The power of plain language when communicating strategy

Posted by Kevin Bishop - August 1, 2012
Filed in Communication, Leadership

Most leaders really struggle to use plain language, especially when it comes to communicating something like strategy.

Here at Anecdote we specialise in oral storytelling, and we see this every time we work with a group of leaders in helping them tell their strategic story, or when using stories to build employee engagement or when they are trying to influence change in their organisations.

They don’t seem to be able to get past the formal language they are used to using in business.

Instead of talking the way they normally would when they are sharing anecdotes informally, they resort to using big words, abstractions, and terms that people just don’t use in every day speech. And it gets in the way.

Using your own language, your own words, the way you normally speak increases the chances that people understand what you are saying, and what they need to do to make this new strategy a success.

With a bit of coaching, guidance and sharing a few stories we can usually get a group of leaders to tell their stories using plain language. But its much harder when it comes to how they write. Our default when writing is not to write as we talk, but to use much more formal language, complete with lots of complicated terms and big words.

I saw a great little tip yesterday about how to make your writing more informal.

I was reading an article about Irish author Maeve Binchy who passed away yesterday. She was a hugely successful author who has sold over 40 million books, been translated into 37 different languages and, in 2000, was ranked third in the World Book Day poll of favourite authors.

Part of her success has been put down to her informal, almost ‘chatty style’.

“I don’t say I was ‘proceeding down a thoroughfare’, I say I ‘walked down the road’. I don’t say I ‘passed a hallowed institute of learning’, I say I ‘passed a school’.

When she was asked how she did it she said she simply wrote the way she spoke.

That’s the tip. Before you send anything out that you have written, read it aloud. Does it flow? Does it sound like the way you would speak? Are there words in their you would never say in conversation?

If it doesn’t flow, if it doesn’t sound like the way you speak, if you are using words you would never use in conversation – then keep editing.

Maeve Binchy also gave one more reason to use plain language, and to write the way you talk;

“You’re much more believable if you talk in your own voice.”

So move away from the big words, use plain language and you will build trust in you and the messages you are sending.

About Kevin Bishop

3 Responses to “The power of plain language when communicating strategy”

  1. Shawn Callahan Says:

    I just bought Clear and Simple as the Truth (a book on writing style) as recommended by Steven Pinker today (https://twitter.com/sapinker/statuses/231830122792120321) and see the authors argue the same point: “Classic style models itself on speech and can be read out loud properly the first time” (Kindle location 710).

  2. Greg Stewart Says:

    Timely article, Kevin.
    Just this Friday afternoon I had to send back a piece of business writing for re-editing – twice. The guy writing it just couldn’t get away from ultra-formal business language no matter what he tried, even though he wanted to. And yet when he first told me the story over coffee, he was great! It’s why I asked him to write it in the first place.
    The advice I ended up giving him was to tell someone else the story over coffee, record himself on his iPhone and then forget about ‘writing’, and just transcribe what he said.
    Worked a treat.
    Greg

  3. Limor Says:

    Adding to the above – as you would speak to a 12 years old.