Simple, clear language always works best

We were engaging with social media recently when we happened upon an immersive narrative that provided an optimal way forward for strengthening corporate discourse and leveraging an enhanced communications dialogue.

In other words, we found a great story about corporate speak and how to avoid it.

Lucy Kellaway began using her Financial Times column in 1994 to point out the absurdities of how managers write, and she clearly reached a breaking point. The result was a wonderful column and video that you can find at www.ft.com/lucycolumn.

“The business world is divided into two kinds of people,” Kellaway says. “There are those who talk tosh (the majority) and those who do not.”

To illustrate the former, she cites this marvelously tortured language from Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz describing Starbucks Roasteries as delivering “an immersive, ultra-premium coffee-forward experience.”

Kellaway’s critique: “So in one short phrase, the only OK word was ‘an.’”

The question: Why? Why do people feel compelled to use big words, to just keep adding words and to write longer when shorter is better? 

Why would someone feel the need to say “ideation” instead of, oh, “thinking”? (By the way, for our money, the individual who first thought of using “ideation” is the living contradiction to the theory that there are no stupid ideas.)

We can only conclude that these people somehow believe it adds value, it sounds more grand or important and that, well, if I’m the boss, I can’t just write a short, simple, clear memo. And if I’m trying to sell you something, I must use more and bigger words.

You don’t. Indeed, wouldn’t the world be a better place if medical benefits were explained clearly, if legal documents were concise, if the latest “simplified” bank statement was simple?

Consider the original blackout order crafted by the U.S. government during World War II: “Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all federal buildings and nonfederal buildings occupied by the government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.”

And consider President Franklin Roosevelt’s response: “Tell them,” Roosevelt said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.”

Here’s another reason convoluted communication rules: It’s harder to write shorter. As Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and theologian, famously said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

So, take the time. Use simple, clear language. After you write a sentence, see how many words you can take out. 

William Zinsser, the legendary journalist, critic and writing guru, said it best, we think, in “On Writing Well.” His central marching order: “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it.”

If you write or speak for any professional reason, you owe it to yourself to read “On Writing Well.” 

Because, as Zinsser wrote: “If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

Thomas Fladung is vice president at Hennes Communications