Writing clearly, saying it simply

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Window cleaning 2I recently received an email that demonstrated to me why writing clearly is a neglected skill set. An executive at the corporation where I work sent it, and it opened with these two paragraphs:

Organizational Announcement

“As we set our sights on the future and begin to transform our industry, it is essential that we have the right talent in place to drive growth and business success.

“For the past several months, my team and I have focused on long-term success planning and talent development. As part of those discussions, Ebenezer Geezer, the West Region president, informed me of his intention to retire at the end of this year.”

Wow, that’s a lot of lead-in before we get to point: Ebenezer Geezer is retiring. I, along with thousands of others in offices and cubicles across the U.S., got this email in the middle of a busy workday. How many actually read to the last sentence of the second paragraph? Did you?

I think the email should have been written more like this:

Organizational Announcement

“West Region President Ebenezer Geezer is planning to retire at the end of this year. We will greatly miss Ebenezer and his talent for cost cutting. My team and I, however, have a plan to make the transition to a new West Region president as smooth as butter. So, no worries, folks! This change won’t affect our profits or, most importantly, your jobs. So, keep working!”

Now, I know my version is a little flippant, but I think this unusual honesty would grab attention. I also think straightforward language like this creates more trust in readers.

A conversational tone

To reach your audience, writing clearly and speaking your audience’s language is important. Corporate jargon and unnecessarily big words aren’t part of the language most people speak. Try to explain your message in the same way you’d explain it to your neighbor or your mom. Avoid the temptation to sound like a corporate figurehead or a smarty-pants. For starters, make sure you choose the simpler, everyday word over corporate buzzwords. Below are a few examples:

Corporate                                          Conversational

Function (n.)                                                Job

Implement (v.)                                            Start, begin

Integrate (v.)                                                Bring together, combine

Leverage (v.)                                                Take advantage

Synergy (n.)                                                Teamwork, partnership

Utilize (v.)                                                      Use

Shorter sentences also give writing a more friendly tone. But don’t go all “Fun with Dick and Jane” on your audience. It’s perfectly fine to have a compound sentence or two in there to make the flow less choppy.

And don’t shy away from contractions. If you spoke to your friends without contractions, they’d probably suspect a replicant had taken your place. And it’s often OK to address your audience directly with “you.” (This piece of advice shouldn’t be surprising coming from me, seeing as I use “you” and “your” 33 times in this article.)

Checking your copy’s grade level

Depending on your audience, you might want to carefully control the grade level of your writing. If you’re writing for people whose education level is unknown or who might speak English as a second language, it’s a good idea to keep the grade level at 5 or 6.

Try using Microsoft Word’s built-in tool that measures the grade level of writing: Go to “Spelling and Grammar” and click on “Options.” There, you can check the box for “Readability.” Then, after you do your spelling and grammar check, a dialogue box will appear that shows the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of your writing. This article, for instance, scored a 7.4 on the Flesch-Kincaid.

If you use this tool and feel you need to bring down the grade level a bit, try these tips:

  1. Replace long words with simpler ones (e.g., “transition” to “change”).
  2. Shorten sentences.


No one likes to be confronted with a big, uninterrupted block of text. So, try making paragraphs shorter and breaking up text with subheads. You could also try pulling some information into a callout box. Here’s an example of a callout:

Ebenezer Geezer retirement: Dates to remember

  • November 1, 2014: Start date for Ebenezer’s replacement
  • December 31, 2014: Ebenezer’s last day at work
  • January 1, 2014: New West Region president officially takes over
  • January 3, 2015: Retirement party

All of these blockbusting tricks make copy more inviting to read and easier for busy readers to scan. If you put the most vital information in your header, subheads and a callout box, your audience will most likely get at least the gist of the article, letter, etc. even if they don’t take the time to actually read it!

Message Delivered

Writing clearly and using a simpler style makes your communication more effective. On the other hand, writing that’s full of corporate jargon and tediously long blocks of text often gives the impression that the writer or organization is hiding something. So, reassure your audience and bring your message into the light with straightforward, concise copy.

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