Keeping it fresh
Whatever we may think of Woolworths’ Anzac promotion debacle, two things are clear: 1/ Woolworths got promotional value out of the notoriety around its action, even though it was the ‘bad publicity is better than no publicity’ variety, and 2/ even big corporations don’t always see the pitfalls until they land in the smelly stuff.
What’s that got to do with plain English and clear language? Well, the ‘take home message’ for businesses of any size is don’t read into your communication what you think you’re saying. Read it through two or three times – and get others to read it – to find out what they think you’re saying.
I’m not talking about proofreading here – although that is a vital step in the process of producing a written communication. Of course you want to pick up and remove typos, spelling mistakes, poor or non-existent punctuation, grammar slip ups. Similarly font choices, colour, images, page layout, are all important in the look and feel of your communication. They are the window dressing, drawing the reader’s attention to your message. But what is your message?
Say what you mean and mean what you say
I’m going to charitable here and suggest that whoever thought up Woolies’ ad wasn’t deliberately comparing the worth of the Australian and New Zealand men killed at Gallipoli and all the other horrific battles of World War 1 to fresh fruit and veggies. I’m not sure what the message was they were trying to convey. Something perhaps about Woolies being a great Aussie institution and as good Aussies they join in commemorating our fallen heroes. Something warm and fluffy to make us feel that Woolies is part of our national life. But it failed. Badly. The ad writer and the management team who signed off on the ad, knew what it was meant to say. But that’s not the message some of us got. We got the ‘heroes = produce = profits’ message.
Woolies might have been channelling Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty: ‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ That might have worked for the famous egg. But it doesn’t work for humans. It’s very easy to misunderstand a message, especially a written or graphic one. If it can be misunderstood, read the wrong way, it will be.
Humpty Dumpty insisted it was just a matter of him being the master of the words. And he’s right. All communicators have to be masters of the words they use. Make sure the words on your page or screen say what you mean them to say, and not just what they seem to say. So, keep it plain, keep it clear. Keep it simple.
More on Plain English another time.