Lecture 3: Plain Language

Plain Language to Improve Written Communications in the Workplace

If you work for a government department or agency, being able to write in plain language is not just an advantage, but also a requirement. Many countries have adopted policies and regulations requiring the use of plain language in government communications. 

Companies must comply with regulations governing how they present financial documents to the authorities and public. In the U.S., the Securities Exchange Commission requires companies to use plain language in certain financial statements. Lack of financial and human resources means regulators have struggled to enforce plain language requirements. But failure to follow guidelines can lead to major catastrophes, as we will see later when we examine WeWork’s prospectus filed in 2019.

Public good

Apart from legal requirements, using plain language promotes transparency and is seen a “democratic” in helping the public understand technical issues that may impact them as investors, clients, customers, citizens, or stakeholders.

The rarefied language of the financial-services industry has been criticised for contributing to the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed. Not only did the public not understand what various types of “structured investment vehicles” were. Financial experts were so convinced by the fancy names of these complex funds that they failed to recognise the riskiness of these packages of investments linked to mortgages. The result was the worst financial crisis since the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Musk as an example of what CEOs think of jargon

Moreover, the idea that customers and clients prefer jargon seems to be a myth. Do clients and customers really want to read reports, emails, etc. full of special terminology and jargon? No one complains about a lack of jargon. But senior executives as well as customers and clients do express frustration with jargon.

In a 2010 memo to staff of SpaceX, Elon Musk, the company’s founder, wrote: “There is a creeping tendency to use made-up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made-up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication. . .. No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance.”

Eight years later, Musk said much the same thing in an email to staff at vehicle manufacturer Tesla. “Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software, or processes at Tesla,” Musk wrote, according to a leaked email. “In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don’t want people to have to memorise a glossary just to function at Tesla.”

Buffett stumped by jargon

Warren Buffet wrote in preface to The Plain English Handbook, published by the SEC in 1998, about his own frustration with jargon and complex constructions. “For more than forty years, I’ve studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I have been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said . . .. Perhaps the most common problem . . .. is that a well-intentioned and informed writer simply fails to get the message across to an intelligent, interested reader. In that case, stilted jargon and complex constructions are usually the villains.”

In summary, from governments to chief executives and financial regulators, there is growing support for plain language written communications. However, the issue persists. Those who do try to improve their workplace communications have an opportunity to stand out from their peers. Others may not remark on your prose. But they will more quickly recognise your work when you come up with good ideas that deserve to be recognised.