Make it meaningful so it’s plain for all to see

Few people would dispute the need for design businesses to write clearly. But what does that mean in practice? John Simmons sketches out his ideas

Have words finally come to stay in the world of design? To bask in the sunshine of attention? Two weeks ago Robert Jones and Adrian Shaughnessy entered the debate and both came down on the side of calling a spade a spade and using plain English (DW 5 September). And now I’m asked to write about a new book called Powerwriting by Suzan St Maur. ‘Powerwriting’ sounds like something we could all do with. Like ‘Guinness is good for you’ it seems to contain a promise, if not a guarantee. Here we are offered ‘the hidden skills you need to transform your business writing’. St Maur writes from the other side of the Atlantic, a fact that I don’t hold against her. But I do hold her responsible for inflicting words on us like ‘bizcomm’, ‘umpty-dump’ and ‘outroduction’. Am I being over-sensitive? Suze (as she prefers to be known) assures me: ‘In England where self-deprecation and extreme modesty are the required penances to be paid by the successful, audiences warm to speakers who tell stories against themselves.’ So, perhaps, I should pay my penance and tell you how I was reading this book and woke up in Cockfosters at the end of the Piccadilly Underground line. It’s a terrible shame. I really believe in the written word, and I want others to share my belief. But I struggle to fall in cheerfully behind the banner of plain English. Or as Suze puts in Powerwriting: short, straight and simple. I’m sorry, this doesn’t make my heart swell with joy and pride. As creative businesses, should we not set our aspirations higher? My argument is not with the need to write clearly. Clear will generally be effective. But there is a danger in striving just for plain, short, straight and simple if the result is dull and boring. Dull and boring will be the effect of writing that has no real personality. Whether we’re writing a proposal to win new business or writing words that will be read on a pack in a supermarket, we have two main objectives to achieve. The first is clear communication of meaning, which is absolutely fundamental. The second is engaging communication that gives your reader a sense of your personality, perhaps even a smile to show you have something in common. And we need to do both these things if we are going to succeed, because each will reinforce the other. If I can still use the B-word (sorry, Adrian, it does have a meaning), people do not necessarily want simple brands, but they are interested in brands that make their lives simp ler. This means that brands have to work harder – primarily through their words – to deliver great service. We require much more of brands now than ‘Trust me, I’m big’. We ask brands to connect with us emotionally, to move, surprise and entertain us. Brands can make us laugh. And they use words to do so. Look at Innocent, Lush and Egg. There is simplicity there, but it is never plain. So let’s use English to avoid plainness rather than to achieve it. To be fair to St Maur, she is all for humour: ‘There are some good joke books available in bookstores (including one of two that are written by yours truly).’ She gives examples of how to transform an ordinary joke into one that sounds crafted for a particular audience. The examples can leave you a little puzzled: Original It’s nice to be addressing a live audience today. Yesterday I gave a talk to a budget committee. Adaptation I must say I’m so pleased to be talking to a live audience today. Yesterday I presented my new business plan to the loans panel at xxx bank. It is simple. But it should never be simplistic. Writing is thinking. As individuals, as companies, we depend on our ability to think. Writing is a way to express our thinking and a way to develop our ability to think. We should all do more of it, and practise it all the time. There are five principles I’d suggest to help develop your writing. Follow them, apply them to letters, proposals, briefs, business writing of every kind, and you might in future have to become self-depracatingly English about your entrepreneurial success. But, please, never use that awful phrase ‘yours truly’ – you’ll find ‘me’ is shorter, straighter and simpler. And, yes, you can try jokes. Have you heard the one about going to talk to the budget committee? Five principles to improve your writing 1 Be clear – challenge your writing to achieve greater clarity through editing 2 Write as if you were speaking to a friend – but carry on editing 3 Always listen to what you write – hear your words inside your head 4 Express your interest in your reader’s concerns 5 Don’t always take the safest, plainest option – take pleasure in language

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