracey Wimperly has been a communications professional for more than 25 years, working in large and mid-sized profit and not-for-profit organizations. As a communications consultant, she works with leaders and managers to help them become better communicators. She has developed and facilitated workshops in leadership communication, coached senior leaders one-on-one and been a successful manager herself for many years. Tracey is an accredited member of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). As an outlet for the creative storyteller in her, she writes a regular blog, Trace of Whimsy.

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