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Fergal McGovern



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Clear communication: empowering non-native (and native) English speakers to write better


Clear communications are essential for organisations to function properly and it’s up to HR to come up with smart solutions to make this happen.

Organisations rely on written communication. Website content, scripts for live chats, customer journey drips, process documents, policy documents, terms and conditions and emails are just a few examples. For an eye-opening statistic, consider how much written communication makes up an internet minute in 2018.

However, the quality of written communication can vary for numerous reasons.

  • Not everyone writes to the same standard
  • People don’t often think of the audience they’re writing for
  • The instant feedback provided with spoken communication is not present with written communication

Not to mention that in today’s international talent market, it is very likely that not everyone in your organisation will be a native English speaker. 

Implementing a plain language standard in your organisation can help solve all of these issues.

The definition of plain language is:

  • No jargon
  • Limited use of acronyms
  • No passive language
  • As few long sentences as possible

Plain language is important, both internally and externally

Your organisation has internal and external customers. Both are very busy, and don’t dedicate time to decipher unclear communications.

Poorly written content causes confusion, wastes people’s time and can erode trust. This is an organisational fail. It’s not only a marketing issue.

Two important points need to be made here.

  • People’s reading ages are a lot lower than you’d assume. In the UK, the average reading age is below that of an 11 year old. In the USA, the average reading age is at a 7th or 8th grade level. Few of us consider these reading ages when we write.
  • Conversations about diversity and inclusion are taking place under the wider banner of organisational transformation. Although this article highlights the challenges encountered by non-native English speakers, the employment market is segmented in multiple ways. Even native English speakers have different education backgrounds, varying levels of training etc.

Yet improving people’s writing capabilities seldom gets identified as key to achieving organisational transformation.

For workers, their performance is hampered by their underdeveloped English writing skills. This in no way indicates that they’re not a high achiever – just think of software developers or engineers. These professionals could have remarkable ideas that can grow your organisation. However, they aren’t able to communicate these effectively due to their lack of writing skills.

For management, frustration arises with the loss of productivity that goes with poor communication. Increased costs and slower growth follow.

Poorly written content causes confusion, wastes people’s time and can erode trust. This is an organisational fail. It’s not only a marketing issue.

For customers, it’s excruciating to deal with a company that doesn’t communicate well. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. If you’re unable to solve your problem through the content provided, you have to phone a call centre. This means that it takes more time trying to get to the bottom of things.

Time is money for everyone. Your customers won’t feel warm towards your organisation for having theirs wasted. The result is that customer retention becomes more difficult and expensive.

The limits of training in improving written communications

As HR practitioners, you’re invested in providing professional development opportunities for the people in your organisation. This upskills the workforce, and it’s a smart employee retention policy too.

Anecdotally, we can attest to the good intentions most organisations have in providing training to their staff. However, training to improve written communications is fraught with problems.

  • How do you ensure that people implement what they have learnt? Organisations and individuals may embark on the training with real commitment. Yet, the usual to-do lists take over once the training ends. People lose new skills quickly.
  • Individuals learn at different paces. You can’t guarantee that training to improve writing skills will be implemented the same way at the same time by every person.
  • Company-wide communication guidelines do not allow flexibility in writing style. Until now, subjective editorial guidelines have governed written communications. This is unhelpful in a work environment where everyone needs to follow one standard. Dictating a writing style can alienate staff as much as the use of jargon or passive language.

This is where technology can make all the difference.

How technology is helping non-English native speakers adjust in the workplace

As illustrated above, it’s impossible to standardise written communication in a business due to the limits inherent in training, but technology can be your biggest help here.

When a system scores content through an objective set of guidelines, improving written communication becomes easier.

It may surprise people to learn that objective guidelines for plain language have been in existence since the 1970s. The US Navy developed the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula to measure the difficulty of technical manuals.

Recent research has shown that better, clearer communications grows trust with customers. 

The VisibleThread Readability Server uses the Flesch-Kincaid formula to empower people to write in plain language. Users immediately improve the quality of their written communication. (A free version of the readability solution is available on the site.)

The technology solution works in the following way:

  • The user sends their content to a dedicated email address. There is no login required, hence a seamless and quick experience for the user.
  • Within seconds, an email is sent back to the user with notes on their content. Suggestions of how to fix their errors are included.

The content itself is not changed. Individuals see their own content and the suggested corrections. This enables people to self-score and learn as they write.

Additionally, managers make huge time savings as they no longer have to police the implementation of training to improve outputs.

In this way, HR can pioneer a smart solution to a two-fold problem. Firstly, internal communications become quicker, easier to act upon and staff gain confidence.

Secondly, they help lead a transformation in customer relations. Recent research has shown that better, clearer communications grows trust with customers. In a time where customers are increasingly questioning business practices, many companies losing out by continuing to communicate poorly.

For the first time, organisations have a standard way to measure their communications; and workers, management and customers will all reap the benefits of plain language in written communication.

Interested in learning more about communications skills? Read Communicating company culture: understanding the role of unique language in business.

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