I was having a discussion with a colleague the other day when she said to me, "that’s a mute point". What she meant was that the point wasn’t up for discussion anymore. I had an overwhelming desire to correct her (but didn’t) and I was slightly amused by the premise that a point could no longer talk. The word she intended was moot and it doesn’t mean something is no longer open for debate. It simply means that it’s not practical any more, but it’s still open for debate.
Nonetheless, it got me thinking about how often we misuse words and terms and how easy it is to get tripped up by the English language. So I’ve listed my Top Ten Trip-up Terms (yes, that’s a deliberate play on alliteration).
Literally means it really happened not metaphorically happened. He literally won the lottery. Means he really did win the lottery. He was literally shooting fire from his eyes. That would be really scary and time to call an exorcist.
Collaborate vs. Corroborate. When you work together on a project with your coworkers you collaborate. When you support someone’s work you corroborate.
Scapegoat not Escape Goat. For example, That political party really messed up and needed a scapegoat to take the blame. Although I suppose an escape goat might work too.
Toe the line not tow the line. This has military origins and means to conform with rules and regulations. Towing the line has an entirely different meaning and sounds like lot of work.
Redundant means duplicate or many of the same or similar things. It does not mean something is broken or useless. Airplanes have redundant operating systems. That’s a good thing.
Irregardless isn’t a real word. Just regardless will do.
Accept vs. Except. The easiest way to remember this is accept = receive and except = exclude. You accept an award. Then you eat everything except the desert.
Continual vs. Continuous. Continual means repeated frequently whereas continuous means it doesn’t stop.
Nonplussed does not mean you are indifferent about something. It means you are confused about something.
Affect vs. Effect. Affect influences. Effect is a result. The hours she puts in will affect the outcome of the project. Her open communication style had a positive effect on the audience.
And then there are those who make up new words when existing words just won’t do. I once worked with a very nice person who always used the word indifferentiate. As in, We need to indifferentiate this product. I didn’t correct that person either but simply smiled every time I heard it. After all, Shakespeare made up words too.
“RBC has not hired temporary foreign workers to replace our employees.”
This statement has been made time and again by the official RBC public relations machine, by RBC CEO Gord Nixon, by RBC’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Zabeen Hirji, and I’m sure it has been duly vetted by RBC’s legal department.
If this is the case then why is everyone so angry?
Aside from the facts that yet another company is outsourcing jobs overseas to maximize corporate profit, and that an iGATE team (the company hired by RBC) has taken up camp in the RBC office so they can learn everything they need to know from the people they’re replacing, RBC is using old fashioned PR spin and their employees and customers aren't buying it.
In a time when public trust is low and people are stressed from a rather prolonged recession it would have been a smarter move to be blatantly clear about what is happening.
RBC is outsourcing some IT jobs to iGate. As a result some RBC employees will be laid off. Employees of the outsourcing company are receiving training on site at RBC offices. Once the training is complete the jobs will move overseas.
That’s it. It's a business move and it's based on profit. But what RBC is saying is this:
“…like most businesses, we partner with external vendors to improve and extend our product and services offering to meet our client needs, and improve our operational effectiveness.”
What is this really saying and what did Canadians hear?
“like most businesses” = everyone is doing it so that makes it okay
“we partner with external vendors” = in this case, for outsourcing jobs
“to improve and extend our product and services” = we want to offer many products and services
“to meet our client needs” = we're doing this for you
“and improve our operational effectiveness” = we need to find cheaper, faster ways of doing business
When CEO, Gord Nixon, was questioned about the situation his response came off as nonchalant. He said that this outsourcing “involves a relatively small contract” and that the iGATE workers are “just people here for the transition process”. His attempt to downplay the situation didn’t work. What Canadians heard instead was, ‘This is a small issue. These iGATE people are just here for the transition. What's the big deal?"
What RBC and many other companies are failing to recognize is that people are tired of corporate babble. After years of spin, misleading communications, corporate jargon and the always insulting, ‘we’re doing this for you... you just don’t understand… trust us’ line, people are not buying the corporate rhetoric anymore.
Canadians know what Kevin O-Leary clearly explained on The Lang & O’Leary Exchange. That RBC is doing this to drive down cost so they can make more money. It’s a simple message but it’s not one the RBC team will communicate because, for a company that made $7.5 billion in profit last year, and with a CEO who took home $12.5 million, making more money by putting Canadians out of work…well, that’s just not a very popular message.
The apostrophe is one of the English language's basic punctuation marks yet it's not quite understood...
Why is so much of the information produced by our governments complicated and difficult to read?
I typically don’t like to call out any one organization for public scrutiny (honestly, it’s bad for business) but government communications is particularly poor and an unnamed city in Ontario
is in serious violation of clear communication.
I was recently reading this city’s
procurement documents which are posted on their public website and I was confronted with this:
“Whereas the Council of the Corporation of the <city in Ontario>
, recognizing its responsibility for the effective utilization of all of its resources, is desirous of codifying sound policies for the purpose of procuring goods and services in a manner that fulfils its mandate.”
This was the first
sentence. I don’t know of anyone in the modern era “desirous of codifying” anything – except the government of course.
The sad part is that this example is not unique. Reams of documents just like this are spewed from all levels of government on a regular basis. It seems that they fail to recognize that they are hired by the people, paid by the people and serve the people. Yet, information that is produced is not written for the people. It is written for their own purposes and their own audiences often appeasing a legal team or the powers that be. Worse yet, they are simply mimicking the poor communication of their predecessors and peers saying, “that is the way it’s always been done” or “that’s just the way it is”.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
is often cited as one of the most influential speeches in history and it’s a great example of clear communication. In less than two minutes and fewer than 300 words, Lincoln captured the essence of the time and the hearts of the people. How? His speech was simple and straight to the point. Lincoln knew what many of our governments today seem to ignore. For communications to be effective, it must be clear.
Governments are trying – at least on the surface. In the United States, Obama passed the Plain Writing Act
in 2010. The law requires that all government documents be written in plain language. The Government of Canada has also taken steps to promote plain language communications and on their website under Communications Policy of the Government of Canada
“An institution's duty to inform the public includes the obligation to communicate effectively. Information about policies, programs, services and initiatives must be clear, relevant, objective, easy to understand and useful. To ensure clarity and consistency of information, plain language and proper grammar must be used in all communication with the public. This principle also applies to internal communications, as well as to information prepared for Parliament or any other official body, whether delivered in writing or in speech.”
Clearly, governments at many levels are not taking their own advice.
For the record, here’s my version of that <city in Ontario’s
> procurement document:
"We have policies in place to ensure that goods and services purchased by the city best address our needs and budgets."
Many business people aren’t aware there is an adult literacy issue in Canada. When I share the statistics with them I get two distinct reactions. First, they are shocked. They can’t believe that literacy is an issue in Canada. Second, they tell me that literacy isn’t a problem where they work.
Not so fast. Approximately 10.5 million Canadians with low literacy skills are employed. So, how is literacy affecting your business? Let’s look at the facts.
1. Canada’s adult literacy rates are poor
Almost half of all Canadian adults (42%) don’t have the necessary literacy skills to participate effectively in our economy.
2. It's in your workplace
Approximately 72% of adults with low literacy skills are employed.
3. It's costing you money
Low literacy levels cost Canadian businesses $2.5 billion each year in lost productivity – $1.6 billion of which is for industrial accidents alone.
4. Fixing it can make you money – lots
A 1% increase in literacy skills would lead to an additional $18.5 billion per year in Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
5. Some CEOs get it
Two thirds of Canadian CEOs believe the lack of essential skills and poor literacy are the biggest threats to growth but they don't know how to address the problem.
6. Especially at big companies
Ninety percent of Fortune 1000 executives report that low literacy hurts productivity and profitability.
7. Misunderstanding costs money
As much as 40% of the total cost of managing business transactions is spent on problems resulting from poor or misunderstood communications.
8. Clarification takes time
A business with 100 employees spends on average 17 hours each week clarifying email communications. Over a year this costs the business over $500,000.
9. Your employees don't see things the way you do
Only 37% of employees understand what their company is trying to achieve.
10. Get ready for the competition
China and Japan have higher national literacy levels than Canada. This affects the competitiveness of Canadian businesses and our ability to compete in a global marketplace.
It’s not all bad! Companies that invest in basic skills and literacy training and plain language communications see great results.
> 87% report more effective use of workplace technology
> 84% report improvements in the quality of employees’ work
> 82% report improved health and safety compliance and outcomes
> 79% report increased productivity
> 73% report an increase in employee effort
Not only is Canada facing an impending labour shortage set to hit hard in the next ten years, we are also
facing a severe skills gap and workplace literacy is front and centre. Smart businesses will invest in training and improved communications now to shore up their competitive resources for the near future.
1, 2, 4, 10. Statistics Canada
3. Literacy Alberta
6, 7. Impact Information
8. SIS International Research
9. Steven Covey Study
Typically, business writing tends to be quite formal and it’s often generously peppered with industry jargon, acronyms and long sentences.
Here are seven simple tips to help ensure your business documents are clearly written:
1. State the most important points first
Your audience doesn’t have the time or the desire to wade through material to find the relevant points. Tell them right at the beginning and if they want the details they’ll keep reading.
2. Limit each paragraph to one idea
Think about the five-paragraph essays you wrote in high school. It’s a brilliantly simple way to help you write clearly (state your position, give three points, summarize it).
3. Use short sentences
If you can make two sentences out of one; do so. If your paragraph is five lines long and it is one sentence; it’s time to edit.
4. Use common words
For maximum clarity you should write at a Grade 7 reading level. Yes, that’s right! The majority of people are most comfortable reading at this level.
5. Use headings, lists and tables to make reading easier
How you present information is just as important as the words you use. Simple, effective formatting helps readers more easily grasp information.
6. Write for your reader, not yourself
Not writing for your audience is one of the most common mistakes in business writing. We think something is important/exciting/relevant but we fail to tell the audience why the information is important for them. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes and ask yourself, “Why does this matter?”
7. Read it out loud
It sounds strange but this really does help. You’ll quickly hear if your written words are too formal or too big and if your sentences are too long.
There is a movement afoot called the plain language movement. It’s not new but it is gaining popularity.
What is plain language? I read a quote the other day that said plain language is “language that avoids obscurity, inflated vocabulary and convoluted construction”. Well put. Another way to say this is that plain language is clear, using only necessary words and presents information in a straightforward, logical way. This ensures your audience gets the message quickly and clearly.
The whole point of communication is to share information so if you’re using language that makes the content unclear or inaccessible to your audience you are not communicating well. When your readers or listeners do not clearly understand the information you’ve presented to them the message they walk away with may be entirely different from what you intended.
People have railed against corporate-speak, government-babble and professional jargon for years so why is the plain language movement gaining popularity now? Time, Trust and Twitter.
The one thing most of us want more of…is time. Especially at work. We have a lot to do and we don’t have time to read through lengthy reports, too-long emails and worse still, meetings that drone on for hours. If the information you need to share isn’t clear, quick and easy to understand your important message will not be heard.
We are a skeptical lot at times and we’ve learned how to read between the lines. Years of public relations and advertising language (not to mention contracts!) have made many of us ask: what does that really mean and what aren’t you telling me? When we don’t get a clear answer and hear more of the same we begin to question the truth and accuracy of not only the message but the messenger.
Twitter is one of the fastest growing social networking platforms today and it’s not just celebrities and wannabes that are tweeting. Businesses are adopting twitter to reach their customers and markets. Twitter limits messages to 140-characters so to be heard you have to get simple and clever with your message. It really forces people to focus on one main point and they quickly lose the big words.
Plain language is not dumbing things down and taking an overly simplified approach to language. In fact, it can be harder to get your thoughts out clearly using plain language. The approach is about writing and speaking in a way so that your audience can quickly understand your message. Remember, we’re in a time-starved environment where every minute counts before you lose someone’s attention so don’t waste their time (and yours) on loquacious, perplexing linguistic gymnastics.
In the field of corporate communications we spend a great deal of time tailoring and refining messages for our intended audiences. Good communicators know that understanding your audience – who and where they are, their workplace issues, their topic knowledge and education level, etc. – should factor into how you present information. How, then, do you tailor workplace communication when your intended audience is functionally illiterate?
“What?” you ask. “That wouldn’t be the case because they’re working. They applied for a job. They interact with their co-workers. They’re not illiterate.”
Think again. Functional illiteracy is defined as this: a person has basic reading and writing skills – so they can fill out a job application and they can read simple written information – but they lack the necessary skills to understand and use the information. Surprisingly, 48% of working-aged Canadians (age 16-65) fall into this realm of functional illiteracy and although many at the very low end of the literacy spectrum are unable to work – many in the mid-range do.
All employees have a right to clearly understand the information they receive at work be that about workplace safety, employee benefits, or a memo from their supervisor. They need to understand information that is posted on a bulletin board, attached to their pay stub, and handed out at a team meeting. Frighteningly, almost 1/3 of low literacy workers can’t understand basic information and warnings on a hazardous material sheet.
So as a communicator how do you ensure everyone in your organization ‘gets the message’? Some tips:
1. Do a literacy audit to identify needs and barriers to communication.
2. Write content for a grade school level.
3. Use plain language and stay away from three (or more) syllable words.
4. Use graphics to convey meaning. Think of the universal symbols for washrooms, elevators and cars used in airports around the world. They’re amazingly simple and well understood.
5. In print, don’t use all caps. Readers actually use ascenders and descenders of letters to help distinguish a word.
6. Ensure a supervisor verbally explains the information being shared.
7. Create a safe environment for employees to ask questions. Many won’t speak up in a meeting but let them know they can call or visit a person to ask questions in private.
8. Provide literacy training, or access to literacy training.
The 2011 Digital Magazine Fact Book is out and sheds some light on the transition and merging of our print and digital publishing worlds. It’s not news that Canadians have readily adopted personal technology – smartphones, tablets, eReaders, etc. Approximately one in ten Canadians owns an eReader or tablet and one third of us plan to purchase a tablet or eReading device within the next six months. This seems a bit inflated to me and may just be a response to our increased awareness of the options however you can’t ignore that we live in a more digital world and it’s growing.
Digital devices are typically used for quick snips of information (twitter, texting, FB, pictures and video, and news headlines), but they are not as readily adopted for reading information of significant length like magazine articles, reports or books.
Given the choice, 90% of consumers prefer paper and ink magazines and they’re willing to wait for postal delivery to have the tangible product in their hands. The majority of consumers, 75% in fact, believe that digital editions of magazines should complement the print version, not replace it.
There are some tangible user benefits to digital publications:
> Immediate delivery.
> Archived publications creating an electronic library that doesn’t take up space on your bookshelf.
> Searchable content.
> A deeper reader experience where one can follow links to more information.
> Generally, more affordable than purchasing a hard copy product.
I, for one, love my Kobo Vox. My digital library is compact and goes with me everywhere so I don't have to worry about having the right book, report, or magazine and it’s perfect for traveling. Yet as much as I love the convenience and technology I still buy and read paper versions of books and magazines. And no technology could ever replace my home library which displays the last 25 years of my family’s reading history.
Digital and print go hand in hand. One is not better than the other and one will not die. They each have their pros and cons and, in the right hands, can combine to enrich a reader’s experience.