“But they won’t let me write like that”

Ok, amazing humans who write shit at work: I have advice. Because one of the things I hear in my trainings, from people who are 100% on board with what I’m teaching them about good clear writing, is this:

"But they won't let me write like that" - a meme.  Blog post:  Managing Expectations by Shelly Davies

They’re worried that their boss won’t let them use #plainlanguage and reader-centric approaches. They’re worried that their reviewer is going to make them pad everything out and add back all the #passivewaffle. Because that’s what they’re used to.

My experience is that if you want to avoid resistance to your choices (at work or in life), the key is managing expectations. Here’s what I mean.

Managing expectations is everything

When I first brought my children home to Aotea (Great Barrier Island), we were camping. I was a single mum at the end of my first year of self-employment, and they were 7, 8, and 15.

One of the things I put a lot of effort into in my life is keeping things manageable. I do this because stress triggers depression for me. And so I very purposefully, very consciously try to make my world manageable.

Happiness comes from managing expectations.  Blog post: Managing expectations by Shelly Davies

This trip was no different. We were facing 2 weeks with no cell phone reception, internet, or power. That meant no screens.

For weeks in advance, I started to set the expectations: We’ll go to the library and each of us will borrow our limit of books. We’ll bring our favourite card games. Everyone has to bring at least one other activity to keep them busy. And then of course we have the beach, the waterhole, and everything in between.

As for food, well, I had decided I would not be cooking, and I told them so. I would not be bringing anything to cook on or with, we had no fridge, and so we wouldn’t be able to keep perishables fresh. Here was the deal:

  • Cereal
  • Long-life milk
  • Bread for week one
  • Wraps for week two
  • Any sandwich toppings that come in a jar
  • Cans of fruit
  • Cans of chicken and tuna
  • Chips, cookies, etc

And the one cookable thing: 2-minute noodles. These they could eat uncooked (all kids do that, right?), or we had a couple of enamel mugs and a tiny little burner. If they wanted to cook their own noodles, they could go for it.

But I. Would not. Be cooking.

I remember that as a fairly smooth trip apart from getting flooded out of our tent. Was it the same for them? I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. But there was no complaining about the food or the lack of screens.

Now imagine if, in fear of their wrath at the camping conditions, I didn’t tell them until the last minute? The day before the trip, or even on the boat on the way over. Can you imagine the mutiny I’d have on my hands?

Managing their expectations was everything.

Too many disappointments are usually a sign of too many expectations.  Blog post:  Managing expectations - by Shelly Davies

How to manage resistance to plain language

Now back to the people asking me how they can manage resistance to plain language at work. They’re worried (and rightly so) that when they hand in their next technical report (written in plain language) to their reviewer (who’s old school), that it won’t be accepted. The reviewer will want them to bulk it out, change the voice, make it feel more formal.

Ideally, the whole organisation should be making a cultural change towards clear communications and documents, but if you’re a lone warrior, at the very least you can reduce resistance by managing expectations.

Step 1

First of all, give your reviewer (or your manager, or the board secretary, or whoever is the gatekeeper for your document) a heads up BEFORE you start writing:

Hey, I just attended a training with Shelly – the company brought her in, so they’re supportive of what she taught us – and so my next report is going to look and feel a bit different. Easier to read, but that should make the content more powerful. It’ll also probably be shorter. Just wanted to give you a heads up.

Step 2

Feel out their response. Are they all in? Sweet as? Dismissive? Wary?

This one conversation might be all that’s needed, because as humans we think different equals wrong. If your reviewer expects a certain kind of document and you present something different with no warning, the reviewer will likely think it’s wrong and they need to fix it.

But this one conversation can manage expectations so that reviewer is EXPECTING something different. That changes the way they receive it.

Step 3

If you think more work is needed to win them over, the next really powerful thing to do is show them an example of what they can expect. “Plain language” as a concept in someone’s mind and as concrete words on a page can be two vastly different things. So you could rewrite one paragraph and flick that through to them so they can see the before and the after, side by side. That’s so powerful I’ve never had anyone say no once they experience plain language as a reader.

Alternatively, you could check out some Before and After examples here or here or here, choose one that’s relevant for your world, and flick those to your reviewer, saying: here’s an example of the kind of change I’m talking about.

Embracing the roller coaster of change

As far as I’m concerned the worst that can happen is that they say no, they won’t accept clear, powerful, fit-for-purpose communication (snark intended), and so you don’t bother putting in the hard yards of making something clear and simple. Instead, you just do the same ol’ same ol’, because #sanity. I think that’s a sad outcome.

But it’s not as bad as the outcome where you put all your time into writing something beautifully reader-friendly and then the reviewer makes you fuck it all up because they’re too stuck in the past.

So there you go – life lessons from Shelly to reduce stress, keep sanity, and win the world over – one plain language document at a time.