Even big topics need small words

Thoughtful person sitting at desk and looking at computer screenHave you ever noticed how something strange happens whenever we sit down to write a document?

In person, we might be able to explain even the most complex of topics in relatable, everyday language. But as soon as we fire up Word, phrases mysteriously appear on our screens that we’d never use face to face.

‘Start’ suddenly becomes ‘initiate’ and ‘stop’ is now ‘terminate’. A place is never ‘near’ somewhere else: it’s ‘in close proximity to’ it.


Paid by the syllable

So in a conversation with the boss, we might say that something happened ‘even though we tried to prevent it’. But in our report on the incident, we write that it happened ‘in spite of the fact that preventative measures were taken’.

It’s as if the mere presence of a keyboard makes us swap our own personality for that of a management consultant paid by the syllable.

OK, very rarely, you might hear a colleague utter something like, ‘I put forward the proposition that we focus on increasing engagement with our customer base.’ (Translation: ‘I think we should talk more to customers.’)

But that’s usually only when they’re addressing a group that they’re desperately trying to impress. (It doesn’t work, by the way – researchers have proven that we have less confidence in people who spout that kind of BS.)


Not jargon

For the rest of us, sentences like that form a language of its own, which we use only for writing documents. Let’s call it Documentese.

Documentese is not jargon. It’s the words in between the jargon.

We’d never use it when talking with someone. Because if we did, we’d see their eyes glaze over and we’d stop before they slipped into a deep Documentese coma.

Yet it’s the default language of reports and proposals in most workplaces.

It might be tempting to think that important topics need this kind of style. But actually the opposite is true.

Documentese takes longer to read and more brainpower to process, wasting time and energy. That leaves less of both for focusing on the content itself. So even big topics need small words.

Documentese stops us sharing our best ideas and discovering those of our colleagues. It’s like digital Valium, dulling our senses and blunting even the sharpest of minds.


Time to wake up

It’s a huge waste of the talent we recruit (at great expense) for our most important projects. Powerful solutions to the problems we desperately need to fix stay hidden in the cloud of endless, puffed-up paragraphs that fill most reports.

It disguises lazy thinking, saps our energy, grinds us down and clogs the arteries of companies across the globe.

Documentese is bad for our careers and it’s bad for the organisations we work for.

It’s a huge problem hidden in plain sight.

And yet still we cling to it.

Isn’t it time we woke up, stopped relying on it and started writing for humans?

Documentese in the wild

To help with issues like these, my colleague Kathy Gemmell has created this guide to making your documents more readable.

It’s easy to read (obviously) and forms part of our business-writing Knowledge Hub. Be sure to save it for when you write your next report.

If you’d like more direct, bespoke guidance from our experts, have a look at our range of courses for in-house teams and for individuals.


Image credit: Javier Brosch / Shutterstock