Earlier in the week, I posted about aviation communications needing to be clear, especially in relation to homonyms such as defined via my Monday Meanings.
Further reading of the Flight Safety Australia article discusses other examples of technical conversations needing clarity including the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in February 2009.
Clear fire warnings
If you were in a fire affected (or threatened) area, would you want to hear
“A major wind event has occurred near anytown and there is fire activity with the potential to impact homes in the sometown area”
or would you prefer to be told
“Strong winds are pushing uncontrollable fires towards anytown and sometown. These areas are dangerous and we advice you get out now”
When lives are at stake, no one has time to think about the meaning of a message – they need to hear it and act accordingly straight away.
Clarity comes from using language easily understood and with no room for ambiguity.
Compare ‘potential to impact’ with ‘deadly, unpredictable’, and ‘messaging people in the area’ with ‘tell locals to …’
Concrete language has a specific meaning that is easily understood.
Concrete terms refer to things we can physically connect with and that stay fairly constant over time (for example pen is a concrete term as we know what it means and it hasn’t changed – there are different colours and types, but if I ask for a pen you could pass me one. If I asked for a writing tool, you would probably have to think about what I meant before passing something to me; and if I asked for a writing idea you couldn’t pass me anything!)
Instructions, procedures and critical information is more effective when written with concrete terms.
Avoid managerial language
In the words of Don Watson, “telling people requires language whose meaning is plain and simple. Managerial language is never this.”
Personally, I find ‘managerial language’ pompous a lot of the time and it makes me suspicious – why are you writing this so obscurely instead of saying it simply? Are you trying to trick me or hide something in the complexity?
A term like ‘populating the document’* is ridiculous! I interpret it as ‘filling the space’ or ‘adding fluff’ to make the document longer – remember those school essays with a minimum word count? it does nothing to promote your message and wastes everyone’s time so where’s the point?
* ‘populating the document’ was apparently used in a Black Saturday hearing by someone who had been ‘value adding’, ‘messaging’ and ‘communicating the likely impact’ to the people of Victoria.