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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?
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.