In its recent report, Powering Britain’s Future, National Grid made a pledge to communicate with people “clearly in jargon-free language” about the energy challenges facing Britain. Robert Taylor, founder of Robert Taylor Communications, explains why clear communications is an important consideration for businesses.
Communicating in plain English enables organisations to get their messages across, while helping readers understand what can be complicated issues. This is particularly important in the energy sector, where complexity and confusion reign. Why are my bills so high? Who is responsible? What do energy companies need to invest in? What does it all mean for me and my family? What are politicians arguing over?
For an ordinary person it is genuinely complicated, and often emotive. So, even more than most, the energy industry needs to work hard to get its message across. The only way to do that is to talk to readers in their own language, in plain English, and in a context they understand – the real difficulty of paying their bills while worrying about the kind of world that their children and grandchildren will live in. Used well, the right words, as Tom Stoppard wrote, “build bridges across incomprehension and chaos”.
Yet why, in that case, is so much corporate writing, from the energy sector and others, clunky, weird and mundane at best, and jargon-filled and impenetrable at worst? In some cases it can be so bad that it leaves the reader feeling alienated, questioning what on earth the organisation is trying to say.
The reason surely lies in the pressures facing corporate writers. They should, of course, be writing for the eventual reader. In reality they’re often writing for their boss, or for the numerous people involved in approving the copy. Ten drafts later, and with deadlines fast approaching, the original text has been utterly mangled.
Good writing is a product of looking at the subject from the reader’s, not the company’s, point of view. If, for example, your organisation needs to write to a few hundred residents of a street that’s about to be dug up to install a new gas pipe, you should decide, before a word has even been written, who the reader is, what it means for them and what they want and need from the letter (such as basic information about the project and some reassurance). You then determine what you want the reader to do (e.g. park their car in the next street; take a meter reading), and then what the reader needs to know in order to make that action reasonable and logical. Extraneous information is left out.
Good, clear, conversational writing pops out of this simple process.
Of course, a document can still be biffed and battered by the approval process. Many of those involved, including lawyers, will be looking at the communication from the company’s point of view. They’re paid to do so. But that’s why it’s vital that the author stand up for the reader and argue their case. In doing so, they are standing up for plain English.
Clear communication is not just a nice-to-have; it leads to hard business results. A study at Warwick University a few years ago, reported in the Financial Times, concluded that evasive language, jargon and obfuscation signalled a company in trouble, whereas successful companies communicated in plain English. A further study looked at the publications produced by FTSE 100 companies, picked the ten companies with the best writing, and monitored their share price over the following year. On average these ten easily outperformed the FTSE 100 Index.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Think of the methods organisations use to communicate their messages. Nearly all involve the written word. No organisation should complain about a lack of understanding or interest among its stakeholders unless it first ensures that its writing is clear and compelling.
In short, put the reader first.
About Robert Taylor Communications
Founded in 2003, Robert Taylor Communications offers media and writing training, as well as writing, editing and video services. Robert has worked extensively with National Grid over the past two years, training teams throughout the company to communicate using plain English.