Why a familiar tone enhances complex advice

A tale of two documents

The two winning entries from last year’s Plain English Awards threw an intriguing spotlight on the critical influence of tone in formal writing.

Tone is a component of style, and its job is to set the reader’s mood. Tone is the difference between I would like to review your performance and I’d like to see how you’re getting on. Different tones spark different moods.

Audience mood is important because information tends to be more compelling when we find it easy to understand and we feel confident about the communicator’s capability. This is only the sixth sentence of this article, but hopefully I have already put you at ease through my choice of a familiar tone. The photo (below, of me being interviewed on Breakfast) is there to boost your confidence in my capability.

Still image of Simon Hertnon discussing the 2016 Plain English Awards results with Hilary Barry and Daniel Faitaua on Breakfast (8 November 2016).

Simon Hertnon (right) discussing the 2016 Plain English Awards results with Hilary Barry and Daniel Faitaua on Breakfast (8 November 2016).

I have observed over many years that most people who write for a living (think marketers, popular science authors, professional bloggers) opt for a familiar tone, but most people who write as a part of their job (think advisers, managers, administrators) opt for an impersonal tone. This difference represents an opportunity that is sharply illustrated by last year’s Award winners.

One winning entry illustrated why the default writing style of business and government – which I would characterise as formal, exhaustive, and impersonal – regularly fails to meet the needs of today’s information-overloaded reader.

The other winning entry provided an exemplar for what business and government writers can and should do to improve the quality and usefulness of their writing. That is, to employ a familiar, confident, no-nonsense tone.

Is the tone of your writing impersonal or familiar? Let’s explore the implications.

The 2016 Plain Language Awards comprised just 2 categories instead of the usual 11 (due to New Zealand’s hosting of the Clarity2016 plain language conference). The two contrasting category winners were:

People’s Choice Best Plain English Communication
Won by New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) for ISDS and Sovereignty, a report to Export New Zealand

People’s Choice Worst ‘Brainstrain’ Communication
Won by Parliamentary Service for Business Process Coordinator, a job description

Both documents are about 1700 words long (that’s about five A4 pages), but there the similarities end.

The job description

Parliamentary Service’s job description displays the typical characteristics of government writing – it is indeed formal, exhaustive, and impersonal – and is made worse by being overly complex. From our judges’ comments:

… a classic example of the myth that a verbose and impersonal document is somehow more professional than a concise and engaging one.

This 1700-word document contains just 16 sentences, but their average length is 34 words, with the worst sentence clocking in at 62 words!

The document’s focus is on the organisation and department rather than the role and reader.

In addition to the 16 mega-sentences, the document contains 70 bullet points. One of the most complex is this 37-word puzzle:

Work collaboratively with the Advisor to ensure data management practises will assure data integrity and maintain a quality reporting standard through the provision of advice to business units on data handling, data extraction and reporting, as required

Even within this single bullet point, the writer is stuck in the mode of exhaustively listing stuff. There are nine nouns (or noun phrases): Advisor, data management practises, data integrity, quality reporting standard, provision, business units, data handling, data extraction, reporting.

It is a well-known and very-well-ignored fact that humans can, on average, hold about seven items in their short term memory. A single bullet point containing nine nouns is highly unlikely to be comprehensible. Add four activities (working, ensuring, assuring, and advising) and incomprehensibility is all but guaranteed.

You will likely have noticed other issues with the bullet point text. For example, in a possibly sub-conscious desire to sound clever, the author opted for embellished phrasing such as ‘work collaboratively with’ (instead of ‘collaborate with’) and ‘through the provision of advice’ (instead of ‘provide advice’).

Our judging panel concluded that the writer’s primary goal could not have been to communicate a comprehensible set of useful messages. Perhaps the writer would have argued that the bullet points are effectively reference lists. But then what is a reader actually supposed to read and understand? The 16 mega-sentences?

Perhaps the writer had already written a punchy, easy-to-read advertisement for the role and the job description was purely for reference. That may well have been the case, but even reference material needs to be easily comprehensible. Pleasingly, Parliamentary Service accepted their award with good grace and humour (see the video) and a pledge to do better.

The report

Let’s now turn to the NZIER report. From our judges’ comments:

The NZIER report is a breath of fresh air to readers used to struggling through lengthy, jargon-filled advisory documents. The authors have done the work — as expert advisors should always do — of crafting a complex topic into simple but sophisticated written advice.

If this style of advisory writing was the norm rather than the exception, decision makers across New Zealand would not only be better informed, they would have more time and energy available to think about what to do with the advice they receive.

If you write as part of your job, I recommend you read this report. You can download the report from the NZIER website.

To quickly illustrate just how different the writing style is from that employed in job description, here is a passage from the report:

Are arbitration hearings carried out behind closed doors?

Increasingly not.

Many hearings are now highly transparent. Some are open to the public and are available to be viewed online. New Zealand’s FTA with Korea requires ISDS proceedings to be open to the public, for example.

This passage contains 5 sentences and 45 words, with an average sentence length of just 9 words. (Note, the abbreviations – FTA, Free Trade Agreement, and ISDS, Investor-State Dispute Settlement – were both spelt out earlier in the report.) Despite a complex topic, the sentences are simple, confident, and easy to understand.

Certainly, the report contains longer sentences, but its average sentence length is still less than half that of the job description.

As the passage illustrates, the report’s tone is familiar; but I can assure you its overall style is not informal. The report contains data (presented in 1 table and 2 infographics), 5 legal quotations (consistently presented in bold italic orange text), and 19 footnotes. It is thorough, but not stuffy.

The opportunity

In summary, the NZIER report illustrates how even complex advisory writing can be succinct, simple, and highly effective. It proves that formal content and a familiar tone can be expertly combined into writing that is persuasive because of its sophisticated simplicity. Overstated complexity creates confusion, not clarity.

As I mentioned earlier, I encourage you to read the NZIER report. It’s a goldmine of good technique and I now include a copy of it in the course materials of my Writing Essentials course. I also encourage you to think about your own writing style. Are you stuck on auto-pilot, studiously listing information rather than creatively crafting a useful message?

Perhaps only habit is stopping us from making a familiar tone the new norm of business and government writing.

 


Don’t put off improving how you write, or how you manage writers. Attend Simon’s two public courses at Victoria University Professional and Executive Development

Victoria University iconSimon’s courses:
Managing for Optimal Documents
Writing Essentials


Entries for the 2017 Plain English Awards close 31 August.

The three ingredients of cost-effective writing

After more than a decade of working with other knowledge workers, as both a consultant and writing teacher, I have concluded that the cost-effectiveness of our writing outputs boils down to three crucial ingredients.

  1. Clearly define goals and briefs
  2. Only allow essential contributors to work on the output
  3. Appropriately design the information

These three ingredients result from behaviours – from what people do, not from what people think or say people should do – and while I don’t know anyone who advocates for their opposites, a team that is openly and consistently expected to achieve these three activities will produce better outputs for lower costs.

To help you to achieve these activities in the writing work you are involved with, here is a brief clarification of each one.

#1 Clearly define goals and briefs

The success of any activity is intimately influenced by the quality of its goal. If the goal is clear and compelling, the activity is more likely to be successful – and achieved for a reasonable cost – than if the goal is unclear or arbitrary.

A clear goal is the starting point of a clear brief, and a clear brief is an essential tool for anyone wanting to write as effectively and efficiently as possible.

If a brief is loose in any way, a writer will write more than is necessary – and take longer to do so – and the superfluous material will either dilute the effectiveness of the document if it isn’t edited out, or further increase the cost if it is.

So, the quality of a document (or other form of writing output) depends on the performance of both briefer and writer. In my experience, organisations that appropriately re-value the influence of briefs enjoy tremendous productivity gains.

#2 Only allow essential contributors to work on the output

A loose brief is a recipe for wastage with a single writer, and that influence grows exponentially with every extra person permitted to contribute to the output.

Let me make an important distinction here. I am not talking about the number of people contributing to decisions about whatever goes into an output – a five-person brainstorming session may identify optimal content more effectively and efficiently than a sole writer – I am talking about the number of people actually writing, reviewing, editing, and authorising the output.

In government departments, where writing teams are the norm, improving this process represents a huge opportunity for improving the cost-effectiveness of writing outputs and, due to the prevalence of such work, the entire organisation. In my experience, it is still common for people who have not received the brief to be invited to edit or rewrite material, which defeats the purpose of the brief and leads to unnecessary and inconsistent content, and expensive rework. Not surprisingly, it also tends to frustrate the briefed writer (or writers).

Every hour not spent rewriting is another hour available to think-up better content in the first place. Excellent writers tend to think and consult widely, and draft and polish sharply.

#3 Appropriately design the information

In today’s information overloaded context, pretty much all information needs to be designed for consumption.

If you think of information like clothing, it makes sense that if you have a multitude of options for what clothing to buy and wear, you will choose something well designed rather than merely functional. The same distinction – and choice – applies to information.

Clothing stores often contain a ‘basics’ range, so not everything has to be overtly designed, but unless an item of clothing is designed for comfort, ease of use, and attractiveness, as well as for its basic utility, it is unlikely to be bought or worn.

Too many documents are difficult to read, difficult to navigate, and boring to look at. They are not tailored, so they are passed over by all but those paid to labour through them – an excessively costly exercise.

So, I encourage you not to rely on auto-pilot, that is, writing how you have always written or as you are implicitly instructed by an out-of-date template. Rather, pop your designer hat on every time you write and, without reinventing the wheel or flouting branding guidelines, design your valuable information appropriately for its purpose, audience, and context.

 


Don’t put off improving how you write, or how you manage writers. Attend Simon’s two public courses at Victoria University Professional and Executive Development

Victoria University iconSimon’s courses:
Managing for Optimal Documents
Writing Essentials


Meet Simon at Clarity2016, the plain language conference for law, business, and government, Wellington, 3–5 November 2016.