Clarity, courtesy, Cape Town and Quay Four

“No food from other establishments, bare feet or firearms allowed.” The sign outside Cape Town’s Quay Four restaurant made me wonder if we’d do better somewhere else, but it looked a nice place. It sat by the famous Victoria and Alfred waterfront, where the lights were starting to gleam against the dark water as the swift African sunset began. We climbed the stairs, were made welcome and had a delightful evening. We ate only what they served, and kept our shoes and socks on. There was no gunplay.

The time with my beautiful wife, the strange sign, the views and the good food all made it memorable. But there’s another reason – the brilliant way the staff looked after us. The customer service was perfect. How?

Part of the answer is that there was no sense of being patronised or treated as the passing trade we were. When we left two or more hours later, the sun had set and the streets were dark. A waitress showed us to a taxi rank about 100 yards away to make sure we were safe. Great service.

The other part of the answer is about how the staff communicated with us. When the “waitrons” (the restaurant’s word) talked to us, they looked as if they wanted to be understood. They smiled pleasantly at the right times, listened to what we said, and gave helpful and relevant replies. They asked useful questions and made good menu suggestions. They spoke concisely and to the point, but never tersely. They read us well, knew when to speak and when to stop, and struck a nice balance between courtesy and informality. They were happy to talk and make sure we enjoyed our evening, but were never familiar or intrusive. Their courtesy and efficiency were exemplary, and they were never obsequious.

This all applies pretty well to how we write – perhaps even the smiling. Our readers must come first, of course. But getting a helpful, effective tone is never easy. Readers can soon smell insincerity, intended or not. “Let me assure you that…” and “It would be appreciated if…” can kill a writer/reader relationship in the time it takes to read them. Not getting to the point, especially in response to a complaint, soon looks suspicious. Vague words and phrases such as “…need to address this…” and “we have issues around this” confuse and irritate. And the needless negative in that stock UK closing line, “Please do not hesitate to contact me should you require further information”, isn’t a winning invitation to get in touch.

When we write, we need to imagine our reader. They don’t want subservience and false courtesy, but clear information, crisply and courteously given. Straightforward professional language, confidently free of flannel and jargon, goes a long way towards creating a strong business relationship between reader, writer and their organisations. That relationship, founded on civility and communication, is the best basis for the best results.

Why clear English? Why not plain English?

Many people question what “plain English” means. Some feel strongly that it suggests basic writing that doesn’t suit difficult topics or clever people. At its worst, it leads to banning words that don’t fit a prescribed plain lexicon.

This may explain why senior people tend to avoid plain English training. They are usually competent writers and prefer not to spend a day on basic skills such as using active voice verbs and short sentences. But when a senior person attends a good writing course and encourages clear language in their organisation, great things can happen. Staff start to see the benefits of clear, relevant writing and feel they can move away from the officialese, management-speak or simple wordiness that may have clogged their communication for years.

Much plain English training often crudely contrasts ancient bureaucratic language with much crisper passages. It’s entertaining, but doesn’t meet modern business writing needs. The course materials can be ancient, sometimes decades rather than years old. We use tailored, relevant materials that demonstrate current good writing in a client’s field of work, and we always make some dedicated materials from each client’s own documents.

We cover plain English skills, but also spend plenty of time on more subtle areas. These include deciding why a document needs to be written, how to shape it for the intended reader, how to use jargon sensibly, and how to avoid abrasiveness, defensiveness, ambiguity, and unnecessary or incomplete detail.

Being clear and a bit imaginative about these areas helps authors create content; strong content helps them structure their material and decide the tone of a document. It’s the tone (or ‘tone of voice’) that often decides how readers receive and respond to a message.

Complex topics sometimes demand complex language. Further, English is a subtle language with wide resources that help us communicate intelligently and effectively. Worrying about whether our average sentence length is more than 18 words, how many words of more than two syllables we have used, and whether we have more than one passive verb in three lines isn’t going to take us far towards good writing.

Good language should speak clearly and effectively to the reader, but shouldn’t demean the writer. For example, the simple syntax and diction in a public leaflet might not suit a lengthy proposal or report. In such documents information, perhaps about technical points, needs to be arranged and expressed using the best language for the purpose and the reader. That language can be plain, complex, literal, metaphorical, poetic or prosaic. Plain English skills are only part of achieving true clarity.