Good writing should, quite literally, be quite simple. So why, as we often see, the temptation to over elaborate? Or, to put it another way, why do we succumb to verbosity as a means of conveying our meaning? (Can you see what I did there?)
George Orwell says a scrupulous writer should always ask ‘ could I put it more shortly’?
So here, courtesy of Orwell himself, are his five great writing tips:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
A nice interview yesterday saw the Managing Director of Customer Experience at the Rail Delivery Group – Jacqueline Starr – face-up to John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Well, nice for the beleaguered rail passenger but I suspect that Jacqueline Starr won’t be buying her media relations team their morning coffees and croissants any time soon.
Hauled on to the show to discuss a Times story that found out of 50 rail journeys it was possible to get a cheaper fare on 33 of them than that advertised (and if you haven’t investigated split ticketing before, I’d strongly recommend you take a look), Starr rather walked into Humphrys’ gleeful clutches with a performance big on media messaging but rather lacking in substance.
The alarm bells rang when Starr’s first response was to laud how the “rail industry is very successful in meeting customer demands”. Things got worse when she then fed Humphrys that awful line about how “customers are at the heart of everything we do”. I can almost see that A4 of key messages given to Starr beforehand.
All well and good to prepare some messaging but you cannot simply hope to paper over a genuine issue with some platitudes that no one, least of all someone as tuned into PR hogwash as Humphrys, is going to roll over and accept.
Towards the end of the interview, Starr finally admitted to the issue and agreed it wasn’t acceptable. Why not do that from the outset? The rail travelling public is a cynical bunch and is never going to buy some stale soundbites about customer service.
Fair play to Starr for fronting up in the first place but a bit of empathy and, when you’ve been caught out, a good dollop of contrition and a commitment to put things right might have kept things on the rails and are what the travelling public (and John Humphrys and his ilk) want to hear.
If curiosity killed the cat, then there were a lot of dead felines at the Chelsea Flower Show recently. And why? The brilliant Antithesis of a Sarcophagi garden exhibit designed by sculptors Gary Breeze and Martin Cook; a block of granite concealing within its monolithic maw a beautifully planted garden – only evident through a few tiny viewing holes.
Anything to see here?
The genius of this exhibit made fine work of one of the oldest tricks in the book – delayed gratification. Don’t give everything away at once; make them work for it. It’s amazing what people, even a future king and queen, will do if they’re significantly intrigued. In this case, garden lovers queued around the block – sorry – for up to 45 minutes just to see what secrets the granite block was hiding.
Make them work for it
There’s a lesson here for the corporate communicator. We’re all used to making information as readily available as possible but why not, on occasion, make the audience – external or internal – work a little to find out what you want to tell them? Don’t show everything at once, keep the real find hidden and make them do a little work for it.
It goes against the grain to hold something back but if somebody has to make an effort to find something out, chances are, the message they take away is likely to be all the stronger for it. The catch? You will need a very good hook to entice your audience to go the extra distance and take matters into their own hands.
What’s your ‘granite block’?
Perhaps you don’t have a 44 tonne block of granite handy but if you can come up with a hook to do the same thing – a brilliant headline, a great image, a task to perform, an irresistible challenge – and entice your audience to go and find out some more, the results could be more effective than simply dishing it all up on a plate.
Sometime less can really be more.
There’s an old adage in the communications world that goes something like this, ’Your message is not what you say, not what you write, it’s not even what they hear, it’s what they take away.’
Sounds obvious but how many communications plans start out with some key messages that look sensible on paper but by the time they’ve been communicated come to mean something completely different to the people they’re meant for.
The main point is the understanding and appreciation of your audience. Who is it you’re communicating to? How receptive will they be to the particular message? If the audience is your employees how do they like to be talked to? Is it simple language for the shop floor or jargon (hopefully not) for the management?
Writing for a particular audience can be a challenge. Putting yourself in their shoes and understanding what ticks their boxes really demands that you spend time at the outset considering the various target audiences for a communication.
Above all, don’t assume that because you’ve said it that you’ve communicated it.
There’s something very appealing to me about going ‘off-grid’. Of course ‘off-grid’ means different things to different people. For some it just about sticking some solar panels up on the roof, while others go the whole hog; farm a small holding, install some compostable toilets, dig a borehole for their own water supply…
Kicking away the crutches of modern life’s conveniences – or inconveniences depending on how you see them – can be quite inspiring. So what if you can carry through the same ‘Good Life’ approach for communicating to your fellow employees?
The law of diminishing communications returns
“The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate…” said Joseph Priestley. And he has something there if you think about how technology dominates how we communicate. In effect, the online tools at our fingertips, while very powerful, can risk making our communications increasingly ineffective. It’s the law of diminishing communications returns. The more you do of it, the less people listen to it.
What if you abandon the corporate intranet, do away with email, text messaging, instant messaging, and any other social tool like Yammer, and decide to do a little ‘off grid’ communication? Dig out your pre-online age communications toolbox and have a rummage and see what you can find:
Not everyone can hangout online all the time; have a think about where your fellow employees physically hangout at work;
- Reception areas
- Kitchen/drinks areas
- Meeting areas
- And of course, at their desks.
Now think about how you can use those areas;
- Talk to each other…there’s an idea. What forums exist to promote ‘talking’? How are those regular soapbox presentations going? Email free hour? Team meetings, road shows…
- Deskdrop – one guaranteed way of getting everyone’s attention for those really big announcements. Send a letter…in an envelope…addressed by hand…
- Notice boards – not just one way communication; use a whiteboard and ask questions. You’ll get responses.
- The rumour mill – great for finding out stuff but think how can you use it to push messages too.
- Guerrilla tactics – how can you hi-jack existing ‘offline’ communications. Staff get a Christmas gift every year? A great opportunity to communicate . Or at the Christmas party…
- Posters – people love pictures, so how can a series of posters help your internal comms campaign?
- Newsletters – don’t underestimate the power of the hardcopy newsletter. Could be a one-off related to a particular event for example.
Set yourself the challenge of running a communications project that’s entirely ‘off-grid’. You might be surprised at how successful it can be when you abandon online tools.
Mind you, the compostable toilets are still a terrible idea.