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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.
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?
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:
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/verification < This 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? >
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/… >
100% Online Banking Guarantee < also links to a bogus URL >
Bank Of Montreal
© 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 [email@example.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. >
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.
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.
A good chunk of my business over the past seven years has been with financial services organizations. As expected, in a highly regulated environment, people often tend toward a highly formal style of writing.
And it makes sense that people will believe that they need to use a more formal tone to align with the culture of the organization. Even when employees receive a lot of info and training to help them adopt a clearer, fresher tone as part of re-branding, it still takes awhile for the new behaviours – including using clear language – to fully sink in.
One tip that I always give to help people use a more direct, easier-to-understand tone is to strip your nouns.
Start stripping, baby!
If you want to give your documents a leg up in being clear, I suggest you strip your nouns – have ’em let it all hang out. You’ll shake off a lot of clutter that weighs down your sentences, throws a ball and chain ’round the neck of your paragraphs.
What do I mean by ‘clutter’? I mean all the suffixes that get added to verbs, such as -ment, -ation (or -ization); and I mean verbs that have evolved into nouns over time.
I think we are drawn to them because we think that they make words sound more important or authoritative. When you were younger, do you recall having your teacher say you needed to turn in an 800-word essay, and worrying that you would never be able to fill up all that space with something intelligent?
If you do, then you probably used the following type of language to make your writing sound smarter:
- “This enables the achievement of our monthly objectives.”
- “We will assist in the attainment of those funds for the project.”
- “This team was key to the successful initiation and implementation of the new system.”
These words aren’t wrong in and of themselves. It’s only when people use nouns like achievement, attainment, initiation and implementation where the verb at the root of those words would have done just fine.
Why are verbs better? They engage readers more because they give a more concrete sense that some action is taking place, painting a clearer picture in someone’s mind.
Note as well that the above examples often need support from their two buddies, ‘of’ and ‘the’ – words that help you round out those word counts, but also make it take longer to express your thought. Not good when you’re trying to reach busy people who may still be trying to decide if they should continue to read your piece in the first place.
Witness a few ‘loaded’ examples typical of the financial services industry, along with how I would ‘strip’ them down to more direct, easy-to-grasp language:
Loaded: Any amount payable to a minor beneficiary during his/her minority
Stripped: Any amount a minor beneficiary receives during the time they are a minor.
Loaded: We will assure the retention of the funds in the above-named account.
Stripped: We will hold the funds in the above account.
Loaded: Payment of dividends to policyholders is made monthly.
Stripped: We pay dividends to policyholders monthly.
Noun clutter is everywhere
To be fair, writing in other businesses besides financial services has seen this noun-based language creep in, too. Here are more examples typical of information documents from other industries, along with my ‘stripped’ versions:
Loaded: Employees can achieve resolution of these issues through the application of the Human Resource employee dispute resolution policy.
Stripped: You can resolve these issues by following Human Resources’ Policy for Resolving Disputes.
Loaded: Nominees must demonstrate active advocacy to ensure the full and proper implementation and evaluation of identified solutions.
Stripped: Nominees must demonstrate that they will actively advocate to ensure that those responsible to implement and evaluate the solutions will fulfill their roles fully and properly.
Loaded: The statement outlines recommendations for the safe discharge of patients.
Stripped: The statement outlines recommendations to professionals to help them safely discharge patients. (Note that this word does not need anything added to turn it into a noun!)
Loaded: The committee is active in the identification, assessment and treatment of mental disorders.
Stripped: The committee works to identify, assess and treat mental disorders.
So next time you’re creating a communication, and aren’t sure why it doesn’t jump off the page, look for verbs that have been loaded up to create nouns – and see if you can strip ’em down. You’ll be helping your reader grasp your message more quickly and easily.
Back in 2003, I wrote a grad school paper that analyzed the flaws of e-mail communication: how our content and tone can lead to people getting a different meaning than what we intend – and how the results can be disastrous!
Now, that was back when we didn’t yet use handhelds to converse with friends and colleagues. We were still mainly using online Webmail or some kind of ‘e-mail client’ such as Outlook.
So we still hadn’t established so many of the conventions we now use to send words across the ether: No emoticons, shortcuts for txtng or little graphical additions to clarify our intent. We had to rely much more on the tone of our messages to ensure we got across the way we wanted.
What’s this got to do with the Save button?
Through much embarrassing trial-and-error of my own, I’ve learned something about e-mail: One should never fire off a hastily-typed message about something important right away.
Okay, maybe you’ve got one of those jobs where you barely have time to pee, let alone think through every important message before hitting Send. But really, even (and maybe, especially) you will benefit from making the Save button your friend.
Anyone who’s lost a long document because they didn’t save their changes can tell you that the Save button is aptly-named: it even saves your *ss if you’re working under a tight deadline!
Save is your friend, before you click Send…
The same goes for e-mail. Taking a few more seconds to review your message before clicking Send will help you catch more than just typos – you may also often find that you’ve forgotten to enter something critical that would really have helped them understand better. And if you’re like me, you may also realize that you’ve included far more info than they need or can use at that time.
So see if it works for you. Here’s how:
- Blast out your message, fingers a-flying.
- Click on Save (and minimize if you need privacy)
- Go get a tea or your chosen consumable.
- Come back and re-read, with a refreshed focus.
- Edit as needed. Then – and only then – click on Send.
After repeating these steps a few times, you may also find yourself reconsidering whether to send the message at all (really!). It could be that you actually don’t need to respond until you have more time or information. And after all, with all the info we don’t need that we all already receive, this could mean you’re doing someone a favour by not sending it.
Out now is Plain Language in Plain English, by seasoned plain language writerand Plain Language Association International co-founder Cheryl Stephens. With contributions from 18 other plain language practitioners from around the globe (including yours truly), this comprehensive guide takes you through the why and how of plain language, or clear writing, including how to implement and get support for it in your work setting.
To learn more or get your copy, visit plainlanguageinplainenglish.com.
In between the time I’m spending with my infant son, I’ve had the chance to deliver several workshops. As ever their objective is to help people communicate more clearly and ensure their meaning reaches their intended audiences.
A prominent tool that – many will agree – can suck up a lot of time is PowerPoint. It’s now practically mandatory to truck a laptop along each and every time we will be addressing a group. Your audience will simply expect to brace themselves for the obligatory round of slides.
And possibly, if you’re nervous, unprepared or dispassionate about your topic, they’ll also expect to have to jar themselves awake while you read pretty much verbatim their contents. How many times have you sat sweating and groggy at a summer post-lunch meeting, only to find you’re faced with another one of these presentations?
Well, bloggers, authors – heck, even the upper ranks of the U.S. military – have begun to advocate for a return to the kind of presentations where it’s the information and the speaker that need to be compelling, and not the number of fonts, effects and colours you can slap up there onscreen.
If you, like me, are of like mind that we have moved too far toward Death By PowerPoint, keep clicking to read more on how and why this has happened.
Godin, S. (May 27, 2010) Really Bad PowerPoint. Known marketing and business writer Seth Godin discusses the drawbacks of PowerPoint, and proposes his somewhat radical approach to using it (including limiting the number of words per slide to six).
Kawasaki, G. The 10 20 30 rule of PowerPoint (June 8, 2010) in Presentation Magazine. This writer says “a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.” Some good reasoning and links to a host of other views on how to make memorable presentations.
New York Times, (April 27, 2010) We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint… Read about the number of high-ranking U.S. Military officials who are questioning (in some cases, banning) the use of PowerPoint in their meetings and strategy sessions.
Norvig, Peter (May 27, 2010) Gettysburg Cemetery Dedication in PowerPoint format. Tufte (see below) used this as a spoof to demonstrate how the constraints of the PPT can sap the life from otherwise compelling content.
Reynolds, G. (October 13, 2005) Steve Jobs’ presentation style…and all that jazz. In PresentationZen blog. Check out this article and others in the blog for insights on what makes for a good presentation (and how to get his 2008 book).
Sierra, K. (June 8, 2005) Stop your presentation before it kills again! in Creating Passionate Users.
And one book…a bargain at $7!
Tufte, Edward R. (2nd Edition, 2006) The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Connecticut: Graphics Press LLC (More on Tufte’s website, including ordering information…).