I sat in a workshop in a branding agency. The boardroom was nursery school chic. No central table. Just undersized shared desks, thick crayons, primary coloured markers and bowls of fizz bars. A designer equating creativity with kindergarten. ‘Ground-breaking.’ As Miranda Priestly, the devil wearing Prada, would say.
The women were dressed in ‘boyfriend’ trendiness. No dresses. Femininity painted in pink on toenails peeping out of the same brand of espadrilles. The men were boyfriend trendy too. But I didn’t see their toes.
They were launching ‘Communal Commuter Convergence Terminals’ in less than 10 days. Did I know what that meant? Blank walls circled us. Piercing eyes closed in. ‘Should I?’ I asked. No, I was forgiven. ‘How could you know? You’re not in the business.’
Laptops perched on laps. ‘Not enough space’ on the clever tables. Frantic fingers punched data into iPads, iPhones and Blackberrys. Time, they said, was the enemy. Not enough time to learn, create, talk. In fact it was almost a ‘miracle’ they were there. I couldn’t ‘possibly’ understand the concept of deadlines in ‘their business’. They were Very Busy People. ‘And you’re here to teach us to write better.’ Really? Yes. ‘As quickly as possible.’
I watched the texting and tweeting, and heard names of cities visited, and missing colleagues, like Susan, who was at ‘The BBB Conference’ at ‘head office in New York and would have loved to be here’, and passport issues, and lots of Very Busy People JARGON.
They were right. I don’t understand. But I’m not in their business. I started by making the Very Busy People switch off their electronic umbilical cords.
Finally, I had their attention.
‘I’m Amanda,’ I said. ‘I teach people to write. To communicate. To get a message across by showing and not telling.’
I handed out workbooks with simple pens. ‘You have five minutes to describe the wall behind you. Don’t turn around. Please. And use words that show me. Don’t tell me.’
Ten pairs of Very Troubled Eyes stared at me. Dazed. This wasn’t part of the Very Busy People plan.
‘You can do it in three minutes if you don’t have enough time,’ I offered.
P.S. Communal Commuter Convergence Terminals are taxi ranks, and should remain just that. BBB is short for Better Branded Bespoke, and is Not Very Good Jargon. (It is also a figment of my imagination but not far from the truth.)
James Michener said, “Good writing consists of trying to use ordinary words to achieve extraordinary results.” We write to convey messages. Great writers use simple words to the best effect. Say lucky, rather than fortuitous, book, instead of publication, a lie, rather than an untruth, ideal, instead of optimal and possible, rather than feasible.
Simple words work. Only use jargon if you must. Take time to make sure you’re writing for your audience and not your ego. It’s the only way to communicate.
Find out more about The Plain Language Programme – writing for business.