Friday, July 27, 2012

No More Bulls#!t: Let’s Just Be Straight With Each Other

Lots of people – in fact, too many people – in the legal, medical, academic, government and other professions like to pad their documents with a level of verbosity (a big word for long-winded) that makes them sound really important.

Here’s an example from the Plain Language Network, the website of the international plain-language movement, taken from a life insurance application form:

Before: If you fail to comply with your duty of disclosure and we would not have entered into the contract on any terms if the failure had not occurred, we may void the contract within three years of entering into it. If your non- disclosure is fraudulent, we may void the contract at any time. Where we are entitled to void a contract of life insurance we may, within three years of entering into it, elect not to void it but to reduce the sum that you have been insured for in accordance with a formula that takes into account the premium that would have been payable if you had disclosed all relevant matters to us.

After: If you fail to disclose any relevant matter and we would not offer you insurance if this matter were known, we may within three years (1) void the contract or (2) reduce the sum for which you have been insured. If your nondisclosure is fraudulent, we may void the contract at any time.

I don’t even want to begin to point out everything that’s wrong with the original wording. It just sounds like gobbledygook. Verbal whiplash. The second is an actual statement that anyone who speaks English can understand. At 53 words, it’s also 54% shorter, but with the same meaning. Just imagine how much paper and gigabytes of data would be saved if all written material could be reduced in half but with greater clarity. Why can’t we just say what we mean and bury the B.S.?

I ask this because I am tired of having to slog through mountains of legalese every time I have to protect my rights to the name of my business, ThinkInk. Or trudge across a swamp of medical-ese any time I or one of my kids has to see a new doctor. Or try to pick out the real meat in client work that a journalist or media outlet would salivate over and ignore some of the bloviated doublespeak.  

It boggles my mind to even try to think how much time – and, after all, time is money – we waste just trying to make sense of the hefty documents that are such an inescapable part of our lives. Recently I came across a Bulldog Reporter article about how the Veterans’ Benefits Administration saved $4.4 million just by editing one letter that was sent to the country’s millions of veterans.

Let me repeat that little jaw-dropper. Revising one letter = saving $4.4 million. Can you imagine the sums of money government wastes just on verbal baggage?

And that brings me back to the world of marketing and PR. Granted, when you are marketing something, B.S. – or its kinder, gentler cousin, “spin,” is almost impossible to avoid completely. But, considering all the documents we produce – pitches, press releases, whitepapers, articles, thought leadership – I wonder how much time and money we, like government, are misusing. Our job in representing clients comes down to shopping a message to media and achieving that goal in the most cost-conscious way possible. Not just for our own budgets, but also for the people we represent.

While many of us may be afraid of sounding unprofessional if we use plain language, I think we’d do well to remember that, in the end, everything we do comes down to communication. Why not try to do that as effectively as possible? All we’d be doing is saving time and money while cutting sesquipedalian language from our copy. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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