This December, we’re looking at the wordy quirks of the festive season with a new advent video every day. Today’s video was guess the corporate carol.
Please ensure you achieve your deliverables this quarter by installing a dual-purpose pneumonia prevention fashion utensil below my seasonal decoration device.
I’ve met all of my relevant objectives this year.
So please arrive promptly this PM.
And the answer is...
Slip a sable under the tree, for me.
Been an awful good girl, Santa baby.
So hurry down the chimney tonight.
The moral of the carol?
You might think corporate language is what’s expected of you, or the way to make you sound smart – but in comparison to the real tune, it really does sound a bit silly.
You know, there’s a massive irony with the law. As lawyers try to cover all the bases, they often make it harder to understand what they’re talking about. Which creates loopholes and ambiguity. And that stuff bleeds over into Ts and Cs, contracts, and the nooks and crannies of business writing.
Who are you writing for?
But we don't need to cover every single eventuality every time we put pen to paper. Credit your readers with a little common sense.
My mum’s a lawyer. And she taught me about this guy: the man on the Clapham omnibus. In law, he’s the benchmark for a reasonable man (or woman). He’s how you can judge whether somebody has behaved, well, reasonably. He’s not overly educated – just reasonably. Not overly smart – just reasonably.
He’s just an average guy.
As long as he’s happy with what you did: it’s okay. Was what you just said offensive? Well, the man on the Clapham omnibus doesn’t think so. So you’re off the hook. Did you make sense? The man on the Clapham omnibus thinks so. So yes.
Write for someone with some common sense
To make sure people can understand you, you need to be simple and clear. And that’s easy: just get to the point. Stop confusing matters with extraneous words and caveats. Stop using passive sentences. Basically, if you’re writing a contract and you don’t want somebody to do something – just say so.
Don’t write like this (which I actually read somewhere):
All information regarding the employer, the employer’s family and the employer’s domestic or personal circumstances is strictly confidential and cannot be discussed with a third party without the employer’s specific permission, or in an emergency situation.
When you could just say:
Everything about your employer is private. So you can’t talk about it, unless they let you or it’s an emergency.
Everyone knows ‘talk’ means they can’t write about it, shout about it, whisper it, tweet it, video it or anything else. It’s straightforward. You don’t need to rattle off a list to explain what you mean. They get it.
The man on the Clapham omnibus would certainly understand. And that’s all that matters.
I don’t like smileys. It’s not that I’m a miserable so-and-so, it’s just I have this old-fashioned theory that if my writing’s going to make someone smile, the words’ll do it on their own. The reader’s not going to need a prompt. That would be the literary equivalent of holding up an ‘applause’ sign to a TV audience.
But I see smileys in all sorts of unexpected places. Web chats about unlocking a phone. Tweets about giving your electricity supplier a meter reading. Invitations to link up with someone I’ve worked with on LinkedIn. Feedback forms from someone who’s just been to one of our workshops. And emails. They sneak into emails all the time.
Why do we need these open brackets, lonely colons and stranded hyphens to inject a bit of personality into our writing? ‘It’ll make me sound like a real person’, I’ve been told, or ‘it’s okay, because the customer frowned first’. But I’m not convinced we need emoticons at all. If, say, I was in a mobile phone store swapping a SIM card from one phone to another, I wouldn’t smile non-stop at the customer. Nor would I wink at them, or stick my tongue out. So why do it virtually?
If there is such a thing as emoticon etiquette when writing at work, then in my mind it goes something like this:
- If you’re talking to a customer, then never smile first.
- Smile, and only smile.
- If it’s a colleague, well, you probably know them better than I do and can make your own mind up.
And if you’re writing to me? Don’t take it personally, but I never smile back.
We’re always telling people to write more like you speak. Search for the phrase on our blog and you’ll find plenty of entries (one of which Neil wrote just last week).
Most people accept it as a helpful bit of advice, but others rail against it. They worry it’ll make them sound too informal. Unprofessional. Flippant, even. This latest entry to our write like you speak anthology is my response to them.
Picture the scene: it’s 50,000BC. Ig and Ug are hunting deer, and Ug’s managed to disturb a pack of woolly mammoths. Which of these warnings should Ig try?
a. ‘Watch out!’
b. ‘It is recommended that you adopt a movement strategy given the proximity of that large elephantine animalian solution!’
If you answered a, congratulations. Ug will go on to live a happy life and bear many children.
If you answered b, let’s just say there’s a lot of skewering.
For the likes of Ig and Ug, spoken language was – among other things – a survival tool. It was the best way to get a thought into someone’s head. Since then it’s grown in tandem with human progress, and it’s been chipped and shaped and moulded to do its job efficiently, clearly, brilliantly.
It’s the most nuanced and natural form of communication we have. It comes with pronunciation, emphasis, rhythm, volume adjustment and variable pace. It comes with eye contact, so people can hear what you’re saying in the full context of who you are.
And then there’s writing. An artificial series of squiggles that only vaguely correspond to the thoughts in our heads. At most, it’s had 5,000 years to evolve. Spoken language, if you believe Noam Chomsky, has had about 100,000.
Yes, you can choose to write on a banana if you want to show you’re quirky. Or write with letters cut from different magazines if you want to show that you’re trying not to show anything at all.
But there’s nowhere near the same amount of context, of choice, of colour.
And that, in a nutshell, is why writing more like you speak isn’t flippant. It isn’t unprofessional. It’s just human nature.
In this age of the frequent flyer, where we’re all constantly zipping off to Ljubljana for stag dos or popping to Barcelona for long, tapas-soaked weekends, it’s become deeply uncool to pay any attention whatsoever to the in-flight safety instructions. Lift your gaze from your Kindle even momentarily and you might as well buy a uniformed teddy bear and king-sized Toblerone and have done with it [Hey, what’s wrong with Toblerone? – Ed].
The airlines must be sick of people’s heads bent over ‘electronic devices’ while they point out the exits. So they’re coming up with ever-more elaborate twists on their safety videos to grab their passengers’ attention.
First we had Air New Zealand’s Lord Of The Rings-themed epic. Now Virgin America have gotten in on the act with this Glee-style musical extravaganza. They’ve got dancing air hostesses! A singing nun! Kids doing comedy raps! There’s even a Daft Punk-style robot breakdown (my favourite bit).
It must have cost them a bomb. And they’ve clearly put a lot of work into the script; their wonderfully cheeky translations of standard airline lingo are pure Virgin.
‘If your vest doesn’t fill, honey, no big deal
Blow into the red tube and you’ve got a refill.’
Genius. And what better way to get people to ‘remain seated’ than this:
‘So won’t you buckle your seatbelt, put it on tight
And keep your (whoo) in that chair until we turn off that light.’
Brilliant stuff. Except. Except.
Every now and then there’s a spoken bit – presumably to make sure people take in the really important instructions amongst all the jazz hands and frou-frou. And what do we see there? Passive sentences. Formal words.
‘Seatbelts should be fastened whenever you’re seated.’
‘Personal electronic devices should be turned off and properly stowed.’
‘FAA regulations require that all guests comply with the lighted information signs, posted placards and instruction of the in-flight team.’
I mean, what in the name of Cee-Lo is a ‘posted placard’? Who uses the word ‘stowed’ in normal conversation? Who are the FAA and why are they getting all Robocop on our asses?
My biggest objection to this kind of language is that it’s so unclear – especially to non-native English speakers who, it stands to reason, you’re more than likely to find on planes.
Yes, there are things airlines have to say by law. But as far as we can tell, the federal regulations only tell the airlines what messages they have to give passengers – they don’t specify any actual wording. So as long as they get the content right, they can theoretically do what they like with the tone.
Virgin are already inviting people to audition for their next safety video. I hope they look at all the words next time: the boring legal bits as well as the tongue-in-cheek song lyrics.
Because our research shows that what really makes people switch off is fusty, passive, formal language. And all the song and dance in the world ain’t gonna change that.