“Don’t write so that you can be understood. Write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”
– William Howard Taft
Each year, hundreds of passionate plain-language professionals from all over the world converge on a cool city to share the latest findings and advancements in our field. Vancouver, D.C., Lisbon, Sydney. You get the gist.
In November 2014, a number of Center for Plain Language members and leaders traveled to Antwerp and Brussels for a joint conference hosted by IC Clear and Clarity. For three fantastic days, we soaked up the shared plain language passion — and in the evenings enjoyed exploring charming streets, unbelievable shopping and restaurants housed in ancient tunnels. On the final day, we traveled from Antwerp to Brussels to celebrate the Clear Writing Awards at the European Commission. There, we listened to EU dignitaries, such as Secretary-General of the European Commission Catherine Day, and Center for Plain Language leaders extol the virtues and value of plain language.
The entire experience was a perfect capstone for the conference — and Taft’s words above seem to be a plain-language rallying cry. I believe Reijo Kemppinen, who guides much of the EU’s communications and document management, meant to use it in this way when he referenced Taft in his presentation, Writing Clearly for 28 Member States.
But, I’d argue that if you look closely, his words could be as much an admonition as an aspiration. Thanks to passive-voice structure, look who’s missing from Taft’s quote: the audience. We need to know our audience — and precisely what knowledge they hold — to be sure we’re not misunderstood.
Many of the presentations supported the conference’s “Learning to Be Clear” theme by hinting at a key gap in our audience focus. In her opening keynote, European ombudsman Emily O’Reilly discussed the difference between good intentions and good results. Both Joh Kirby and Steven Pinker (and likely others, too) explicitly warned of the curse of knowledge. Susan Kleimann shared how focusing on a document’s performance — rather than personal preference — can create the results that audiences truly need.
Center members Annetta Cheek, Karen Schriver, Ginny Redish, Joe Kimble and Josiah Fisk each spoke about our need to improve how we reach audiences, too. And these examples are only the beginning.
Yes, as plain language practitioners, we think about audiences much more than the typical communicators. We stand up for readers and champion clarity. We fight the good fight against misunderstanding. But while we may have great empathy and professional expertise, we’re also not mind readers.
Ultimately, we’re just as susceptible to the curse of knowledge as the organizations and individuals we support.
Of all the insights I took away from this year’s conference, the most powerful was not new knowledge, but this simple reminder: Despite our greatest attempts at empathy, we can never truly know what other people think or know, unless we ask them.
If we hope to create content that prevents misunderstanding, we must start by recognizing our own curse of knowledge — and including our audiences every step of the way.
About the author: As Principal of Zuula Consulting, Meghan Codd Walker helps clients understand — and unleash — the power of plain language. She brings more than a decade of experience as a writer, editor and content strategist, with a focus in the financial services industry.