Tag: plain English

Boil it down

Posted on March 14th, by Thomas Heath in writing. Comments Off on Boil it down

Thanks Edward for putting us on to this old-school newspaper editors’ mantra for writers. All sing along now…

If you’ve got a thought that’s happy,

Boil it down.

Make it short and crisp and snappy,

Boil it down.

When your brain its coin has minted,

Down the page your pen has sprinted,

If you want your effort printed,

Boil it down.

Take out every surplus letter,

Boil it down.

Fewer syllables the better,

Boil it down.

Make your meaning plain.

Express it so we’ll know not merely guess it;

then my friend ere you address it,

Boil it down.

Cut out all the extra trimmings,

Boil it down.

Skim it well, then skim the skimmings,

Boil it down.

When … Read More »

How to write short, shortened

Posted on April 15th, by Thomas Heath in writing. Comments Off on How to write short, shortened

Advice for reluctant writers … from the Great Explainer

Posted on September 23rd, by Thomas Heath in writing. Comments Off on Advice for reluctant writers … from the Great Explainer

The American physicist Richard P Feynman (1918-1988) is perhaps the greatest communicator in the history of science. His contributions place him among the most influential scientists of the 20th century. Albert Einstein attended his first talk as a graduate student, and as a young man he helped develop the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

Dubbed ‘The Great Explainer’, Feynman was able to convey complex ideas to both scientists and non-scientists with equal clarity. He transformed the strange theory of QED into a potent calculating tool that could be used to make accurate predictions about everything we see around us. He got the idea watching a spinning dinner plate. It won him the Nobel Prize.

Feynman was a pioneer in making science popular on television. When Bill Gates watched old films of Feynman lecturing, he was so captivated that he said his … Read More »

Do as you would be done by: how to connect with your reader

Posted on January 14th, by Thomas Heath in writing. 1 Comment

One of my first jobs was as a cashier in a building society. At the counter, I came face-to-face with all sides of human nature — friendly, impatient, worried, aggrieved, confused or plain rude. It was tough, but I found that the best way through every situation was to treat people the way I like to be treated.

It’s the key to connecting with readers too: write as you’d like to be written to. But it doesn’t happen automatically, because writing media – whether printed or online – creates a physical barrier.

As a cashier I had to look customers in the eye and respond immediately. But when we write, because we‘re not face-to-face, we risk losing the human connection.

Skype, FaceTime and other media are helping to bridge the gap, but meanwhile new barriers are popping up everywhere, as written messages — mainly email … Read More »

Older people write better digital content

Posted on February 2nd, by Thomas Heath in writing. 2 comments

I’ve just turned 41. I played football on my Birthday, ruptured my Achilles tendon and now I’m here with my leg in plaster. So I thought I’d mention one benefit of getting older.

Why communication failure is an unaffordable risk

Posted on November 7th, by Thomas Heath in writing. Comments Off on Why communication failure is an unaffordable risk

Too many financial institutions are failing to turn the mistakes of others into lessons of sound governance. So what’s missing from the myriad rules designed to safeguard this industry? Only clarity and wisdom.

Your message read: send three and fourpence we’re going to a dance! No, we definitely said: send reinforcements we’re going to advance!

Since 1763 there have been 22 seminal economic crises. The Wall Street Crashes of 1929 and 2008 are stark examples. All have been caused by sudden changes of expectations, sending a glaring signal that the corporate mindset should be trained to anticipate and pre-empt.

But the signal hasn’t been getting through. Perhaps Mark Twain was wrong and lack of communication, not money, is the root of all evil. Gordon Gekko may claim that greed is good, but like all tunnel vision, it’s dangerous.

Ask Ivan Boesky.

There are 5 million … Read More »

Why medical information will get better

Posted on March 9th, by Thomas Heath in writing. Comments Off on Why medical information will get better

I’ve been taking pills. They’ve done wonders for my backache. And the name of this rejuvenating cure is ‘Rheumatac Retard 75’.

Rheumatac Retard. Can you feel the healing power? The warm glow of wellbeing? Me neither. Describing medicines has been a litigious, closely guarded business for as long as people have been taking them. So we get this odd language, locked down by regulation and detached from its audience.

But things have got better. Last week the British National Formulary published new guidelines on medicine instruction labels, based directly on user testing. The researchers found some people misunderstood phrases such as ‘avoid alcoholic drink’, but were clear if told ‘don’t drink alcohol while taking this medicine.’

Then there are Patient Information Leaflets (PILs) — those cleverly folded sheets of smallprint you get with every box of medicine. If you’re writing a PIL it must now be … Read More »

How to explain first time

Posted on July 5th, by Thomas Heath in writing. 1 Comment

‘If you’re explaining you’re losing.’ That phrase recently came out to bite President Obama, after he gave a 17-minute answer to a short question about healthcare and taxes.

Healthcare and taxes, human rights, banking, the environment … too many of the most vital messages get beached like whales in our attention deficit disordered world. People have to understand first time. Get it? Got it. Good. If not, you lose.

To avoid losing, answer these questions before you try to explain:

1. Who cares and why?
2. How will I make a difference?
3. What’s the big idea?

We use this approach for scripting everything except Post-it notes. You can too.

Step One: Who cares and why?
Who’s your audience? What are they thinking? And why exactly would they be interested in you? Great if you know these people as individuals. If not then imagine them into life — … Read More »

How computer code can improve your writing

Posted on June 1st, by Thomas Heath in writing. 2 comments

As a writer, more and more of my words are published online. The more I work with web developers and designers, the more I see of the dark arts of coding. And do you know what? Writing code is just the same as writing words.

Developers and writers are doing the same things – the only difference is that while I want to communicate clearly to my reader, my developer is communicating with a web browser. Either way, we’re both using language to create specific outcomes.

Not convinced? Well, let me give you a few things that a good writer can learn from their web developer:

1. Know your outcomes

When a developer starts writing a piece of code, they’ll always have an outcome in mind.

They might be adding a sign-up box to capture email addresses. They might be adding more navigation links to a … Read More »

Unusual advice on how to begin a proposal

Posted on February 4th, by Thomas Heath in writing. 5 comments

Decision makers love to say ‘I only ever read the executive summary’. And the way you start your proposal tends to seal its fate. It’s your Dragon’s Den moment: 45 seconds to convince a tough audience. Better make it good.

But I see many proposal writers get overwhelmed by the occasion. The point gets lost in a parade of corporate niceties, with much cap doffing and polite procrastination: ‘we’re delighted to submit this proposal for your attention… the company is committed to…’. That kind of thing.

Look up advice on writing executive summaries and you’ll find differing lists of items you might want to include: mission statements, team members, and so on. Combine those lists together and you’ve got a monster. Meanwhile, your dragon’s flown away.

What to do? First be clear what ‘executive summary’ means:

1. You’re summarising an idea, not a document.

2. … Read More »