If, like me, you wear glasses, then you know what it’s like when they get messed up with dirt and grease. You struggle to see the fine details of things; sometimes you don’t notice traffic which can be quite dangerous. It steadily gets worse. Then you remember and get out the cleaning fluid and the cloth. Presto! Things are clear again.
The trouble is that when we are communicating with other people, the same thing happens. We drift slowly into obscuring what we are trying to say, especially if we’re writing. That’s because we’re not getting instant feedback from our audience, so we don’t notice. And it doesn’t just happen over a day or so; people can gradually drift into bad ways that mean their communications aren’t hitting the mark.
Let me give you an example. Patrick is a really good friend of mine, (and he’s a visiting Fellow at a major business school), and some years ago he wrote a book on systems thinking in managing change. Great, I thought, I must get a copy! After all, he’s an expert in this area. But when I began reading the book, I realized there was a problem. I could hardly get past the first page! Why? Because whoever edited the publication did a really bad job. I’m no slouch when it comes to technical language – but really? Fifty-word sentences full of long words? What were Wiley, the publishers, thinking? (Actually, to be truthful, I believe they weren’t thinking at all.) It wasn’t just sentence length; there were typos all over the place, as well. A case of greasy lenses with spots of dirt.
I take the lens cleaner to my writing every few paragraphs. I use the tools in Word to drive down the Flesch-Kincaid Score. Personally, I aim for it to average below 10. Yes, even when I’m writing for an adult audience with serious content, I keep it at a 9th grade level. That way, it’s easy for everyone to read and to digest, but isn’t simplistic.
For a large part of my time, I’m working with organizations to drive through transformational change. That means getting everyone on board with the program. And there’s no way that’s happening if they don’t understand what we’re talking about to begin with. One of the other things I do in my spare time is translate medical research papers from German into English. Now, let it be said, the Germans are top of the tree when it comes to complex sentence structure. Add in the complexities of technical language and medical terms and it gets gross!
That highlights the problem: the whole point of a research paper is that people can read and understand it. And the reason these papers are always published in English is because the world speaks that language. Only, for a majority of them, it’s NOT their native language. So why would you make it complicated and only understandable by someone with really high levels of skill in the language? I keep reminding the German Association for Medical Education (the GMA) to tell their researchers who submit for publication to do the basics. But you could equally point the same accusation at others.
Just look at how incomprehensible an End User Licence Agreement (EULA) from Microsoft is. Who’s gonna read that stuff? It might be understandable that techies (of whatever flavor) get caught up in their own work, but it’s not acceptable that they don’t go the extra mile to ensure others can read and understand.
So what are you writing about? And who is it for? Could a 15-year-old kid read and understand what you are saying? If not, then it’s too complicated for most adults as well. Remember that folks don’t want to have to work their brains overtime when they’re reading. They’ll go find something easier to do, and you’ve just lost your audience. Also, those guys aren’t experts in what you are trying to say – that’s your gig. So, bring them gently into your world by making things a little easier on their eyes and brains. USE THE LENS CLEANER on your script.
It also translates into presentations. I much prefer graphics to a PowerPoint full of words. You can actually draw a complex picture of the story you are trying to tell, then deconstruct it to give you a build sequence. Folks remember pictures far better than words, and they will fix that in their mind. If you want to see me in action on this, then follow this link to a presentation given in 2011 to a conference on language technology, where I was putting the case for bilingualism in education: https://vimeo.com/26675051
On a lighter note, just think about what kind of things you like to read. Whether that’s fiction or the Washington Post. What about the language appeals to you? How easy is it to get your head around what’s being said? What pictures does it bring into your mind that make it memorable? I’m sure, like me, you build pictures when you read a novel, which can be disturbing if that is then made into film and the pictures don’t match. I had that problem with the Ents in Lord of the Rings. They were nowhere near what I imagined from Tolkien’s text. I hate it when my glasses get smeared, but at least I am the only one to blame and can do something about it. If someone else smears my vision with grease and I can’t remove it, then I’m not going to be a happy bunny.
Don’t let that person be you.
Rob Wherrett is the principal of a consulting practice focusing on major change for SMEs. His website is at https://robwherrett.com