• Ellen Gardner

Communicate in simple language

One of the first things I teach in my writing workshops is to forget everything your teachers taught you – to use big words, pad your writing and never put yourself in your writing. It goes against everything we’ve had drilled into us, but it’s true that that your writing improves when you write less and use simple language.

That’s not easy. Writing with fewer words is hard and takes practice.

Many people, especially recent graduates, worry they will not be respected if they use simple language and write in an informal way. Quite the opposite is true. A study by the Harvard Business Review found that 81% of business leaders say that poorly written material wastes their time. The article noted, “A majority say that what they read is frequently ineffective because it’s too long, poorly organized, unclear, filled with jargon, and imprecise.”

Jonathan Stark (The Business of Authority) says trying to decipher writing that is filled with long sentences and is overly technical is “like reading through gauze”. Even though you might be sending your proposal to a technical person who speaks your brand of jargon, there is a good chance they’ll pass it along to someone else who does not. Jonathan’s advice – write in language a 10-year old will understand.

Any piece of writing, from a proposal, to a report, to a plain old email, rises to the top when it’s concise and to the point.

It’s true that people are smarter and more educated than ever before, so why do they want things so simple? According to Alison Davis, CEO of Davis & Company, it’s not that they don’t understand complex language – but because they’re inundated with information, they need shortcuts to manage it all. “This isn’t about dumbing it down,” she says. “It’s about making everything intelligently simple.”

So, how do you do that? The first thing is to think about what you want to say – what’s your goal. If you’re clear on your purpose before you even start writing, there’s a good chance you’ll stay on track.

Here are some other tips:

1 – Make your sentences shorter. When you start writing in technical or complex language, there is a tendency to write longer. Use fewer commas and more periods. Writing shorter sentences forces you to use shorter words and keep it simple.

2 – Write as if you’re having a conversation. Even if you’re writing a report or a proposal, don’t forget you’re a person and you’re writing for a person. Be human, use the first person when you can, say ‘you’, and keep your writing warm and direct. As you compose a sentence, think, would I use this language if I was speaking to the person? (Another point – don’t be afraid to use contractions!)

3 – Put your important points at the beginning. One of our biggest problems is loading up the beginning of our sentences, our emails and our articles with fluff. We take too long to get to our main point and lose our readers in the process. Give the ‘why’ you’re writing in the first sentence or two and then more info about the ‘what’ in the middle. Instead of saying, “I would like to take this opportunity to extend our apologies…” try, “I’m writing to apologize…”

4 – Read it out loud. Before you’re ready to send, take a moment to read your text out loud. This accomplishes two things – it uncovers those places where your sentences are too long (you’ll run out of breath) and you’ll also hear the natural breaks.

We forget that we’re writing for our audience, not ourselves. Making them a priority involves being direct, concise and clear. Don’t assume your audience understands complex language and jargon – they might not, and even if they do, they will appreciate when your content is simple and easy to absorb quickly. And chances are good, they’ll give you what you want!

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