The power of plain language

Most leaders really struggle to use plain language, especially when it comes to communicating something like strategy or a major change they are leading.

I see this nearly every time I 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 chatting to someone 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 change a success. It also really helps to build trust in you and help you pass the ‘plausibility test’.

With a bit of coaching, guidance and sharing a few stories I 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 about how to make your writing more informal.

I read an article about Irish author Maeve Binchy. She was a hugely successful author who sold over 40 million books, has 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’. She was quoted as saying:

“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.

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