Congratulations on your astounding plainness
4th December was National Plain English Day - a day devoted to championing plain writing, and to naming and shaming organisations who peddle gobbledegook. A noble aim to be sure. And as someone who spends their days helping brands sharpen up their language, it’s one I should be fully signed up for. I should be manning the barricades, sharpened pencil in hand.
But to be honest, my heart has just never been in it. This year, I got to pondering why that might be. I think there are two main reasons why Plain English Day fills me with such indifference. And even though you didn’t ask, I’ll share my reasons with you here.
The first reason is because, frankly, there isn’t the urgency there once was: in the 30 years since Plain English Day started, the standard of business writing has just got much better. Yes, there are still many millions of words of impenetrable legalese, vapid management-speak and just straight-up bad writing churned out by businesses every day. But by and large, that default tone of brittle formality has gone from daily business communication. Most businesses recognise that they need to be working hard at getting their words right, whether they’re writing letters to customers or terms and conditions.
Ten years ago, for example, it was only the most cutting-edge retail brands who thought it was worth their while defining their tone of voice. These days, at The Writer, we take calls from everyone from government regulators and councils, to financial services firms, accountants and lawyers. Many of them now have a ‘head of brand language’ whose sole job is to make sure the brand’s words are up to scratch. In the words of market analysis, tone of voice has gone from being an early adopter thing, to a late majority thing. And business writing is all the better for it.
There was a small but interesting moment earlier this year when someone on Twitter claimed they’d had a really pompous letter from webuyanycar.com, supposedly refusing to buy their Little Tikes toy car, and being all sniffy about it. Most people on Twitter instantly smelled a rat – the stuffy letter just didn’t sound very webuyanycar. And so it proved to be: the tweeter had faked the letter. webuyanycar’s real response was pitch-perfect: they instantly set up webuyanytoycar.com, and gave the proceeds to charity. This felt like a small but significant tipping point – people no longer expected the default tone of a business letter to be one of stuffy formality.
And this is my second problem with Plain English Day: against the backdrop of this changing attitude, plain seems like such a meagre aspiration. In what other walk of life would you accept ‘plain’ as the standard of success? (‘You should try this new restaurant – the food is really plain’; ‘I really like that dress on you – it makes you look so plain’; ‘We’d like to award you this Oscar for such an overwhelmingly plain performance.’)
What we really need to galvanise businesses to write better is Surprising English Day. Or Interesting English Day, or Quirky English Day, or just about any other kind of day that’s about celebrating inventiveness, freshness or uniqueness in business writing. We could celebrate the funniest error message of the year. We could applaud ‘the application of tone of voice in most far-reaching nook and cranny’. We could award ‘most inventive use of a metaphor to explain a difficult subject’. We could put the call out to find the year’s most unexpectedly entertaining PowerPoint slides. We could give Michael O’Leary a lifetime ‘colourful communicator’ award.
In fact, I might start it right now.
Nominations to email@example.com…