Blog in 01 2017.
Words by Suzanne Worthington
Are you already testing your documents to check their ‘reading age’? Well, one company is taking it a step further.
I spotted this piece in the Chartered Insurance Institute’s Journal, about a focus group set up by Covéa Insurance.
They ran a real-life reading age test
Covéa wanted to find out what was tricky to understand in their policy wording. (So they’re already a step ahead in trying to make their wording clearer.) But they did something extra-clever: their focus group participants were all between 11 and 13 years old.
That may sound odd, but their rationale makes sense. If, as the Covéa study quotes, 16 per cent (5.2 million) adults in England have the literacy level of, or below, an 11-year-old – why not just ask 11-year-olds?
Turns out kids don’t like over-complicated documents either
You can only see the Journal online if you’re a subscriber, so here’s what they found.
1. The children were confused about the meaning of words like ‘premium’, ‘excess’ and ‘write-off’.
2. They found it much easier to understand concepts when the researchers used simple words to help them imagine something happening. For example, if you tipped your home upside down and shook it, the stuff that falls out is the ‘contents’. (Neat.)
3. They found information easier to understand when it was in bullet points, tables or graphics. Just like grown-ups, then.
Let’s write off unclear wording
Policy wording, terms and conditions, contracts. If a lawyer can show that a document wasn’t clear enough for a normal reader then the document won’t stand up in court (even if people signed it to say they agree).
Too often, policy writers and lawyers assume too much of their readers. So ask a real person if they understand your wording. Or, better yet, follow Covéa’s lead – ask an 11-year-old.
Every year we go all Mystic Meg and try to predict the word exploding into a boardroom near you any time now. Throughout 2016 we had a few words on our ‘watch list’: the ones we were starting to hear more and more in presentations and CEOs’ speeches around the world.
So this year’s winner is: pivot. (Here’s our Neil talking about it on the BBC’s Wake Up To Money podcast, 39.50 minutes in.)
It’s a word that’s had a big leg-up from a year of political turmoil. With Brexit and Trump’s unexpected win, all kinds of businesses are hastily rethinking their strategies. But announcing to the world that you’ve ‘changed direction’, ‘changed your mind’ or made a U-turn’ all sound worryingly reactive.
That’s the beauty of ‘pivot’. Because it’s a word with a specific scientific meaning, it sounds so much more specific and planned, doesn’t it? Less panic, and more physics.
The ones that nearly made it
Bubbling under were tiger team, a group of experts brought together to solve a business problem, and swim lane, an area of responsibility in business (as in ‘maybe we can all stick to our swim lanes on this one?’). Add those to your bingo card in 2017.
(In 2016 we picked ‘amplify’, and the year before that, the suffix ‘-jack’. Both have gone on to great things.)
The sociolinguistics of your office
Of course, an obvious question is why each year ushers in a new set of business buzzwords. Well, as The Economist’s Lane Greene was saying on our podcast last month, language isn’t just about communication, it’s also about identity. And businesspeople want to sound as much a part of the in-crowd as your average socially awkward teenager. And it takes courage to reject what everyone else is doing at work, just like it was at school.
So, if you’re the person who refuses to budge in 2017 when everyone else is pivoting, we salute you.
In the past week, a lot has been written about the Trump team and George Orwell. It’s all very interesting to me, as a Brit in New York. What would this classic British author make of the USA’s new president?
Not the man, or his policies – this isn’t the place for that. No, what I want to know is: what would the great-grandfather of ‘write like you speak’ have to say about Trump’s particular way with words?
If you haven’t read Politics and the English Language yet – do. It’s full of helpful nuggets: use clear, straightforward language; don’t use 20 words when five will do.
And like all good advice, there’s a handy checklist to follow: ‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus’:
1. ‘What am I trying to say? What words will express it?’
We’ve always told our clients: it doesn’t matter how brilliant your writers are, bad content is bad content. If you don’t actually have anything to say, no amount of wordplay will make people interested.
But in the time Trump campaigned – and even in his inaugural speech – he wasn’t really saying very much at all. He’s a master at never quite getting to the point – he’s just the best at it, truly, the best – and when you come to listen, when you actually sit down and think about what you’ve been told, you realise there was maybe one point in there, perhaps two. Sad!
2. ‘What image will make it clearer?’
Drain the swamp. Build a wall. Lock her up.
The Donald has mastered the art of the vivid mental image, of the kind that’ll really stick in his audience’s brains. Problem is, nobody’s quite sure whether those things are metaphors or promises. Like The Atlantic said, ‘the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally’.
3. ‘Could I put it more shortly?’
Trump’s sentences aren’t sentences. In fact, the phrase ‘word salad’ has been coined to sum up his rolling syntax:
Look, having nuclear – my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart – you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world – it’s true! – but when you're a conservative Republican they try – oh, do they do a number – that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune –
I’ve honestly tried to cut that at a fairly conclusive point. Short it ain’t.
4. ‘Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’
Look at that quote above – isn’t it an ugly bit of text? It’s clunky. Clumsy. It’s full of clauses and sub-clauses opening up one after another, like angry Russian dolls.
But his is a language designed to be spoken, not written. Linguists believe his sentences never really finish because his audience fills in the gaps. He’ll raise his eyebrows at just the right point, they’ll jump to a conclusion, and nobody can hold him to account. Donald goes home happy.
So he’s only hitting one out of George’s four
Aside from Trump’s knack for picture-painting, he openly flouts all the basic ‘good writing’ rules: keep things brief, make your meaning clear, don’t focus too heavily on the negatives.
And that’s just the thing, isn’t it? Most politicians try to stick to those rules in speeches – which is exactly why Trump doesn’t.
Brands often come to us because they want their writing to be distinctive. And while banks and businesses might get in trouble if they start threading ‘alternative facts’ into their annual report, there’s still a lesson to learn here.
If you want to stand out, you’ve got to break a few rules. Sorry George.
What other Trump-isms have you picked up on? Let us know in the comments.
You might have heard Lane Greene on our podcast talking about the weirdly formal language of airlines.
Well, I’d like to invite you to join me on a quick Virgin America flight from San Francisco to San Diego. My TV screen isn’t working (hence the fact that I’m writing this). But there’s no way I can get angry with them, when the flight attendant’s just said to me:
‘I’m really sorry about the screen. But you just let me know if you’re hungry or thirsty: we’re gonna booze you up.’
Put that in your tone of voice guidelines.