While they don’t compare to Savage Chickens, high tech product marketers are apt to use dense prose with a plethora of technical jargon directed at experts. As a result, I’ve asked my team to pay special attention to being “simple and clear” in their communication. As Blaise Pascal allegedly quipped, “I apologize in advance for the length of this letter but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” It’s easy for me to ask my team to simplify their writing but it’s harder to explain how.
Since George Orwell and I share a birthday, I thought I’d borrow advice from his masterpiece ‘Politics and the English language’:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Orwell’s advice is more than 60 years old but still works today. Still, Orwell didn’t have to deal with the scourge of communication: Microsoft PowerPoint. If you’re in a company that uses ppt as its primary communication device, I strongly encourage you to read Seth Grodin’s Really Bad PowerPoint.
Use clear language and you’re more likely to get your point across. It’s that simple.
What’s interesting about bad powerpoint is that it’s a study in incentives — i.e. it’s often a systemic corporate issue, rather than about individuals making poor choices.
When I present, I try to use simple, clear pictures to illustrate what I’m saying — and I get high ratings.
But people rarely want to reuse those slides, even when I’ve written word-for-word scripts for them. Why?
(1) They’re designed for me. Good presenters have found a style that works for them, and the material should be adapted to that style, rather than the other way around. For example, I like humor in presentations, but many people are uncomfortable delivering these, or think it inappropriate.
(2) People want words on the slides that they get from others. They typically prepare at the last minute, and so need the words as a lifeline (only a staggeringly small number of people know how to get powerpoint to show the script as they present), or they want to just give the presentation to somebody else as a document.
(3) Corporate presentations are designed by committee for the lowest common denominator — i.e. really bad presenters. This leaches out any creative spark or interest that they may have had, and results in presentations cluttered with extraneous trademarks, logos, and disclaimers, long passages of illegible 10 pt font, generic corporate photos and complex diagrams.