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Plain English Copywriting

What good is exclusive jargon or management mumbo-jumbo in emergency situations? Not a lot, when it affects the clarity and efficiency of communication between individuals and groups trying to protect property and people. But it does provide an irrefutable case for removing silly and frustrating ambiguity from language. And not just in adverse circumstances.

The London 7/7 terror attacks left 52 people dead. They happened over six years ago, but the inquest has only just concluded, and one of coroner Lady Justice Hallett’s ongoing criticisms of the emergency services chiefs was the overuse of jargon and ‘management-speak’.

Why call a portable incident room a ‘conference demountable unit’? Does a ‘crew manager’ fight fires? Give first aid? Surely clarity is paramount when emergency services crews are feverishly trying to establish what is going on, and how they can deal with dangerous, life-threatening situations fast and effectively. Surely anything but clarity is a recipe for confusion, frustration and needlessly wasting precious time decoding pompous language.

It may be an extreme example, but it’s a great illustration of how using jargon or management-speak in the wider context – i.e. the real world – doesn’t serve any useful purpose or help anyone.

Another example is the ‘Black Saturday’ forest fires in and around Kinglake, near Victoria, Australia in 2009. In short, there was little or no advance warning from the authority responsible. When asked what they were doing at the time a huge wall of flame was rapidly approaching Kinglake, one member of the authority replied, “we were adding value.”

Oh… right…

Does anyone really know what this means, in any context, let alone what it has to do with life-threatening firestorms? The authority also went on to say it couldn’t describe the situation to people it might affect, as it was “unprecedented”, and that they were dealing with “precise complex fire behaviour information.”

Of course! How silly of us!

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Had they used plain language everyone can understand and react to – like ‘big bush fires approaching fast!’, ‘get ready to leave at a moment’s notice’ or even ‘Fire! Run for your lives!’ – things may have been different.

So what does this have to do with Plain English Copywriting? Well, it’s hopefully a thought-provoking way to point out how jargon or management speak doesn’t really help anyone communicate to a wider audience. And when it comes to getting key messages across, there are two things to remember:

Firstly, it’s your audience that matters most. Secondly, you’ll be judged on your ability to communicate in a clear, straightforward and understandable way with them – whether lives are at stake or not.

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