Excuse me, can you speak human?
How to avoid the robotic
We’ve all read them. Or rather, we should have read them but probably gave up after the first few pages. We’re talking about thought leadership reports written in cold, aloof, robotic language.
In other words, reports that are devoid of humanity.
No one sets out to write a boring report. But one reason this might happen is the appearance of the linguistic Unholy Trinity: nominalisations, jargon and passive voice.
1. Nominalisations are noun phrases generated from another word class, usually a verb, which are often used in formal reports and essays.
For example: “An accreditation analysis was conducted of the performance level of the administration of the senior executive compensation disbursement mechanism.” It’s hard to read and even harder to understand. Given the choice between noun and verb, choose the verb.
2. Excessive use of jargon – even if your audience understands it – is another way to create distance between writer and reader.
3. Avoid the injudicious use of passive voice, a style that is indirect and impersonal. Active voice is almost always preferable. “A sharp drop in stock prices signalled the onset of recession,” works better than: “The onset of recession was signalled by a sharp drop in stock prices.”
Understand the why, the what and the who
Highbrook believes that, to address the resulting lack of connection, business needs to change the way it talks. Shifts in attitudes and priorities demand smarter writing – concise, clear, informal, but no less intelligent.
To make that happen, an understanding of the following is key:
1. Why are we writing this? What is our purpose?
2. Who is our audience? C-suite, business owner, HNWI – all demand different levels of knowledge and formality.
3. What’s keeping our audience awake at night?
4. What excites them? What will stop them in their tracks?
5. What can we bring to our audience? How can we help?
6. What do we have permission to talk about?
7. Have they got time to read it?
Most of all, writing needs to be infused with humanity. It should be written by a person and that person’s name should be attached to the writing.
That said, even the best writers find it hard to clarify their thoughts and keep it simple and human. Talking is often the solution. If you’re stuck, step away from the keyboard. Speak to someone else. If you were in a pub and only had five minutes to explain something before you ran for the train, what would you say?
Also, try reading your article out loud – or record it on your phone. Listen back.
Tweet like Ed ‘n’ Rishi
It may come as a surprise, but values such as concision, clarity, informality and humanity are well expressed at the classier end of political tweeting.
Almost every politician uses Twitter, and the way they talk when they tweet has changed too. It is simpler, it is faster and it gives them permission to be funnier.
Shadow Business and Energy Secretary Ed Miliband, whose communication style has been honed by podcast hosting, often shows his smarts and humour in this way: “Government finally admits only £3bn of money for green recovery is new. Classic Johnson – big on bluster, short on substance. This isn’t a Green Industrial Revolution, it’s a pale imitation.”
On the other side of the aisle, Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently answered Twitter users’ questions about his Spending Review in a series of short, succinct videos.
Yours sincerely, Abe
Finally, an example from history. Consider this letter, written by US president Abraham Lincoln and addressed to a war widow. The language is a little archaic, but it is beautifully expressed, with great humanity. Note also how the rhythm of the sentences is varied: one longish, two shorter, then finally the longest of all; and how he avoids repetition without becoming contrived or stilted.
Executive Mansion, Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
Thanks, Abe, for providing a masterclass in how to speak human that holds true 156 years after you penned it.