Join Judy Steiner-Williams for an in-depth discussion in this video Problems from writing that is not clear, part of Writing in Plain English.
- Ever heard the expression as clear as mud? It's intended as a humorous, or a sarcastic way of saying something is difficult to understand. Or, entirely unclear. The expression gives us a visual image, you're looking into a muddy pond and certainly can't see the bottom. Or you see, perhaps, a murkiness. If you'd lost something in that muddy pond you won't be able to retrieve it easily because you can't even see it. Seeing through mud is impossible.
Think about that analogy when thinking about the problems created when writing is not clear. It's murky, at best. And completely impossible to understand, at worst. So let's examine three problems created when your writing doesn't meet the plain English guidelines. First, it may not even be read. That's certainly a problem, whether you are the writer, or the intended reader. As the writer, you're giving information about a new company policy that employees need to know.
But if it's not read, the employees won't follow the new procedure because they don't know what it is. And that's the problem for the intended readers. They don't know what the new policy is. Second, it's likely to be not understood at all. Or maybe even more dangerous to be misunderstood. Or to cause communication barriers which result in communication breakdowns of various kinds. Third, not using plain English is costly. Some studies show that companies that have highly effective internal communication had 47% higher total returns to the shareholders and more engaged employees.
In addition, a work foundation study showed that engaged employees increased profits by an average of $2400, per employee, per year. Additionally, a gallop poll study shows that 70% of employees are not engaged resulting in 450 to 550 billion dollars a year in lost productivity. Those are some distubring numbers. Let's look at another way to estimate the costliness of unclear communication for 20 employees and one boss.
If an unclear message is sent to 20 employees and each makes $15 an hour, and each employee spends an hour trying to understand the message. And, each sends three or four additional emails trying to be sure the message is understood correctly. So, guesstimate another 20 hours and then add another 10 hours for the salaried person at $25 an hour, having to respond and clarify. That could be close to $1000 for one unclear message.
Now let's conservatively estimate that 10 of those types of messages are sent a week. That's $10,000. And, what if the same thing happens when sending external messages? No dollar amount can be put on lost credibility, negative impression of the company, or even lost accounts. The study we looked at earlier showed that over $26,000 per worker, per year, is lost because of communication barriers. The point, of course, no matter how you compute it, not using plain English costs a lot of money.
So when you write in plain English the reader spends less time trying to understand the message, or having to respond to the unclear message. Fewer communication breakdowns and misunderstandings result. Morale and customer confidence are higher. So how is mud made clear? Well, sometimes you have to wait until it settles to the bottom. Sometimes it's too thick so you just have to wade through it and try the best you can to get to the bottom. And sometimes, the effort is too much.
The same is true of that muddy murky writing. The reader keeps trying to make sense of it. The reader takes action based on a best guessed interpretation. Or trying to make sense of it just takes too much effort so it's ignored entirely. All of these create problems for both the writer and the reader. So plain English is a solution to avoiding all that mud in the first place.
If you can write in plain English, you can save time, save money, and save face in communications. Start watching to learn how to make your writing more "plain": stronger, clearer, and more concise.
Lynda.com is a PMI Registered Education Provider. This course qualifies for professional development units (PDUs). To view the activity and PDU details for this course, click here.
The PMI Registered Education Provider logo is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.
- Explain how to make your writing clear, concise, and straightforward.
- Recognize the average reading level for most audiences.
- Identify commonly overused words.
- Recognize how strong verbs can help avoid passive writing.
- Explore the benefits of deleting extra words.
- Define “weasel words.”