What if people forgot about your words?
I always heard people speak using big words. No, wait, that’s not true. I always heard about people who speak using big words.
Growing up, I never heard it much myself. Rather, I grew up reading storybooks. Good old fiction. Whether it was mystery or horror, fantasy or comedy, it was all good to me. When I ran out of books, I’d even read magazines (though of course they weren’t as much fun). I opened a few books that were non-fiction as well. Every time, the book pulled me in. I forgot about the words. Want to know why? It’s coz they wrote in Plain English.
Everybody uses Plain English… right?
So I grew up thinking that everybody used Plain English. Explaining things using simple words so that people would already understand the words and could now concentrate on understanding your message instead.
The only ones that didn’t were people who wanted to sound smart. After all, don’t you sound smart when you start saying words that have 10 syllables?
Then I found out about Jargon. It turns out that in every field and in every industry, they have things that would be very complicated to explain but happen all the time. So special words were made up to refer to them easily. Instead of calling something “a super tiny sensor that’s made to detect sudden changes in movement up to 5 times of gravity“, an engineer could just call it “a 5G accelerometer“. Shorter. Simpler. Not a bad thing at all. Not until you put 20 words of Jargon one after another. Then it becomes a LOT harder to understand.
Which should we use?
It took me a long time to understand that for some people, it’s not that they don’t want to use Plain English. They can’t. They simply don’t know how to because they haven’t been trained for it and have never had to do it in their lives. Every time they’ve been asked to present any information, nobody has taught them to use Plain English.
When I was taking my degree, I joined my university’s debate club. I had a great chance to hear people present complicated facts and arguments in a way that the audience could understand. I heard people present these things day in and day out for 4 years.
It quickly became clear to me that most people don’t know how to keep it simple. The usual mistakes people make?
1. They assume the people listening know as much as they do.
They immediately start talking and assume that the audience know the same things that they have read and studied about. You’ll start hearing acronyms like UNCHR, FDI, ASEAN+3 and things like junta (pronounced hunta), naming and shaming, floating currencies and locus standi.
Take a few moments. Say what you mean. Don’t put fancy terms out there if people might not know them. You only use Jargon when people are ALL from the same background.
2. They say everything else about the issue except the issue itself.
You know who they are. The people that ramble on and on and on while you’re wondering what they’re telling you about. You heard them talk about the current global recession and the potential for bio-engineered plants in 3rd world countries, but what does that have to do with hiring nurses from the Philippines?
If you want to say something, say it. You don’t have to explain it.
3. They assume people can read minds and can get what they mean.
Let’s say that I tell you that we should reward green companies to help save the environment. And I stop there. You could understand it in many different ways.
What kind of reward do I mean? Tax subsidies? Exclusive government contracts?
What does green mean? Not burning anything? Filtering their smoke? Donating to organizations that help the environment?
By leaving it at that, it becomes very vague and each person understands it his own way (if he even understands it at all). So say exactly what you mean.
Not too short, not too long
So on the one hand, you have to keep it short. Say exactly what you mean and nothing else. On the other hand, if it’s too short people might not understand what you mean. Right?
Wrong. People only don’t understand when you use Jargon. So make it as short as possible while still using Plain English words. The same words that you grow up with and read in story books. The same words that you use while chatting with someone over drinks.
When you use this same simple language, it makes things easier. It frees his mind from spending time to understand the meaning of the word that you just said. Instead he can use that time to understand the meaning of your sentence and to imagine it in his head. He can see it, hear it, feel it.
When you can make people forget your words, you can make them remember your dreams.