painting by Daniel Ridgway Knight c. 1908
Every piece of food is a plain, light brown and is all deep fried. We giggle on the couch because we’d come up with another company slogan from a TV commercial. “Popeyes—the beige food company,” I say. “Our meals aren’t eye-popping at all,” my ten-year-old son finishes. In this case, plain is baaad.
Similarly, when someone describes a person’s looks as “plain”, they are not stirred by anything they perceive as distinct beauty. On the other hand, plain yoghurt is neutral.
For words, though, plain is beautiful in the pure way an unselfconsciously-dressed man or make-up free woman’s face are.
Too complicated, too formal
An email from a parent on my younger boy’s baseball team read,
Enquiring about preparation for this evening’s practice. It is understood that bats will be provided. Nonetheless, is it permitted for my child to utilize his own bat should he wish to? Further, is it assumed that the scheduled times will be adhered to in consideration of potential weather events?
How do you feel about this person? If you thought, “Stuck up, stodgy, cold, old, and white,” you wouldn’t be alone. It turns out that that parent was the most helpful, easy-going, friendly person you’ve ever met.
Why does an eight-year-old-baseball-team email feel like a process document to attend a legal hearing?
We’ve been conditioned to write to impress
Writing is overly formal mostly because our education systems establish then reinforce the need to impress our readers. We’re supposed to show how smart we are using long words and long sentences to demonstrate the breadth of our knowledge and the complexity of our ideas. It motivates us with grades and through word counts.
These motivations begin in elementary and middle school and stay with us right through high school and university. When we arrive in workplaces, most of which have built-in hierarchies and a history of formality, we stay with the model we’d always been rewarded for. Even if we’re no longer actively trying to impress, it’s all we know and it becomes our default.
Talk to me, baby
The key principle behind plain language is communicating with humans, not impressing them. Dozens of techniques and principles do this, but a good chunk of it comes down to writing more how we talk. When we talk, we usually get ideas up front quickly, use words the person we’re talking to understands, keep our sentences shorter, and say “I”, “you”, and “we”. At a high level, amazing things happen. When we write plain, we:
- are more human, and therefore more persuasive
- are more honest
- show the best of our thinking
- empower others to decide and act
- understand ourselves better
In fact, even if the goal is to impress, showing you are all of the things in this list is far more impressive than hiding behind fuzzy ideas with longer words and an incoherent structure.
In case you were wondering, plain language is not dumbing things down to their simplest form, over-simplifying something complex, being less precise or imprecise, or artificially or needlessly avoiding relevant language.
How does this matter to your business?
We make the mistake of equating formality with professionalism. But “professional” is really connecting with the people you work with. You have many audiences and even more situations. Some people you have to work with while others you want to work with. Sometimes you need to say sorry and other times you have to lay down the law. To succeed in each situation, you have to reach that person on a human level.
The next time you write something, spend a bit of time thinking about who you’re writing to, what you’re trying to accomplish, and the best way to go about it. Explain it out loud to an imaginary friend, type as you go, and see what you get.