HOW TO WRITE LIKE A BLOODY PERSON
When a business gets to a certain size, they devote an entire department to making sure that none of the people employed there ever have to suffer the indignity of being treated, spoken to or thought of as a human being.
Because corporate language is all about irony, this department of inhuman communication is inevitably called “Human Resources.” Yeah. I bet your sides have split.
The HR department specialises in mechanical, jargon-ridden, impenetrable memos. Memos like this absolute classic a friend of mine received:
“Consideration is being given to a proposal in which certain assets, namely [REDACTED] shall be acquired by a competitor. Whilst nothing has yet been agreed, I do need to advise you of this as if the board agree to this proposal this may mean the redundancy of positions related to [REDACTED].”
“The board will be seeking to elect representatives for the purpose of consulting about the effects of this proposal at the earliest opportunity. With this elected group we will be reaching and agreeing upon a method for selecting a matrix. This will enable us to objectively and fairly select a pool from which those who will be selected for the streamlining of positions will be selected.”
It goes on like this for ages. Seriously. Two pages of this utter, utter guff.
If you’re wondering what the hell’s happening, a department is being sold and people are being made redundant. Unfortunately, this is wrapped up in so much drone-speak that you could reasonably believe the office is reacting to a proposal from a competitor by staging a production of a Keanu Reeves techno-thriller from the 90s.
But what is there for a Human Resources Communication Node (or other corporate speech-distribution asset) to do?
Here’s an idea. Here’s one plucked out of the ether.
Write like a bloody person.
How to write like a bloody person
I assume somewhere out there, there’s a writing course that upgrades the humble human into Human Resources Jargon Generating Software 3.6.
There must be, because nobody would come up with this shit on their own. So the first step to writing like a bloody person is abandoning all the toss that you’ve been taught on these courses. Print it out, rip it up, put it in a metal bin, carry the bin into the car park and set it on fire. Then come back.
Remember that your audience is made of humans, not resources
All writing starts with the audience. If you think about your audience of living, breathing humans instead of work output wetware, or leads, or assets, or potential investment streams or whatever, you’ll be better off.
If you think of a person as a resource, you start letters like this:
“Consideration is being given to a proposal in which certain assets, namely [REDACTED] shall be acquired by a competitor.”
Thinking of the people in your audience lets you tap into things like empathy. Those synapses will start firing off questions and answers. “How will they feel when they get this news? Excited? Terrified? Intrigued? Aroused? Celebratory?”
In microseconds, your brain will make the connection. “Redundancy = sad.” It’ll then work out the correct tone and approach. “Sad = needs comfort. Sad = requires apology. Sad = needs reassurance.”
Boom. Straight away, the brain’s identified that little human connection that all people look for when they communicate. So run with it.
Write something like this:
“I am sorry to inform you that your job may be at risk.”
Yeah, the reader’s still going to be sad, but at least they’ll now know that they should be sad, and that you’re sorry about it.
Remember that you’re a person too
The next mistake that impersonal writing makes is that it depersonalises you. It’s only natural if you’re writing with bad news. It’s uncomfortable, so you want to hide behind faceless bureaucracy. I get it.
But even that faceless bureaucracy is made up of people. “The Board” is not some faceless entity made up of groupthink and spreadsheets. It’s made up of people. “The Company” isn’t a loose connection of automatons – it’s Janice in accounts, and John from IT, and Kelly who answers the phone, and Greg who hides in the bogs all day.
So stop thinking about The Board and The Company and The Organisation and The Team and start thinking about the people.
We, the people.
By using words like 'we', and 'us', and 'I', you’re putting yourself in the firing line. But you’re reassuring the reader that this message is coming from people. And people listen to people, whereas they just rage against machines.
So far we’re looking at tone. That’s great, but as you can see above, tone only gets you so far. Sticking a human face on your weird industry jargon isn’t going to make you sound like a person.
“With this elected group we will be reaching and agreeing upon a method for selecting a matrix.”
If you’re dropping in jargon, chances are you either worry that you’re patronising your audience, or you think that your audience is impressed by jargon.
Here’s a secret I’ve learned in a decade of writing for everyone from Mrs. Homeowner to Mr Big Business CEO.
Nobody in the world ever reads something and thinks “I wish that was more complex and difficult to follow.”
And nobody worth impressing is impressed by jargon.
So what do you do? Dead easy this one. Dead easy.
Imagine explaining your point to a kid. Not a toddler – that way you end up patronising people. No, write for a fairly bright fourteen year old. A child with a good grasp of language, but who’s probably not too familiar with the concepts you’re discussing.
How would we tell our teenager that we’re reaching and agreeing upon a method for selecting a matrix?
Well, first we’d work out what a matrix is. A redundancy matrix is a way of deciding who’s the most important to your business. It’s done by representatives chosen by those affected to make sure it’s fair.
Then we’d say that.
“We’ll work with your chosen group to produce fair and balanced criteria to decide who will be offered new positions.”
It’s still not good news. But again, it sounds like people will be making these decisions.
Spot quiz. See what else I’ve done there? I changed 'elected' to 'chosen'. Elected’s a very impersonal term. Makes us all think of elections of MPs that we’ve never spoken to. Chosen’s much more personal. More human.
Do not underestimate the power of a contraction
We’ve been dealing with some heavy writing philosophy so far. So here’s a quickie.
The reason Mr Spock sounds so inhuman is his complete lack of verbal contractions. No didn’ts, wouldn’ts, won’ts or isn’ts. Definitely no “here’s your tricorder” or “there’s your phaser.”
Grab an apostrophe, contract a few words and sound more human. There’s hardly a shortage. Grocers have thousand's of ’em.
Am I writing like a bloody person? a checklist
It’s not difficult to write like a person. You are a person. You talk like a person. So if all else fails, write like you’d talk.
Talking doesn’t need to be informal, or casual, or funny. A doctor breaking bad news is still talking like a person, and we feel much better hearing her calm, respectful tone telling us that she’s sorry, but granddad’s not going to last the night than we would receiving a letter to inform us of imminent life cessation due to biological non-functionality.
But if you’re writing like you talk, and you’re still worried that you aren’t writing like a bloody person, you can always refer to this checklist:
- Did I write this with specific people in mind?
- Have I taken emotions into account and addressed them (eg. with an apology or congratulations)?
- Have I taken responsibility for this message instead of attributing it to a faceless group?
- Did I strip out as much jargon as possible?
- Would a fairly bright teenager understand this easily?
- Did I say 'won’t' instead of 'will not', 'didn’t' instead of 'did not' and 'she’s' instead of 'she is'?
- Can I read this out without sounding like a robot?
How did you do?
Mostly “Yes!”: Congratulations, you’re writing like a bloody person. I’m proud of you.
Mostly “No.”: Have another pass at this.
Or, if you’re really stuck, hire a professional writer to give you a hand.