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The Rights of the Reader

By Daniel Pennac, Illust. by Quentin Blake.

The other day I came across a link to this gem of a poster. It was linked from a well-known blog I follow called The Happiness Project, which mentioned the 1992 book of the same name (which I can’t wait to get my hands on as well!).

I love its simplicity and universal appeal — whether you’re a non-, weak, online, sometime, or voracious reader, you have these rights and likely recognize some of these behaviours in yourself.

And for those of us who make our living by communicating, I see this as a simple-yet-powerful communication tool: a Ten Commandments of Truths We Must Always Remember before we prepare something that we want (or need) people to read.

How’s this for plain language?

The last time I had a blog in 2007, the final post was called Gone fishin’. I was done with that first iteration and decided not only to go fish … but also to jump ship. I wasn’t digging the blog tool I’d chosen, and my business was taking up more of my extra time.

This time ’round, I’m in a similar boat (along with using too many nautical metaphors).

Writing and editing is what I do for my work the rest of the time, and it’s taken on greater steam.

Fortunately, I get to spend even more time writing for clients now as SimplyRead continues to take on larger-scale plain-language projects. And I’m ramping up to get involved in prep for International Plain Language Day October 13. But it’s lately left precious little time for Messages (and for you, if you’re a regular follower).

My bulb’s burnt out

But the clincher has been health-related. Along with the normal stresses of managing a business and life with two young kids in the expanding suburbs, years of battling chronic food sensitivities have doused much of my already-flickering flame. In plain language: to balance out my energy, I need to do fewer things better, eat more meat and carve out more Me Time.

So I’m taking a break from this space for awhile. But I continue to find and and share new info and critical thinking about plain language, simpler processes and communications. You’ll find me on the SimplyRead facebook page and on our Twitter feed.

Can’t figure out what to have for dinner? Maybe it’s decision fatigue.

Before I run off, here’s something that’s grabbed and held my attention. It turns out that I’m not alone in my predicament. If you ask researchers Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, many of us struggle with what they call ‘decision fatigue’ when their lives get too demanding.

This problem stems from the number of decisions each of us is faced with in today’s more complex, information-soaked world. Here’s my version: Daughter asking “Mom, what’s for dinner tomorrow?” while I respond to a client’s text, seated in front of my bank’s log-in screen, while my toddler pulls on my shirt and the phone buzzes in the background. According to Baumeister and Tierney, the commonness of multi-tasking – and the self-denial that come with all that stress – greatly impact on our personal self-discipline and willpower.

Common life patterns can compromise our willpower – who knew?

As discussed at length in this New York Times article, it’s harder for people in our times to maintain healthy willpower and make good decisions. Choosing among so many options all the time just burns out our brains.

Those of us who operate without enough money are more susceptible to decision fatigue, since the number of times we have to decide between tempting options goes up.

Does your willpower swim wit’ da fishes at certain times of the day?

Similarly afflicted are people who spend their days in back-to-back meetings, only getting to catch up at the day’s end when their energy is sapped.

Worse, they’re probably hungry (or more often, ‘hangry!’). Baumeister and Tierney say the amount of glucose is another key factor in these capacities.

This sudden limit to our better  judgment is a good explanation for why people on diets often break them: People who have to deny themselves so many things will eventually find their resources for self-regulation severely depleted … and their heads in the freezer scoping out the Haagen Dazs.

It’s also blamed for all those times we’ve heard about the outstandingly successful person who blew it all on that one bad decision … (now take a second to remember the last one in the Financial Times or TMZ that you went all schadenfreude about …).

Now that alone is a good enough reason for my Serious Need To Chill. If all these other brilliant people have gone off the deep end, I’d better get my own house ship shape lest I end up in the same kettle of fish.*

Let’s stay connected!

Until we get our blogging mojo back, if you like what you’ve seen here you can still enjoy tweets, news, musings and more to help you ‘cut the churn’:

* I should probably work on some new metaphors too, huh?

My Inbox and Twitter feeds keep serving up more fish.

My Inbox and Twitter feeds keep serving up more fish.

Our last post dealt with bulk, unsolicited – i.e., SPAM – messages pretending to be from banks. Since then, I have come across an additional form of SPAM that is relevant to my interest in plain language: that which claims to be from individuals we know, and which comes to us ‘from’ them via their mail or Twitter account.

These new examples show that just because something’s plain, doesn’t mean we trust it. Other elements always come into play in how we receive the message.

A fish of a different odour…

Both messages resulted from someone hacking into those real people’s actual accounts, then pretending to be that person. So they looked to actually be from an individual I know, not a faceless sender in a large company.

Both are from colleagues in other cities: people I have not yet met in-person, but whom I know from years as fellow plain-language practitioners. I’ve written to both of these folks several times over the years, and participated with them on discussion groups. So, I know how they sound when they ‘talk’ online.

So when I saw the notes ‘from’ them this past week, I knew something was up. They were both clear, so no problem understanding them. They both used short words and a conversational tone. Again, totally plain language.

But what made me smell fish was the tone of voice and choice of words each of them used.

Message #1: The ‘help me get back home’ scam

The first, much longer message was ‘from’ one of them who lives about five hours away. Except it said she was out of the country, and that she had been mugged. She was writing me because, left with no way to get back home, she was hoping I would wire her some money … okay, you already see the commonality between this and other SPAM notices.

But before I even got to the request for money, I already sensed it was a bogus message. First, the context was all wrong. I’d only expect to get a longish message from this person if it was about our mutual work in our professional association. The other thing that tipped me off was the first line, which said ‘How are you doing today? I know this might surprise you, I apologize for not informing you about my travel to England for a Conference…’

Knowing this person in the professional capacity – and knowing her to be an excellent writer – I wouldn’t have expected her to sound like this. Clear and direct or not – I knew I couldn’t trust the message to be authentic; the first few lines sounded ‘canned.’

Message #2: The ‘someone’s saying stuff about you’ lure

The other message was shorter, and sent to me via Twitter. It was from an Australian colleague this time, one with whom I’ve corresponded over the past month or so. It was a direct message to me that said ‘Someone has been spreading rumors about you’ and gave a TinyUrl link.

Again, it looks like a normal tweet, and its meaning is crystal clear. But it still smells like fish. Again, the tone is all wrong for the context. (I was also surprised to see an Aussie spelling ‘rumor’ without a ‘u’ – but that’s a fiddly editor’s matter most normal readers might not notice.) So I did not click the link.

In both cases, even though the message had come directly from these people, I emailed both right away and learned that their email and Twitter accounts had indeed been hacked into.

The point of regurgitating even more SPAM (and of mixing canned meat with smelly fish metaphors) …?

Plain language writers sometimes need to counter the common perception that ‘plain language’ means a ‘dumbed down’ form of language that most people would find patronizing, because it boils the subtleties and beauty of language into monotonous-sounding, Dick and Jane-style narratives.

These two examples struck me in how they were so clear and direct – in fact, overly so – and it was because they didn’t fit with either the senders’ typical tone of voice or the context of my relationship with them that I knew they were fakes.

And similarly, our readers won’t trust what we write if it still does not sound authentic. And, if it doesn’t sound authentic, then it was not truly written with the reader’s needs in mind.

True plain language writing only does its job of communicating effectively if it also captures the human element with the right tone, context and choice of words. Thus, it embodies much more than short words and sentences.

SPAM messages try hard to hook you ...

We’ve all gotten broadcast – or SPAM – messages from people claiming to be writing from a financial institution. Usually, they are of the URGENT variety, wanting us to, in a panic, respond instantly by clicking the link in the message and ‘correcting’ their personal information on a fake website pretending to belong to the bank.

(Really, they want the unwitting recipient to give them info about him or herself by going to the spammer’s website and entering their information.)

In arguing for why good writing is important to help a company seem credible and trustworthy, it’s often useful to look at the opposite of good writing – and SPAM messages are rife with this!

What’s interesting in the case of notices proporting to be from financial institutions is that it’s clear that the writers are using a voice that tries to sound very official and serious … just like they think a bank would sound. But the stand-out errors in them start to chip away at that vaneer pretty efficiently.

Even people who don’t edit people’s writing for a living will pick up on even minor gaffes and start to feel less invested in a message that was unsolicited to start with (and which may not even be from a bank we actually deal with).

To illustrate, here are three of the most odorous SPAM messages that have landed in my Inbox lately (well, of those I actually bothered to open and read …). Included are < my notes in carets > on just what makes them so pungent:

... but often the errors in them make them smell kind of fishy.


SPAM Message #1
This is an Alert to help manage your online banking access. < the alert is so important that they’ve capitalized it! >

Dear Bank Of Montreal customer < The bank must be important if they spell the word ‘of’ with a capital O >,

Bank Of Montreal Online Security has been receiving complaints from our customers for < complaints for? > unauthorised uses of Online Banking Accounts. As a result we are temporarily shutting down some selected Bank Of Montreal Online Accounts perceived vulnerable to this, pending till the time we carry out proper verification by the account owner < ‘pending till’? >. Bank Of Montreal is committed to ensure the safeguard of each customer personal information, making sure only authorised individuals have access to their accounts. <Whoa, you can tell this one was not written by an English speaker. >

As a first step to have Your < I must be divine, since they’ve used a capital Y >Bank Of Montreal Online Access reactivated please verify your identity by using the link provided below:

http://www.bmo.com/fraud.prevention/account/verificationThis link actually takes you to one starting with ‘amourtoujours.net’ >

These instructions are sent to and should be followed by all Bank Of Montreal clients,to avoid service deactivation after the verification is completed < ‘are sent to and should be followed’ – nice use of the passive, and those nice mega-nouns ‘deactivation’ and ‘reactivation’ all in one sentence! >. We apologise for any inconveniences and thank you for your cooperation. . < Oops, they’ve left an extra period here! And don’t we spell it ‘apologize’ in Canada? >

Thank you,
Customers Support Service. <Well, they do support multiple people … >


SPAM Message #2

Dear Bank Of Montreal Customer:

BMO Bank Of Montreal is hereby announcing the New Security Upgrade. < Sound the trumpets! They’ve announced the Upgrade! >

We’ve upgraded our new SSL servers to serve our customers for a better and secure internet banking service < Was it not secure before …? >.

It is very important that you update your account information  & other personal information < I’m not sure I’d give any personal info to someone using an ampersand to preface it >, please follow the link below to  update your account then ‘Sign In’ to submit your request.

Click Here To Update Your Account < When you hover your mouse, it shows the URL:  <http://autozap99.ru/&#8230; >

100% Online Banking Guarantee < also links to a bogus URL >

Bank Of Montreal

Security Advisor

© 2011 offered by BMO Bank Of Montreal, N.A.

 < Well, it must be a professional message if they’ve copyrighted it! >


SPAM Message #3

From:             C.I.B.C. – Accounting Services [anna.van@cibc.com]

Subject:    CIBC Business Banking – Statement Summary Report – ’03/01/2012′

< Don’t they know how to spell their own name? >

DEAR CIBC BUSINESS BANKING CUSTOMER < Great, now they’re shouting at me. >

Kindly download the attachment to view your new account summary and confirm recent transactions on your account. < Nothing about why would I do this …?>

CIBC Financial Services < Wait, I thought the message was from Accounting Services. >

Customer Service

As this e-mail is an automated message, do not reply to this email.

————————————————–

No virus found in this message.

Checked by AVG – www.avg.com

Version: 2012.0.1901 / Virus Database: 2109/4742 – Release Date…

< Well, nice to know they’ve gone through the trouble of scanning this message before sending it. They must be trustworthy – look at all that technical info! >


So what’s my point?

We all have laughed about the awful SPAMs we’ve received. But they hold some very good lessons about how we can miss with our own customers if we’re not careful: with inconsistent spellings, bad punctuation, incomplete or uneven information, a tone and flow that  doesn’t sound natural . . . the list goes on.

It’s something to think about the next time you’re writing an important message on behalf of your business.

Disclaimer

While the above examples use the names of two major Canadian banks, I only leave them in because some of the errors have to do with using those brand names incorrectly or inconsistently.

Had those messages actually come from actual financial institutions (FIs), they would no doubt have been much better-written. And as fraud-prevention folks always say, a legitimate FI won’t contact its customers by broadcast email anyway.

Our last post showed one of the hall-of-fame worst sets of instructions I’ve seen, in terms of their design.

A few days later, I picked up a set that had quite the opposite effect. So it seems only fair to share a really good one, too, especially since it’s likely to be read by the same audience: parents of children ages 7+.

What makes these so helpful?

While they still come in a pretty small package, these ones

  • are easy to read and navigate,  due to the clean typeface and large-enough type
  • have clear visuals to help you picture what playing the game looks like, and
  • use good subheads that help you recognize natural changes in topic, some of which contain more engaging calls to action (‘Let’s play,’ ‘You should have:’).

You can tell that this company takes the effort to ensure that their instructions make sense to befuddled parents like me, who can only get the straight dope on how to play without cheating if they read the instructions. You see, my daughter has her own version of some games, with rules that seem to evolve as she begins to fare worse in the game.

But then, you’ve got to watch out for those times she gets a hold of the instructions themselves. Despite how well-written this little booklet is, I’m still not completely sure I am playing correctly, since she’s clearly following in her mom’s editor footsteps … see for yourself:

Dark purple marker is NOT see-through!

Maybe she thought she was highlighting them?

The instructions below came with an mp3 player my daughter received for Christmas.

Look at the words in relation to my hand. How close to your face do you think you’d need to hold this, to be able to read it?

I think this is 4-point type

The designers might be thinking that only people under 20 need to read instructions for these products. Or, maybe their priority was getting them to fit into the tiny package the player came in.

Either way, they’ve clearly forgotten that most of their customers are probably grandparents or parents of younger kids (who got the cheaper model ’cause they were worried the kids would break the higher-end one).

Interested in the issues I’ve written about over the past couple posts? If you are, you might want to check out this post by of V3 Kansas City Integrated Marketing and Social Media Agency: How To Delete Your Google History Before Google’s New Privacy Policy Kicks In.

After posting about Google’s Privacy Policy, I read lots of beefs from others who said that shortening and combining all those policies into one was now giving Google some serious muscle in terms of how it can use our info.

And, as Joe Turow, Adele McAlear and others have told us, we have to be careful about what happens to all those footprints we’re leaving behind.

RRSP shmRRSP: the real deadline relates to your deets in Google’s databases

But, according to Schamberger, there is a fix for your footprint on Google – but if you’re interested, you’d better get on it today: she gives instructions for putting your Google account ‘on pause’ so that Google can not start having enhanced access to use of your deets, a new practice which starts tomorrow, March 1.

If you're reading this, you probably have one of these.

CBC Radio One aired an interview this morning about the problems that arise when people pass away without having addressed how to manage their “digital footprint” or “digital legacy” after they’re gone. Today’s show was prompted by the latest effort in Nebraska to propose legislation to allow next of kin to control digital accounts after a user has passed away

I’ve faced this dilemma over the past year, when facebook asked me if I wanted to be friends with my recently-passed mother-in-law.

You see, she fully had no more intention of leaving anytime near when she set up her account, than we had of seeing her go. If she did leave instructions to take down her profile (which I suspect not), they have not yet been satisfied.

Even while I’ve hit the little x when my poor mom-in-law’s profile box appeared – a bizarrely final thing to do anyway – her name and photo still show up each time I search on fb for a name starting with the same first few letters as hers (I simply cannot bring myself to delete another good friend’s contact info from any of my lists, even though she’s been gone for four years now).

One of the people interviewed today on CBC says that facebook is just starting to tackle this issue, having dealt with requests to take down pages from people not even related to someone…or of people still very much alive. It’s sad.

And, it’s become rather insidious, as noted by this site, appropriately titled Death and Digital Legacy. A more well-known example mentioned on that site is of Janna Moore Morin, who died violently and unexpectedly, but whose facebook profile has taken on its own momentum in the two years since her death.

Some think that the directing of all these data toward us – whether we’ve asked for them or not – is a part of a larger, more sinister movement to hyper-market to us by using info about us gotten from our digital footpath, and feeding us only the information related to those preferences – and of course, to the products that can help us further feed the image of ourselves we’ve put out there. The Daily You by Joe Turow explores this more closely, and Professor Turow blogs about these issues regularly on Media Today and Tomorrow.

Would you want to share every part of your digital legacy?
Getting back to the more general issue of the digital footprint, another point made this morning was about including it as a line item in our long-term plan. Aside your will, insurance papers and other instructions in your emergency plan, we’re being advised to ensure we have a list of all of our online accounts and their entry passwords, which we give to our partner or someone else we trust…just in case.

But what if there are accounts we only use for the stuff we don’t ever want people to know? (Course, you might argue quite rightly, as many have done, that you should never exchange anything online that you wouldn’t want shared.) And after you’re gone, well, it’s really all quite moot anyway, right?

Have you considered your digital legacy?

But what if, by sharing that info with your partner, you’re leaving yourself open to that trusted person using that information, er, before they need to? Then, if you do have some things to hide, you could be discovered while you’re still here to have to deal with the fallout?

These couple examples are likely just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Once you engage with something that is capable of transmitting every one of your deets across the planet and back, these things are now part of your baggage, whether you like it or not.

Still not sure you should be worried? Click the video on the right side of the Death and Digital Legacy site. Follow Digital Nick and his exploits, which only magnify in interest…only problem is, the real Nick has died.

Maybe it’s too late to still be referring to the holidays, but packaging below was from a couple of our kids’ Chanukah gifts – and it sure is funny:

Aren't all a doll's friendships everlasting?

Who resembles the real car: the toy or my son?

Our household continues to recover from a flu-and fatigue-ridden holiday, so these examples somewhat reflect the depth of my own communications skills at the moment.

You may also notice that the sizes and alignment of our images lately seem a bit wonky. It may just be time for a new (read: for-a-fee) blog platform for SimplyRead – or at least to get up-to-date already on the WordPress interface upgrade.

We look forward to sharing info of greater substance soon, so please do keep us in your bookmarks while we continue to work out the kinks.

I’ve been teaching a lot lately about the active and passive voices, encouraging writers to favour the active voice in every instance they can.

The ‘active voice’ is where you always begin the phrase with a subject (a noun) that is performing the action (a verb), as in: I typed this post.

If you were using the ‘passive voice’ there, you would have written: This post was typed (you may or may not have added ‘by me’)

I’ve also been encouraging people to prefer verbs over nouns, since verbs bring more action into a text, which better engages readers. And like the active voice, writing that favours verbs over nouns makes it a lot clearer who is doing what.

So hearing the Eviction Notice to Occupy Toronto protesters read out-loud this week, I wondered at the tone of voice that came through in how they’d written the letter (read a clean PDF copy from the Globe and Mail site).

I was so curious about what made that tone come through, that I copied and pasted the text, then highlighted it. Here was my logic:

  • Parts highlighted in yellow use a noun-based language and a passive voice.
  • Parts highlighted in green use verbs and an active, direct voice.

Check it out:

City of Toronto Eviction Notice to Occupy Toronto protesters: my highlighted version

My conclusion?

The voice goes back and forth so often that it’s clearly a sad case of Death by Committee.

What’s your take on the language the writers used here?

Leave your comment, so we can learn from each other...

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