Getting clarity – how do I write more clearly?

In all my trainings, with hundreds of professionals each year, this is the thing people ask for above all else:  How do I write more clearly?

The answer is so simple it’s almost embarrassing:  Write the way you speak.

Yes, really.

Write the way you speak.  In every document.

I don’t care whether the audience is a CEO or board or minister in government or guys on the street or a scientist.  I don’t care whether you’re writing a technical specification or a standard or a policy or an email or a website.  Just write the way you speak. 

Here’s why.

You’ll increase your credibility

Research shows that writing more like the way we speak gives us more credibility.  It makes us sound smarter.  That’s good for our career development, for our brand, for our business outcomes.

So,

  • write using everyday words – use instead of utilise, today instead of on today’s date, we recommend instead of it is recommended
  • write the kind of sentence patterns we use for speech – in a nutshell, that’s the active voice over the passive voice (and that’s a whole other article – check out this one while I write mine)

You’ll appear more confident

Confidence sells.  It reassures.  It stands out.  It gets remembered and responded to.  Studies support that expressing things confidently gets better outcomes.

So,

  • own your statements – say we think, I recommend, you should, not some have observed, it is recommended, should be considered…
  • use fewer words – the more words we use, the weaker the message. Think of an EXIT sign.  It doesn’t say Consider removing yourself from the building through this orifice in the event of an untimely or unexpected occurrence.  It just says EXIT.

You’ll revert to what comes naturally

Imagine how much simpler business communications would be if they were more like conversations?  It’s faster to write that way, it’s faster to read that way, and we can all get on with our to-do lists.  We know this for a fact.  So,

  • trust your instincts about how to express an idea – we’re all actually pretty great at communicating verbally
  • read what you’ve written out loud – does it sound like you’re actually having a conversation?

You’ll get rid of confusion and misinterpretation

When we write the way we speak we’re more direct.  The academic, legal, and traditionally formal corporate voice is a minefield of ambiguity.  It’s learned and affected and therefore not natural.  That means it’s harder for us to get right.  It’s commonly recognised that the active voice is strong from a legal standpoint.

So,

  • start your sentences with a whothe client damaged the car, not the car was damaged
  • break up long sentences – the more ideas and words in a sentence, the more opportunity for misinterpretation

As I always say in my trainings – just test it out.  Just give it a try and see what kind of response you get.  If no one mentions anything about the change, that’s a win!  It means your writing is working.  Even better, people might comment on how easy something was to read, or how quickly you’ve been plowing through the emails.  Again, a definite win.

The only caution I have is about expectations.

If you want to dramatically change the way you’re writing documents that others have to approve, give managers/reviewers/end users a heads up.

Get buy-in.  A disconnect in expectations is guaranteed to bring out the red pen – and resistance to change.

Other than that, go!

Be free!

And write the way you speak.

How to write a cover letter

This is a question people ask me often, so here’s my advice. Especially since a couple of weeks ago I told you how to quit *insert cheesy grin here*.

Is it needed?

Before you start stressing over the cover letter, you need to find out if one is actually needed. If the job ad specifically says, Submit your CV with cover letter here, then yes, you need one. If it doesn’t, you might be able to assume they’re not interested in cover letters.

You are also allowed to actually call a human and ask them.

‘Hi Donna, my name is Shelly Davies. I’m just wondering if a cover letter is needed with my application for the unicorn trainer position? Thank you! Is there anything else you think I should know? Awesome. You have a great day.’

Some recruiters will put A LOT of weight on the cover letter – maybe even more than the CV. Others never even read that cover letter you spent three hours writing and ran past a test audience of 23 poor friends.

So, find out if it’s needed. If not, your cover letter can say exactly:

Hi there

Please find attached my CV in application for the position of Unicorn Trainer.

Thanks

Shelly

What does it need to accomplish for you?

If you’ve established that a cover letter is needed, you need to decide what you want it to do for you.

A cover letter can’t be everything. Your CV has a job and the cover letter has a job. Make sure you’re clear on which is doing what.  Don’t make your cover letter a differently formatted CV.

Does it need to make you stand out? Does it need to reinforce to them that you meet all their criteria? Does it need to show personality? Does it need to show that you have added value above what they’re looking for? Decide which of those is your focus before you start writing.  It can’t do all of those things!

The recruiter is BUSY

They will go through those cover letters with military precision and they will cull HARD. If you write a novel, you’re effectively creating more work for that recruiter.

Don’t make them work. Make it easy for them.

How? Use headings. Use bullets. Be concise. They will be skim reading. Paragraphs, stories, narratives, novels – these things are hard to skim read.

Professional is PERSONAL

Most of us think that to sound professional we need to use a formal voice. That’s utter bullshit.

To sound professional, show who you are confidently and appropriately. Speak to your reader. Use 1st and 2nd person. It’s a conversation. The more formal the voice you use, the colder and more clinical and more bland the letter is.

Bland doesn’t get you a job.

Proofread

Basically? Errors are a turn-off. Use Grammarly. Use the Hemingway Editor. Use your Great Aunt. But don’t send a cover letter with errors. At the very least, read it out loud.

Think visual

Use a simple, clean, modern sans serif font. Make sure there’s enough line spacing and clear paragraph breaks. All of these things help your busy busy reader to skim read and get a good, strong, confident, professional opinion of you.

Now go. Be a unicorn trainer!

The formal business voice is dead

In PR we know what makes a successful apology and what doesn’t. SUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = a conversational, human approach:

Hi Shelly We’re sorry we got the date wrong for setting up the internet at your new home.  We know that was really inconvenient. Thanks for letting us know about the mistake so we could fix it.  We’ll do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Thanks,Your Favourite Internet Provider

UNSUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = the traditional, formal business voice

Dear valued customerIt is with regret that we write to express our apologies for the recent error.There was an unavoidable disruption within our system due to a service upgrade.   We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.SincerelyJust Another Nameless Faceless Internet Provider

I imagine you would struggle to think of the last time you were happy to read something written in that voice.  And I’m not just talking about apologies.  So I want to say this to you:

The formal business voice is DEAD.

There is no longer ANY place for it in business today. I cannot find a single situation where the formal voice is helpful. Oh no wait, that’s not true.  There is one time:  If you want to threaten, use the formal voice. “Should the undersigned not comply with the aforementioned conditions, immediate remedial action will be undertaken.” If you want to alienate and intimidate and put the fear of god (or the courts) into someone, use the formal voice.  If you want to achieve almost anything else on the planet, use a conversational voice.

I imagine that so far you’re reading and thinking, well duh, that’s obvious.

But here’s something I’ve learned through training thousands of people to write better in business contexts:  Our writer selves don’t know what our reader selves do. You know good writing.  When you read (at work) you want clear, straight to the point, no fluff, no mucking around.  But when you sit down to write, a completely different set of knowings takes over, and we completely forget what we know as readers (or we think we’re different.  Special.  Unusual because we want those things.  We’re not – sorry ‘bout it.  Everyone wants concise, clear, direct writing). Our writer-selves believe:

  • there are unbreakable rules for good writing at work (and we learned them at school/university)
  • we’ll sound unprofessional (or unintelligent) if our writing is too casual
  • the examples of bad writing that we see all around us (that we HATE to read) are what’s expected of us in a business setting, period

Are you scared?

You wouldn’t be alone.  I may have just shaken your foundations. Alan Siegel, who’s known internationally for his work simplifying legal documents (while retaining all their legal power), describes what he does as “a means to achieving clarity, transparency, and empathy – building humanity into communications.” I LOVE THAT because right there is my issue with the formal business voice and why I say it’s DEAD:  The formal business voice removes the humanity. It takes out the people.  It takes out the you, we, us and switches to third person – the client, the user. It removes ownership and accountability and instead just talks about things “happening”, like: Mistakes were made.  [isn’t that wonderful?  They just happened.  No one is to blame.] It is recommended.  [By whom?  The universe?]

Don’t believe me?

People have been researching this stuff for decades.  And we know that a simple, conversational voice is far more successful when compared to the formal voice:

  • It’s shorter
  • It’s easier to understand
  • It’s more engaging
  • It deescalates situations rather than escalating them (the formal voice sounds pompous and the last thing you want when tensions are high is to sound pompous – cos that helps. )

Still don’t believe me?

Think about brands you love.

Think about how they write to you – by email, in agreements, terms and conditions, on the web.  They have a conversation with you.  They don’t talk down to you.  And you know what?  If THEY can use a conversational, everyday voice and drop the formality in their business writing, SO CAN YOU. The formal business voice is DEAD.  It’s old, shrivelled, fossilised. You’re not! So write like a human.  Preferably a live one.

How does plain language save money?

So I’m guessing you’re here because either

  1. you LOVE plain language and want to convince someone at work that it’s worth investing in, or
  2. you’ve heard about this plain language thing but you’re not yet sure you buy into it

Either way, I can help you out. So let’s dive into this.

Plain language (or plain English) saves money. It’s a simple fact. Plain language means your business will

  • save time (don’t just skip over that – it’s the most significant financial benefit)
  • improve customer experience and reduce queries
  • increase compliance and reduce risk
  • increase brand trust and credibility

Want more detail? Duh, I know that. THAT was just the intro – the high-level overview. Which, by the way, is a handy plain language approach to structuring documents.

Like how I did that? Now enough chit chat. Here’s what you came for.

Plain language saves time, which saves money. Piles of it. Sometimes great whopping mountains of it.

Save time reading

Joseph Kimble reports a US study using a Marine Radio Regulation. They gave people 1 of 2 versions of the regulation: the original or a plain language rewrite. Then they asked questions, and the readers had to find the answers in the document. The time to read, process, and answer the questions was almost halved – from 3 ½ minutes per question with the original, to less than 2 minutes per question with the plain language version.

How many minutes a day do your staff spend reading regulations, standards, policies, procedures and other indecipherable stuff? Just imagine how much time they could save.

Save writing time

In my trainings, I help people reconnect with our natural ways of expressing ideas – basically, the way we speak. When we write that like that we let go of so many worries and conventions and constructs that slow us down. It’s just faster! And the Plain English Campaign in the UK agrees.

Plain language improves CX and reduces customer queries, complaints, and all those fun games of email ping pong

  • The US Federal Communications Commission once needed five fulltime staff members to field all the phone calls and queries about its rules for Citizen Band Radios. Putting the regulations into plain English freed all five staff members to, well, get other shit done.
  • The Canadian government reports that when they rewrote their Certificate to Register Livestock, the compliance rate soared from a miserable 40% (imagine how much time THAT wasted) to 95%. That’s huge!
  • The Arizona Department of Revenue reported they received 18 000 fewer phone calls the year after they started using plain language letters.

Plain language makes your brand more trustworthy and easier to feel personally connected to. And that, my savvy business friends, will make you money.

  • If you think about the brands you love, you’ll see they speak to you like a human. No formality, no waffle, no fluff. Microsoft’s stated position on this is beautiful. Why wouldn’t the same apply to your company?
  • This Siegel and Gale study is just one of many that prove how readers trust information they can easily understand. Did you hear that? CLEAR AND SIMPLE = TRUSTWORTHY.
  • I’m sorry to say it, but Trump’s use of plain language is one of the reasons people voted for him. (Use your #PlainLanguage powers for good, people.)

Work it out – how much can you save using plain language?

The UK’s Plain Language Commission recommends this calculation to estimate how much money your business can save through using plain language:

Work out the number of sheets of paper, e-mails and faxes in your organization produces in one working day. Estimate the cost of each of these documents at $10 a page. Now calculate by the number of people who have to read them and add $1 for each person reading each document. (To give you an idea of this figure, a typical office worker receives over 100 messages a day). That will give you rough idea of the cost of your paperwork for each day. Then multiply the figure by 240 to find out a realistic cost of paperwork in your organization every year.

The Commission says that plain language will cut this bill by 30 percent.

So the question is, really, can you afford NOT to invest in upskilling your people and embedding beautiful, crisp, clear plain language communication strategies throughout every inch of your business? I think not. I know someone who can help you with that …