How to enhance your business communications with plain English.
Few touchpoints ruin the customer experience quite like overcomplicated language. Jargon and legalese abound in the business world – something that prompted nlighten to compile an online Dictionary of Customer Experience jargon, and to investigate the use of plain language in a recent blog. A little while ago, Hippo.co.za, one of South Africa’s leading insurance comparison websites, also approached us to help them clarify confusing business jargon that we’ve encountered in Customer Experience – which is well worth a read.
The demand for plain English is universal, which means that if you know how to use the odd 1,025,109 English words at your disposal – you exercise a great deal of control. In this two-part article, we will look at ten ways to improve your business writing – starting with the first five – and getting to the point.
1. Activate Your Voice
When running a grammar check on a document, have you ever been accused of writing in passive voice? Ever been told to correct it – to switch to active voice? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? Passive voice is our go-to when we don’t want to offend – when we want to remain neutral. In a role that requires you to be Switzerland, passive voice is essential. But the less direct we are, the less engaging a sentence can become.
A great rule of thumb with any sentence? Something must happen. The more you succeed in telling a story, i.e. who is doing what, the more alive your writing will be.
Here an example of a sentence written in the passive voice:
Lauren was dismissed by Jabulani for not meeting the exacting standards of Cashforyourtrash.co.za.
Now, take a look at it again after it’s had an active-voice makeover:
Jabulani dismissed Lauren, who did not meet with Cashforyourtrash.co.za’s exacting standards.
Apart from being a few words shorter, active voice sentences usually leave no doubt as to who did what. In this case, the first sentence only succeeds in being longer – not cleverer, fancier or more efficient.
In the end, however, choosing between active and passive voice is a style choice – not a rule. There are times when active voice might come across as accusatory, especially in management, law and HR – where diplomacy is called for.
Here’s another example of a clear, direct, active-voice sentence:
You have not met with Cashforyourstash.co.za’s standards
Put in context; the tone is accusatory – even hostile. In some cases, this might be exactly what you want to achieve. If not, using the passive voice is more effective.
Cashforyourstash.co.za’s standards have not been met.
2. Get Personal
Traditional business language has left us with a lot of baggage. We tend to think that for our writing to have gravity; we need to load it with jargon, posh language and over-punctuated phrases. But to further empower the elite club that engages with this kind of talk takes power away from your company’s lifeblood – its customers – who live in the real world.
When we are called anything other than what we are, it robs us of a personal experience. In this typical example of what nlighten jokingly refers to as the Dear-Valued-Customer approach to communication, notice how profoundly impersonal the reading experience becomes:
For any customer complaints, customers should please contact MintyFresh’s customer service department.
Not a hint of personalisation. When speaking to your customer, talk to her directly by referring to her as you and refer to yourself as we or us. Although the following example might smell a bit like advertising copy, it does speak directly to the customer by being light and accessible:
Not MintyFresh enough? Tell us more.
By using personal pronouns like I, you, we and us, you turn a general communication into something intimate – involving your customer in the experience of doing business with you instead of telling him about it.
3. Give Instructions
It might feel arrogant telling people what to do, but most of the time, people are only too glad to know what it is you’re asking them to do. With all the distractions out there, the sooner you tell them what you want, the sooner they can decide whether to comply. You know you’re under no obligation to do as a company says.
In the spirit of Customer Experience – on a rating scale of 1 to 5 (1 being not at all obvious and 5 being blatantly obvious), how obvious is the following instruction?
I would very much appreciate it if you could provide me with your number in order for me to call you in the event that I need to let you know that I have narrowly survived a python attack and, therefore, might be late in attending our meeting.
Is it a 3? Maybe a 4. Now, rate this one
Please send me your number for future reference.
A resounding 5? The tone, although direct (and, sadly, less droll), is no less polite – yet the request is clear and to the point.
Similarly, in marketing, the call to action has been a revelation. Being able to tell a prospective customer to “find out more” or “book now” has eliminated the need for endless courtship and streams of words that, let’s be honest, did not enrich the lives of even the most under-stimulated of souls. Tell people what you want and they are more likely to oblige.
4. Make Lists
Our eyes are very busy. Considering that the average urbanite spends 12 hours a day staring at a screen, we have a “natural” propensity for digesting information visually – and in large amounts.
When we use lists to split up information, we create a visual break in the text that shows a process. Lists can help to:
- Break diet-worthy sentences up into bite-sized chunks,
- Throw a spotlight on the tastiest bits; and
- Show you the whole smorgasbord before you dig in.
Lists are a great tool for making information more accessible, but there are other utensils in our kitchen too. Many universal applications like Microsoft Office and Apple’s iWork suite have basic layout and design capabilities that will not turn you into a graphic designer, but could be used to illustrate a process more visually.
A simple diagram can:
5. Groom Your Sentences
Most writing guides tell us that we should keep our sentences between 15 and 20 words long. While keeping your sentences concise is a good idea – stringing a host of 15-to-20-word sentences together can have a staccato effect that will most likely irritate your reader.
Give yourself some leeway. Instead of focussing on the number, focus on the idea. A sentence is meant to convey either a single idea or two related ideas.
To be eligible for the position of Feline Transport Executive, you must have an Animal Science Certificate. If you cannot present Kitty’s Cat Hotel with a valid certificate, you will not be eligible for the position.
Here we have two sentences of more or less equal length. Although there is nothing wrong with them, writing in sentences of equal length as a rule makes for tedious reading.
To become a Feline Transport Executive at Kitty’s Cat Hotel, you must have an Animal Science Certificate. Without it, we will not be able to consider you for the position.
Here is an example of overloaded sentence:
It is imperative that you present all aforementioned documentation when you arrive at the interview for the position of Feline Transport Executive at Kitty’s Cat Hotel, whether we ask you for it or not, in order for us to ensure that all the information you provided in the application is true and accurate and in keeping with national regulations.
It contains multiple ideas. You would need to reread it just to make sure you caught everything. Break the ideas up – then rearrange them into more manageable sentences. For instance:
You must present all necessary documents when you arrive at the interview. We need them to authenticate your application. If you do not submit all your documents, your application may be rejected.
In this example, the consequences are obvious. No need to say more. Also, steer clear of using two similar adjectives where one will do. In this case, authenticate effectively replaces true and accurate.
Clear and succinct writing exudes confidence – and when your customers read something from you that leaves no doubt as to what you mean, they trust you.
In Part 2, we will look more closely at jargon and traditional conventions – and more importantly, how to avoid them. If you have anything to add to this blog – or would like to share your thoughts – we’d love to hear them.
Office of Investor Education and Assistance, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, August 1998, www.sec.gov (PDF)
Thompson Writing Program, Duke University, 2012, twp.duke.edu (PDF)
Wayne Williams, (no date available), betanews.com
(no author or date available), www.write.co.nz
View a previous nlighten article by Nathalie Schooling: How Customer Experience Impacts Bottom Line Growth
nlighten. enhancing customer experience: www.nlighten.co.za