NYTimes Op-Ed Column: Plain English Is the Best Policy

I loved this column in today’s New York Times about the gobbledy-gook that passes for English in most health insurance information.

The best part of the column is that the writer offers examples of actual health insurance policy language, which is generally written at a college or graduate-school reading level, and rewrites it into plain English.  It’s very illuminating.  Why can’t all information be written in this straightforward, simple way?

Let’s be clear about something: if you are in the communications profession then your job is to communicate.  If the audience that you are communicating with does not understand what you write, say or present then you have failed.  Period.

I think this gobbledy-gook phenomenon falls into two categories, and how you, the communication professional, respond should be considered accordingly:

Category 1: The gobbledy-gook is intentional.  The goal is NOT to inform and communicate, but to confuse and obfuscate.  If you find yourself working in a job where you are being charged — implicitly or explicitly — with creating content that is purposely confusing there is only one thing to do.  You have to quit.  Life is too short.

Category 2: The gobbledy-gook is unintentional.  In this scenario you and your colleagues are really, really smart about something and you want the whole world to know how really, really smart you are.  Or you are all swimming so deep in your own Kool-Aid that the jargon and acronyms actually make sense to you.  The cure for this is two-fold.  First, if you as the communications person recognize the lack of clarity you need to fight it at every turn.  You need to simplify, simplify, simplify, while still being complete and accurate.  Easier said than done, but that’s your job.  Second, if you are deep into the subject such that you don’t recognize the lack of clarity then you need to get outside perspectives from the intended audience.  Ask current clients if what you’ve written make sense to them.  Even better, ask prospects.

Either way, commit to plain English, always.