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.

Are your sentences too loaded? Try stripping your nouns!

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.

Freed of noun clutter, your sentence more readily springs off the page.

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.

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.

People often complain about the length, legalese and other excesses of Privacy policies. And, feeling thus, many of us will readily admit that we don’t bother reading them (along with those software update agreements so many of us click Accept on without reading word one).

In plain language writing workshops I recently for financial service professionals, I kept hearing that it didn’t matter how clearly you wrote some things, because most people were going to assume they weren’t worth reading and ignore them anyway.

I strongly believe that the more writers of policies and other complex info can show that they’re thinking of the reader, the better chance their customers will start taking time to read it.

So it was nice to get the email from Google this week, saying that they’d taken more than 60 separate privacy policies across their operation and replaced them with just this new one, which will take effect March 1.

Along with their obvious concern for making things simpler by cutting down on length considerably, I also noted on clicking through their previous privacy policies that their tone of voice in this document has also improved over the years. While it was progressive even for 12 years ago – using second-person voice to speak directly to the reader and fairly simple language – you can see the evolution of their customer tone of voice if you look at the 2000 version aside the update. Here’s an example:


Compare the opening lines of the 2000 policy:

Google respects and protects the privacy of the individuals that use Google’s search engine services (“Google Search Services”). Individually identifiable information about you is not willfully disclosed to any third party without first receiving your permission, as explained in this privacy policy (“Privacy Policy”).

To these, from the new one:

There are many different ways you can use our services – to search for and share information, to communicate with other people or to create new content. When you share information with us, for example by creating a Google Account, we can make those services even better – to show you more relevant search results and ads, to help you connect with people or to make sharing with others quicker and easier. As you use our services, we want you to be clear how we’re using information and the ways in which you can protect your privacy.


See how the new one is so much more direct? And given Google’s strength in the marketplace, I’m sure their legal team has poked every hole they can think of into it, and still found the new one to hold up legally as well. I cannot imagine them taking the risk of releasing this without doing their homework. (I’ve seen compliance officers worry much more about wordings that had a lot less risk attached to them should a legal challenge arise.)

What do you think? Leave your comment…

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.

ImageU.S. regulators continue to work toward clearer credit card and loan agreements. Here’s the latest on their plans to test a simplified credit card agreement early next year.

I recently completed a training series where I presented to employees of Canadian banks on how to apply clear communication principles to their credit card and loan agreement documents. This is to help them continue their work to comply with the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (the Canadian regulatory body) clear presentation principles; the regulator will be doing preliminary review of their compliance in early- to mid- 2012.

A couple things I heard over and over from participants were these:

  • That even when they write and design key information and legal text in a customer-friendly way, the customers just plain do not bother to read them. I heard the word ‘customer irritation factor’ used to describe this.
  • That sometimes they suspect that info of being marketing material, and ignore it for that reason.

So I am thinking that those two thirds of cardholders who do not know the pertinent info about their cards may be there in part because they just plain don’t read that stuff, clear or otherwise – so that’s why they don’t understand their benefits and obligations. It’s similar to how we all just scroll down and
click the Accept button without reading the new user agreement when downloading upgrade software.

Can a good experience turn those irritated customers around?

My counter to this is that if the customer only looks at this info once they are having a problem meeting a condition or need to see how it applies to them, then making it easy to grasp will not only ensure they’re clearly informed; it will also leave a lasting impression from the ‘customer experience’ point of view.

It might even follow — over time, of course — that the more accustomed we become to seeing clear information from a company, the more we’re likely to feel less skeptical about reading their documents and using their services in the future.

What’s your take on this? Leave your comment…

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