The Plainspeak Manifesto

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I couldn’t figure it out for the life of me. The email from the Illinois Teachers Union went on and on about changes to the health insurance program but didn’t explicitly explain what they meant, or what teachers should do about it.

The note linked to the web site with even more information but no clearer direction. An inquiry email to the help desk got a reply telling me I had to call an info number. At that point, I gave up.

You’ve had a similar experience, haven’t you? Perhaps it was another communication, maybe even far simpler yet still made no sense, like a magazine subscription renewal notice that didn’t identify when your existing deal ended, or that clickable box that appears on your computer when you’re just about to run a new piece of software and insists that you agree to a bunch of statements that are written in secret code.

It happens when you try to call a company and get lost in menu after menu of automatic response options (you know, the “please listen since your options have changed” nonsense that precedes a litany of steps that seem almost constructed to frustrate you). Connections that disconnect after you’ve struggled to get there. Online FAQs that turn out to be postings by other customers who, like you, couldn’t get answers to their questions.

Maybe it’s not so much an event but the incomprehensibility of everyday communication. A mobile phone bill that provides a dozen pages of numbers but doesn’t clearly state how many minutes you used, what they cost, and what you should do the next month. Insurance policies that are thick with words but defy you to declare with any conviction that you’re properly covered, or that you even know what that might mean. Lists of ingredients on food labels that make sense only if you can read Latin.

Mouseprint. Legalese. Gibberish. It’s not just the words that can confuse but also the processes that create and deliver them. Labyrinths. Mazes. Dungeons without exit. Otherwise intelligent, good people produce them, usually because such information is considered secondary to the primary content of branding. It’s operational, whereas outbound marketing is inspirational. Sometimes the obfuscation is purposeful, because the info is too dicey or unpleasant to face the light of day, or because it’s easier to divert attention and worry only about the small percentage of hardy folks who resurface with complaints on Twitter.

This isn’t a technical issue, and no social media solution will fix it. It goes to the core of how businesses define their brands and how they choose to deliver them. Companies should be held to higher standards for communicating clearly and consistently. There are tolerances to which manufacturers need to hold (stuff must fit together on assembly lines). Accountants’ spreadsheets follow rules (otherwise there’d be no way to fathom what the numbers meant), and lawyers have to live within rules that restrict what they can say and do.

So why aren’t there clear communication standards for marketers?

I say consumers need and deserve a Plainspeak Manifesto. Perhaps it’s a voluntary standard…a seal of approval that brands could adopt to show that they believe in specific qualities of communicating…and it would be a guide to how to craft such content. It could be a statement that a brand defines itself not by its creativity but through its clarity, and that in this world of UGC and “consumer-owned” conversations there’s still a need for businesses to propagate better, smarter, and more meaningful content into the world.

A Plainspeak Manifesto would declare that everyday operational communications are more important than the funny videos we enjoy on YouTube or the conversational promotions that appear on Facebook, and then set the aspirational goals for communicating clearly, like:

  • Active verbs & simple nouns
  • No paragraph without clear call to action or obvious purpose
  • Data defined by customer need, not brand or regulatory requirement
  • Answers as near to immediately available as possible
  • Opt-out for live help anywhere, anytime

My gut tells me that brands that communicate clearer also sell more stuff, and do so more profitably and sustainably. I’d like to put together a real list for the Manifesto and see if it could get some traction.

So tell me what you think? Down with the gibberish and confusion! What would a Plainspeak Manifesto say?

(Image credit: the house that brands build)

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