At ….the world’s leading…., I just commented on copy quite correctly entitled ‘Meaningless tripe.’ The copy was indeed meaningless and tripe.
It reminded me of one of my intentions when setting up this blog: to draw attention to bad and good communication alike. Communication is like design in that you only notice it when it’s done badly. If for some reason you cannot figure out how to navigate that website, or how to open that container, it’s because they’re designed badly. If they were designed properly, you just wouldn’t think about it because they would work properly.
It’s the same with communication. If you find you’re reading the same paragraph three times, or you just don’t understand what someone’s saying to you, or the diagram you’ve just been presented with consists of arrows pointing every which way but really means nothing to you, then that’s bad communication. You don’t have to pare everything down to short, sharp sentences or use unnecessarily blunt words. You just have to put yourself in the target audience’s shoes and ask yourself whether what you’re saying is understandable, or whether your communication – that is, you – are getting in the way.
Recently I was shown the pocket-sized leaflet that explains your rights if stopped by police, that is, what you are obliged to do, what you can do, and what you do not have to do. I was struck by how well it’s written. The language is simple and direct. The sentences are short. The overall flow is entirely logical. And almost before you realise it, you find you’ve read it all. It’s even well designed, using good, strong bullet points and as I said, it folds neatly into a pocket or wallet. You can see a PDF of it here, although I couldn’t find an html version unfortunately.
You might think it strange to highlight this particular piece as an example of good writing but often copywriting for everyone and anyone can be the toughest challenge. I have edited material that goes to ministerial level for review then to be delivered to every home in the country, and as soon as you start considering the ‘target audience’ for the English version – people with learning difficulties, with differing competencies in English, with different viewpoints and perspectives given age, religion and so on – you start to realise how crystal clear and unambiguous you need to be.
It’s no coincidence that the Plain English Campaign’s logo is a crystal with the strapline ‘Fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979’. I used to think they were anal retentives eager to point the finger at every ‘non-worthy’ English sentence but now I think they have an important role to play. My copy was to be submitted for a Crystal Mark but, as is often the case with copywriters, I never found out whether or not it was or if so, whether it got one. I would consider it an achievement if it did.
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