Crash Course in... Communicating in clear English

Eight ways to ensure your company brochures actually make sense...

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

You've been thumbing through a set of your firm's product brochures and discovered that you can barely understand a word. What must your customers make of it? Perhaps it's time to have a look at all your written communications.

Conduct a review. Ask your customers whether they find your literature easy to understand; get staff to say what they think about communications in the organisation; and find out how many customer complaints are about lack of clarity. Bringing in a fresh pair of eyes from outside can help.

Start at the top. Poor communication costs time and money in wasted meetings, re-writes and unnecessary customer contacts, and can damage your reputation. Get buy-in at the top level, since this is where the style of communication (good or bad) is usually set. 'If your senior people are seen to be going on a course, those lower down will not be insulted by being asked to improve their use of English,' says business communication and training specialist Nigel Grant.

Change your culture. Says Marie Clair of the Plain English Campaign: 'People are often too embarrassed to admit that they don't understand what someone is talking about. But good communication is about being honest; and ensuring your audience does understand you must be a priority.'

Tools can help. A style guide covering difficult words and points of grammar, and setting out when specific terms should be used, provides an excellent reference point. 'If you use technical terms in a document, spell them out in full first time round, and include a glossary at the front,' says Clair.

Learn the ABC. The ABC of good English is 'Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity', but if you want to be effective, says Grant, you must also learn how to structure your writing and adopt the right tone. 'People who are confident write to communicate, not to impress.'

Pitch to your audience. Technical language - or jargon - may be totally unsuitable to communicate with the general public but appropriate in other scenarios where the audience is technically literate.

Promote the cause. A 'wall of shame' - preferably anonymous - can show everyone the mistakes to avoid. But there's no reason why you can't publish examples of good writing alongside. English-language champions can disseminate good practice and enthuse their colleagues.

Bring in quality control. 'In a larger organisation, the communications department can play a role in monitoring the quality of writing,' says Grant, 'even though it can't control everything that is put out.' He suggests a peer review system whereby your more significant documents are given to a colleague to check before they're published.

Do say: 'If there's any part of this document you don't understand, please let us know.'

Don't say: 'Going forward, our non-verbal communications strategy will leverage our expertise in information distribution to deliver value to all our stakeholders.'

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