There were a lot of talks included in this activity, but that wasn’t a problem with this one because there was a strong focus on communications and language (Alan Siegel, Sandra Fisher-Martins, and Rory Sutherland) whether directly or indirectly. John Maeda’s talk is about overall simplicity, so that one I was able to use more in my personal life as well. All in all, quite a focused combination.
So what are the main things that I discovered/rediscovered during this process and where to from here with the simplicity journey?
Language is not simple
This is particularly true in government and in government communications. We seem to take a lot of words to say things that should be, in theory, very simple to explain. To understand why you need to understand some of the issues around this. For me I think that the following characteristics of government are to blame:
- Avoiding misinterpretation (or covering our arses) – we feel the need to over-explain everything and provide too much detail in the hope that we reduce the chances of people misinterpreting the message. The thing is that a lot of what we do is so complex that there is no way to ensure that people do not read what they want into the policy or information. All we end up doing is making what should be a simple communication complex by introducing concepts and issues for the sake of explaining that they do not apply.
- One-size fits all – often times we start from the point of view that one communication should suit everyone, rather than have multiple communications in multiple formats targeted at each audience. This is not true for everything but often we decide that we will draft the policy and that will be the same document that is used internally with all levels of staff, and externally with stakeholders, organisations and the general public.
- We don’t want to offend – there is a push in many government organisations to introduce plain English rules into our written work. I think that this is a great initiative, and when it is done well the communication tools become so much easier for everyone to engage with. The problem is that there are some people who believe that this level of communication is too simplistic, and the people using the material will be offended by how simple we have made it. Seriously people, whilst some people may initially think “this has been dumbed down”, as long as it tells them what they need to know I’m pretty sure they won’t care.
- History of formality and waffling – we have spent so long being taught to write in a non-committal, passive voice. My career in government started when I joined the Royal Australian Air Force. We went through training to learn defence writing, there is an art in it apparently. The main thing I remember is that we were taught to be very formal and always speak in the third person, this writer sees a problem with that 🙂 And even though there was a push for us to learn plain English writing about 4 years into my career, my senior managers would always change the language back and I would be told that my style wasn’t correct defence writing – it will be hard to break this tradition. This writing format was not as strict in other government departments I’ve worked, but there is still a tendency to not use ‘I’ and ‘we’. This just complicates the whole process because you come up with very convoluted constructs to avoid using these particular pronouns.
And often this sort of language leads to overuse of the passive voice, making content even harder to understand. I continue to struggle with this one regularly, because I just slide into the passive voice and when I get into that mode I find it very hard to identify and change. Due to our non-committal communication style, the passive voice seems to be the preferred way of writing in government (there it is again and that wasn’t even planned).