Skillset New Zealand Blog

Ideas to help your team develop personally and professionally.

It's a common objection.

'This modern style of writing is all very well, but...
I work in enforcement/my stuff might go to court/I want to show I'm being professional.'

Time for some plain English. I'm going to be less diplomatic than I would be in a workshop.


The modern style of writing allows you to say anything you need to say and as forcefully and professionally as you want.

Plain English is the bedrock of modern professional writing. See the way your communications team writes. Their language will be more natural and more engaging than the old officialese, legalese and commercialese that some people still insist is the professional way to write.  (The defenders of the lofty academic style use similar arguments. The result is passive and unnecessarily complex language that ensures that only the dedicated few will read it.)

The leading authority on British English has described commercialise as an 'evil tradition'. It's a bit over-the-top, but you can sense the passion coming through.

If you are in enforcement, or dealing with any legal issues, consider these alternatives.

'We advise that you are now required to remove the article from its current location. 
Under the Litter Act 1979, a fine not exceeding $750 could be imposed, should a prosecution be considered necessary.'
The rubbish bag is in High Street. Please remove it immediately. If we have to prosecute, you could be fined up to $750.'
'Pursuant to the Resource Management Act 1992, a resource consent is required before the comencement of the activity.' 'You must have a resource consent before you can begin pumping water for irrigation.'
'In recent discussions with the company it was noted that it had been previously identified that the equipment referred to above was unsuitable.' 'Your Chief Executive told us on March 14 he knew the crane was not large enough for the heavier loads.'

Let's say those examples do go to court.

Would the judge consider that the examples on the left expressed our ideas with more clarity than the examples on the right?  More likely, she would think we were stuffy bureaucrats throwing our weight around and trying desperately to impress.

Let's say you chose the examples on the right. Could the judge decide that the resident who dropped the rubbish bag, or the farmer who wanted to irrigate without a consent, had been warned in language anyone could understand? Could a judge decide that the bureauractic language of the letter to the company (on the left) was not as clear as the more modern style you chose?

Judges are impressed by clarity, not the words we know. They take pride in the clarity of their written decisions.  

Modern professional writers write in ordinary informal, but usually not casual, language. They are more direct - more specific and upfront than old-style writers. They focus on people and action, not just things,  so, 'Your Chief Executive told us...', not 'In recent discussions with the company it was noted...'.

Here's the undiplomatic bit

'My job is too serious for modern writing', is just an excuse to avoid change. There, someone had to say it.

Add to that excuse, 'I don't believe in dumbing down my writing'.  Dumbing down is taking out essential information - maybe even turning a compliance notice or a report into a story for pre-schoolers. It won't happen. Saying it will is just another way of avoiding change.

Those examples on the left are stuffy nonsense. If you want to persuade your colleagues, ask them if they would feel embarassed using those words in a conversation with the same readers.

Modern writing is like plain speaking. It's a skill to admire.

It's also a way to build cooperation, rather than rely on compliance. And cooperation is much more efficient.





About Ralph Brown

ralph brown blog3

Ralph is our founder and managing director. He has a background in psychology, television journalism and business.

Ralph's passions are psychology and writing. He leads workshops on both and speaks to conferences on the psychology of thriving at work.

In 2011  Professional Speakers Australia awarded him its top speaking accreditation, the CSP.

He has written six books and more than a hundred articles on psychology and writing. International research journals have published his articles reviewing the research on resilience.

Ralph's enjoys trips to France. He lives in rural Canterbury.

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