Pros know plain language is only one strategy

This week in my class, we begin discussing strategies and tactics for effective leadership communication. The TILL System builds on research in linguistic politeness, identifying four strategies as shown in the figure above. The strategies differ in the degree of clarity with which they deliver a message. Because efficiency is so highly valued in Western cultures and clarity is how you achieve efficiency, you may not immediately recognize why I teach anything other than the On Record Plainly strategy.

Lack of clarity is certainly the most common complaint about workplace writing. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently published Plain English in 401(k) Fees Reads More Like Gibberish. And there have been similar stories about the lack of clarity in the newly required plain English rules for disclosing investment fees in USA Today and CNN Money. Why don’t I simply teach people how to be clear? Let me explain.

The table below displays examples of two directive messages delivered with two different strategies.

Would the On Record Plainly version of Message A be better than the Off Record version for every management situation? What about for Message B? Hopefully, you can think of some situations in which the less clear (Off Record) version of the message would be the better choice — at least for Message B.  (I don’t mean to imply that confronting an employee’s performance problems clearly is never the best course of action, only that most often it’s not in the best interest of the organization to ignore an employee’s feelings or needs. I’ve mentioned the negative consequences of such behavior before.)

The key here is that there is no single best communication strategy for every situation. Beware of any writing “specialist” who wants to limit your linguistic choices. While On Record Plainly is the best strategy for an investment firm to use when communicating how its fees are earned to its customers, the same strategy is not best for communicating every message.  I’m sorry it can’t be simpler. But being a pro requires making strategic choices and then implementing them. So I must teach people not only how to be clear. But also how to be less clear. And, just as importantly, when each strategy is most effective.

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  1. Yes, but does this have to do with one being a professional, or does this simply have to do with one being informed? It has been known for at least a number of years that plain English does not in fact sidestep the complexity issues of language.

    1. Of course, I don’t know why the writers of the 401(k) disclosures referred to above did not implement a clear message. There are several possibilities: lack of plain language training or intent to continue hiding fees from customers. But I wouldn’t use the term “pro” to refer to those writers in either case.

      I don’t think genuine content complexity is much of an excuse — even if it is difficult and time-consuming to convey complex information clearly. Don’t you agree?

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