THE PLAIN TEXT GAZETTE – Issue 7, May 2003
* Order, order! The importance of structure in business writing
* Words We Hate: the list begins
Welcome to the springtime Plain Text Gazette. In the spirit of the season’s theme of new growth and new beginnings, the Gazette will henceforth be taking a new tack. We’ve exhausted the ‘When Communication Doesn’t’ series, having briefly written about six different types of written business communication: press releases, presentations, case studies, brochures, web writing and letters and emails. .
From this issue on, we’ll take a look at different themes in business writing, starting with some observations on the importance of structure. We also indulge in some much-needed catharsis (‘a purging of the effects of a pent-up emotion and repressed thoughts’, according to Chambers) as we let rip in a reasoned, yet spirited way, at words we hate.
Before we kick off, though, it’s been encouraging to note that the issue of good writing in business seems to be getting more attention. In an interesting piece subtitled ‘Firms must ditch jargon and do some plain speaking’, Simon Caulkin of the UK’s Observer newspaper makes a connection between the death of old-style, ‘broadcast’ marketing and the need for companies to pay more attention to language. He points out a contradiction that we continually cite: “(organisations) spend billions on advertising and brand building. Yet so often their words destroy the carefully constructed image.”
Keep it plain,
Is it just me, or is the weather forecast always boring? I’m a cyclist and motorcyclist, occasional gardener and a practitioner of outdoor pursuits. The weather forecast is therefore of great importance and should hold my attention like a gripping thriller. Yet no matter how animated and eccentric the presenter, or how apocalyptic the projected weather conditions, I almost always drift off half way through. What’s going on?
I think the weather forecast bores me (and many others) because it ignores the primary concern of its audience. We want to know one simple thing: what’s the weather going to be like where we are now, or where we’re going? The weather people, however, don’t seem to want to tell us this. They’re focused, understandably, on meteorology, which in the British Isles is a mightily complex and unpredictable thing. They want to tell us about anticyclones and Atlantic lows; they want to share the bigger picture with us. So every forecast is organised differently. Sometimes it starts with the weather in the west; sometimes with the situation in the south.
The upshot is that we get bored waiting to guess when our local area might be mentioned, go out without an umbrella, and get soaked.
But what’s this got to do with structure? Or business writing, for that matter?
Some of the most effective communications have a recognisable, familiar structure. Think of a newspaper, with its carefully designed layout; a good web page, built so you can find your way around easily; or even a well-delivered presentation, with a beginning, middle and end. With all of these, you always know where you are. With a traditional weather forecast, however, you don’t.
Here’s the Plain Text answer. Get the ‘big picture’ stuff out of the way first with a quick overview of all that technical meteorological stuff. This will keep the weather geeks happy and can be ignored by everyone else. Then, having chopped the country up into a small number of regions, tell the weather story, region by region, in the same order, every day. That way, we’ll all know when to listen and when to tune out.
A radical solution? No, we stole it from some other weather people. The UK shipping forecast has been done this way for years, illustrating that even when information is a matter of life and death, structure is crucial.
The lesson for business writing is simple. If you’re communicating regularly with an audience, and you want them to listen, a little bit of structure goes a long way.
Words We Hate: the list begins
Performant, adj, (normally of IT ‘solutions’), meaning: ‘it works’
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Is it fair to hate ‘performant’? After all, it’s been used in French since 1968, largely to denote a computer system with high performance, which is pretty much its intended usage and meaning in English.
Its proponents — and there seem to be a few in the technology world — would probably defend it as an example of a justifiable neologism, saying that there is no single word that does the same job. They might say that such linguistic development is a necessary accompaniment to the development of things that need to be described.
We don’t care. You can’t just go around slapping on suffixes and brazenly expect the world to say ‘Of course!’. Especially when the world also contains large numbers of people who will say ‘Noooooo!’. Where will it end? Deliverant? Valuising? Serviceative?
Performant is wrong for that reason and many more. It implies something special when all really says is: ‘it works’. It looks silly. But most of all, it implies a secret knowledge on behalf of its user that the humble reader is left to divine: in other words, it’s jargon. Use it in meetings (when your writing agency is not present), but keep it out of print.
Solution, n (and sometimes v), meaning: ‘the answer to a problem’
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We know, we know. It’s a soft target. But we can’t not hate it. The dreaded ‘s’ word plagued the business world well before the technology boom, when it was introduced in order to justify things being more mysterious and/or expensive. Here’s where it fits in the hierarchy of things companies do:
Product = a thing produced
Service = a product received and paid for on a regular basis, accompanied by some customer support
Solution = a service that has been sprinkled with magic consultancy dust
The problem, of course, is that everything is a solution now. From the postal company’s ‘Delivering Solutions’ — you know it’s a play on words but you want scream “You’re delivering letters, for @*!% sake!!” — to the inspiring ‘Solutions for Palletized Distribution’, we’ve reached solution saturation point.
Once a word means too many things, it’s time to move on.
And with that, we’ll close this issue. As always, keep your comments and suggestions coming and please pass the Plain Text Gazette on to friends and colleagues.
Paul & Paul
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