Plain language sounds smart

communication is like the children's game of telephoneHave you ever tried persuading managers that using simple, active language is their best chance at communicating a message, and gotten a response like this?

“I don’t want to dumb it down.”

This response always flabbergasts me. They might as well say, “I don’t care if people understand me.”

Making language clear and understandable doesn’t mean you’re writing like the author of a “Dick and Jane” reader.

It means:

  • Keeping most sentences to 25 words or fewer.
  • Avoiding jargon, even when you’re writing for ‘your’ audience. Don’t assume that since most of the people on your annual report mailing list know about you, they’ll be as familiar with your jargon as you are.
  • Making sure quotations sound as if someone really said them. (Hint: Read the quotation out loud.)
  • Using words your readers use. People say, “Get your gas at Speedway stations and support AAA Foundation.” They don’t say, “Get your gasoline at Speedway stations.” (I had a CEO force this change on me once. Honest.)
  • Being direct, not passive. Rather than, “The issue was discussed,” say, “The board discussed the issue.”
  • Letting active verbs make your copy come alive.

Organizations that have been pushing out their messages from their own perspectives rather than those of their audiences are going to find themselves ignored, if they aren’t already.

“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well.” – Albert Einstein


A subhead made me want to visit Alabama

I had no desire to ever visit Alabama until I read the subhead of a Washington Post story by Scott Vogel. And my guess is that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute didn’t have it in its press release.

Vogel’s headline — “A march into history” — and familiar photo of Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t draw me in. But the subhead was:

Alabama women who lived it help give a 21st-century spirit
to the civil rights struggle.

Alabama women who lived the civil rights movement? Old women infusing a historic time with a modern spirit?

My attention was captured, and I was soon reading.Martin Luther King On its face, this is an article about why you should visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute museum and research center. But in several strokes of journalistic genius, Vogel treats it as a feature story.

Instead of, “The museum features the desk at which Martin Luther King wrote his plans for the bus boycott,” you read, “She shows King’s office in the basement, then allows me a peek – not part of the public tour – at the blond wood desk on which he planned the Montgomery bus boycott.”

You’re there, taking “a gut-wrenching trip” through history that the writer makes personal through the eyes of women who were there.

Think about Vogel’s approach the next time you write a press release or newsletter article.

Ruthless slashing makes for better writing

delete-keyOne of the most effective (and most painful) ways for me to improve my writing is to finish a piece, sit back and glow with a sense of accomplishment, and then force myself to eliminate every unnecessary word.

Four easy fixes are (1) don’t use the word ‘impact,’ (2) don’t use ‘located at’ with your address, (3) say what you will do, not what you ‘will be doing,’ and (4) don’t use the word ‘very.’

Some examples:

Your contributions make a significant impact on our ability to serve families.
(12 words, and what do they say, really? An impact can be a negative thing; to me, it evokes a car-crash dummies.)


Your contributions significantly improve our ability to serve families.
We can serve families so much better, thanks to your gift.
Your contributions help us significantly improve people’s lives.

Our office is located at 722 Northview Ave.

We’re at 722 Northview Ave.
Our office is at 722 Northview Ave.
Visit us at 722 Northview Ave.

We will be implementing a four-day work week.
We will be serving ham and eggs.
We will be offering six classes this fall.

We will implement a four-day work week. A four-day work week begins on Jan. 1.
We will serve ham and eggs.
We’ll offer six classes this fall.

This material is very environmentally friendly and easy to maintain.

This material is environmentally friendly and easy to maintain.
(Overuse of superlatives such as ‘very’ damage your credibility.)

I’ll take a bet with anyone that if I’m given a page of copy, I can cut it by a third and retain its meaning. I can do this because writers don’t revise their first drafts, and they get too enamored with their own words.

They forget about their readers.

If you can reduce your word count by at least a fourth, I promise your writing will be tighter and more interesting. Be ruthless! It’s kind of fun.

(from January 2010)


Good SEO doesn’t excuse bad writing

In the About Us section of one organization’s website, someone wrote that the company is “a full-service web design firm.” But then a case study says this:SEO still needs good writing

WebPromote is an ongoing SEO service that involves continuous daily actions on and off your website, to constantly prove to Google, Yahoo!, and Bing that your website is the most relevant source of information for the keywords we are targeting. This isn’t easy. Google, Yahoo!, and Bing go to great lengths to keep their algorithms secret. Their algorithms determine which sites get placed above others. In fact, they constantly change their algorithms to control over-optimization and spam. At [Company], we constantly monitor search engines to adapt to the latest changes.

Did you get that?

  • The first sentence has 40 words.
  • “Algorithms” appears three times, as does “constantly.”
  • “Continual” would be more accurate than “continuous,” but I could give them that one; it’s a common error.

And worst of all, nothing about this copy tells me what they’ll do to improve my business.

SEO (search engine optimization) does not negate the need for good writing. In fact, good SEO may make good writing even more important. If you’re going to be effective at luring people to a site, then you owe it to them to make the visit pleasant.

Clear, simple announcement reinforces core messsage

Kudos to the aptly named Jane Smart of the World Conservation Union for the way she clearly announced the Red List today, the definitive list of disappearing plants and animals as created by scientists worldwide. At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Smart said:

“We get very excited about the release of the Red List and perhaps we shouldn’t be, because actually it’s a very bad news story. But for those of us who work in the field, I feel that the only way we are going to get society to pay attention to what’s happening to our species is to tell everybody.”

Smart could, no doubt, talk circles around all of us. Instead, she’s delivering a significant message in terms everyone can understand. Bravo.

Corporate writing: The Toddler Syndrome

I would describe the trouble with much corporate writing as the Toddler Syndrome: It’s all about me, me, me. The audience (and clarity) is irrelevant.

Best Buy offers a perfect example in this press release: 

Best Buy Realigns Leadership Team to Accelerate Future Growth 

MINNEAPOLIS, Sept. 26, 2007 – Best Buy Co., Inc. (NYSE: BBY) today announced changes in its leadership team intended to strengthen the company’s ability to draw insights from employees, customers and partners in order to provide excellent customer experiences and solutions; provide clear accountability for each element of the enterprise’s growth strategy; and place leaders with strong points of view on how to generate growth in roles where they can bring those ideas to life.  Unless otherwise noted, all changes are now in effect. 

Seventy words in that first sentence, and what does it really say?

You’d have to slowly and carefully reread this to be able to share it with someone else. If their writing is this obfuscatory, how much faith can we have in their promise of “clear accountability”?

Comment #1:

I always wonder how things like this get written. Because it’s not quite the same thing bad writing—it’s a very specific *kind* of writing, which, although terrible, is executed perfectly.

Is there an English-to-jargon translator on staff? Do people actually *write* this way? Do they use phrases like “growth strategy” in their ordinary lives? Are there classes in business schools to teach MBAs how to be more obtuse? I don’t get it.

My response:

It might be MBA class. From a Wall Street Journal report: “Of all the complaints recruiters register about M.B.A. students in the Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive survey, inferior communication skills top the list.” As a PowerPoint hater, here’s my favorite quote: “Students seem to think a better grade is assigned based on the number of (PowerPoint) slides in a presentation,” says one recruiter.

Comment #2:

I think it stems from an HR perspective where you can’t really point fingers, tell it straight forward, or lay blame without risking litigation nowadays. This paragraph feels like a very small committee “finessed” an announcement by stripping out all the personality and sprinkled in a bit of double-speak with a dash of PR BS until it was so vanilla and vague that it was sure to numb anyone who stumbled on it – and most importantly, didn’t make anyone on the leadership team it mentioned feel bad.

They could have done themselves a favor and just followed the headline with: Effective immediately. Please keep buying our stuff. Thank you.

(Originally posted in 2007)

My favorite headline of the year

(From October 2007)

Here is, without doubt, my favorite headline of the year. It’s from Smithsonian Magazine, one of the most well-written publications in print today:

Guerrillas in Their Midst

Face to face with Congo’s imperiled mountain gorillas

Take another look. Did you read “gorillas” in that headline? In just four words and a photo, this headline tells a story. It’s unbelievably clever, playing off the Dian Fossey story “Gorillas in the Mist.” It’s intriguing — If the headline is this great to read, then the story must be wonderful. And just who are these guerrillas, anyway? I’m hooked. (Read the story.)

It’s just the type of headline Dr. Mario Garcia is talking about when he says, “You can have the same story read by 40% more people with a headline that entices you to get there.”

Imagine — 40% more readers with just four words! Now, that’s power.

Dr. Garcia is on The Poynter Institute’s fascinating site detailing eyetracking studies that reveal how people read in print and online.