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Speak plainly... but not too plainly

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2016. Speak plainly, but not too plainly. Intercom February: 36.

The plain speech movement arose in reaction to the vast mass of words each of us confronts daily, much of it incomprehensible—often deliberately so, as in the cases of insurance policies and cell phone plans. The problem is not limited to text, however, as anyone who browses the Web knows. Although Adobe’s online animation tool may have been named “Flash” based on the eponymous noun, the quality of most information presented in Flash format suggests the name works better as an adjective: ostentatious. To borrow from Shakespeare, far too much Flash content comprises naught more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

Ironically, in its archaic sense, flash relates to thieves and their language. The archaic sense is appropriate, since so much Flash content does little more than steal our time; nowadays, Flash security updates having become a weekly joke, it may steal more than that.
Though I mock, this reminds us we must not steal time from our audience, lest we become no better than those we mock. What then, is a technical communicator to do? Use words judiciously, keeping the advice of William of Ockham, best known as Occam’s razor, as our guide: “make it as simple as possible, but no simpler”. The difficulty lies in defining simple; the solution lies in understanding what an audience needs to understand, and providing that and nothing more.

Leo Rosten tells the tale (which I’ll paraphrase) of the shopkeeper who hires an editor to help him sell his seafood more economically by reducing the size of the sign, thereby reducing signage costs. The editor’s task is to boil down the message “fresh fish for sale daily” to its irreducible minimum. “Eliminate daily,” says the editor, since the fish could hardly be fresh if it were not sold daily. For that matter, eliminate “fresh”, since customers would never return if a merchant sold fish that was well past its sell-by date. The need to describe the fish as “for sale” seems unclear. After all, what shopkeeper would display a window full of fish as an objet d’art? This leaves the lonely word “fish”, which could surely be eliminated, since even the uneducated will recognize the nature of the finned and scaled meat displayed in the shop’s window. Although the resulting wordless image might be a boon to the illiterate, and arguably represents effective minimalist visual communication, something seems lacking.

Although one should never obfuscate, sometimes it’s better to use a pricier word such as obfuscate than a cheaper but longer and less precise phrase. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between fire and a firefly. (Twain used lightning and lightning bugs, but that strays uncomfortably close to Flash.) Similarly, although jargon has acquired a bad reputation, the advice to eschew jargon oversimplifies. Good jargon communicates effectively with audiences that understand it; bad jargon obfuscates by privileging words the audience does not know or can only parse with difficulty.

Thus, we reach the moral of our story: Speak your truth plainly and clearly. Just not too plainly and clearly. Good communication is inherently redundant, full of padding and spices that may be unnecessary in purely technical terms, but that make the message more palatable. Sacrificing these aspects for the sake of concision risks creating pabulum so bland that none heeds its eminently comprehensible message.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved