Guest Blog by Fergal McGovern, CEO of VisibleThread
The written word is still used extensively in our organisations.
Just think of website content, FAQ documents, contracts, terms and conditions, customer journey drips, scripts for live chat… or your inbox. Emails are one of the main ways we do business with our internal and external customers.
However, there are numerous factors that influence the quality of written communication.
● Your team members all write to different standards
● Very little time is allocated to thinking about the audience someone is writing for
● You team may be made up of native and non-native English speakers
● Written communication does not provide the same instant feedback as spoken communication does
But these problems can be addressed by implementing a plain language standard in your organisation.
What is the definition of plain language?
The definition of plain language is using language that the broadest possible amount of people understand. The latest literacy figures for the UK show that most people have a reading age of an 11 year old child. Citizens of the USA have a similar reading age.
Consuming content online has also changed our reading habits. Now, we scan information. If something doesn’t engage us immediately, we click off the page. After all, there’s an (almost) unlimited supply of other websites where we can find the information we’re looking for.
Plain language requires the writer to:
● Know the target audience
● Eliminate passive voice
● Eliminate jargon
● Use as few acronyms as possible
● Keep things simple
● Keep sentences as short as possible
Plain language helps internal and external customers
Time is at a premium for both your internal and external customers.
Low quality written communication can negatively affect the efficiency and output of your organisation. It can also annoy customers. This is an organisation-wide failure; not exclusively a marketing issue.
At the same time, diversity and inclusion are being extensively discussed as critical to organisational transformation. Seldomly though are people’s writing abilities, a key skill for career advancement, included in the conversation.
Yet, the employment market can be segmented in many ways and people have different levels of writing skill. This is no way indicates how talented they may be.
The most obvious example is that of non-native English speakers and native English speakers, and the different level of writing “fluency” between these two categories. But even native English speakers could have different levels of writing ability based on their educational backgrounds, training etc.
Improving your entire team’s writing capabilities is one of the keys to achieving organisational transformation.
Workers have their performance negatively impacted by their poor English skills, even though they could be highly talented employees. Software developers and engineers illustrate this point as many people in these roles are recruited from across the globe for positions in English-speaking organisations. These professionals may have brilliant ideas that could grow your organisation to the next level. But if they aren’t able to communicate their ideas effectively in written communication, how will you know?
Management gets frustrated with the negative impact in productivity that goes with poor communication. Less profit is one of the results.
Customers quickly draw unflattering, and damaging, conclusions, of organisations that don’t communicate well.
It’s easy to see why.
If a customer can’t solve their problem with the content they’re given, they have to find it another way. Perhaps by calling a call centre or another way. It’s a time drain that no one appreciates.
Training isn’t the answer
HR practitioners are highly aware of the need to upskill staff to enhance organisational transformation. Many HR professionals have only the best intentions in providing training for staff.
However, it’s important to understand the limits inherent in writing training:
● It’s difficult to police implementation. Organisations and staff may commit to the training with real engagement but to-do lists take over once the training is over.
● Subjective editorial guidelines have been the way written communications is evaluated until now. This is unhelpful for organisations with locations and teams located across the globe who all need to write to one standard.
● People learn differently and at different speeds. There is no guarantee that writing skills training will be implemented at the same time and in the same way by each person who attends the course.
So what can HR do to help people write better?
The answer lies in a technology solution.
Technology helps people improve their written communication skills
Technology overcomes the limitations inherent in writing training.
For starters, it may come as a surprise to discover that objective guidelines for plain language exist. In the 1920, the US Navy developed the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula as part of the process to assess their technical manuals. This formula ensured that every person in the navy could read and make sense of the manuals.
When content is scored through a system that measures communication through objective guidelines, written communication becomes easier.
The VisibleThread Readability Server uses the guidelines set out by the Flesch-Kincaid formula to empower people to improve their written communication skills. (A free version is available on the VisibleThread website.)
The Readability Server provides a dedicated email address to users. No login is required; users simply email their content, whatever it may be, to the specific email address.
In no time at all (seconds), an email is returned to the user with suggestions for improvement and notes on their content.
The user’s content remains untouched. But the individual can now see where they need to make changes as they write. The self-scoring system drives home learning and changes writing behaviour. The need for managers to monitor the implementation from training courses is also eliminated, resulting in huge time-savings.
Numerous government and large-scale global organisations use the Readability Server to standardise written communications in their teams.