By David Rose – Director, LACS Training Brussels
Question: What is the primary flaw with a significant quantity of professional texts, whether briefings, position papers, reports, emails or otherwise?
Answer: A lack of consistent clarity – the messages they outline don’t always come across to their target audience(s) in the way the writer actually intended
As I’m sure you already know, clear and audience-focused messages form the cornerstone of effective communication.
But what really happens if your key points are not consistently crystal clear for your intended audience?
Perhaps at this stage you’re thinking “Yes, but I already know this…” – acknowledged. However, there is very often a significant gap between theoretical awareness and its consistent application in practice…
…which explains why two common problems with clarity keep regularly appearing in the government, institutional and corporate documents, I work with:
1) ‘Buried gold’
2) ‘Sentence breakdown’
So, let’s get straight down to business – by having a look both at concrete examples of these problems and the techniques you can employ to avoid them…
‘Buried Gold’ = the key message hidden somewhere in a paragraph or sentence rather than being prominent.
One of the most common forms of this I term ‘Inversion’.
Let’s consider this example from a corporate sector text:
“Therefore, in view of both the current market situation and stated targets for the current year, we recommend an intensified marketing push for our high-value product lines.”
Here, the authors are trying to persuade their target audience to take a particular action… but losing the opportunity to do it with higher impact…
Reason: the ‘Why’ (“in view of…”) precedes the actual ‘What’ (“We recommend…”), burying the main message under the preceding justifications.
Now let’s consider exactly the same text reordered to give full prominence to the main message:
“Therefore, we recommend an intensified marketing push for our high-value product lines, in view of both the current market situation and stated targets for the current year.”
>> Placing the key ‘What’ first and the supporting ‘Why’ second focuses the audience first on the main message – what the author actually wants the audience to consider. This delivers the message with greater clarity and stronger persuasive impact.
So, follow this structure to make sure you consistently give prominence to your main messages:
‘Sentence Breakdown’ = ‘heavy’, overloaded sentences
If a text is made up of appropriately loaded and clear sentences, the target audience can comfortably process it without having to re-read anything. In this best case, the text has what we term ‘flow’ – it’s ‘easy’ to read.
What is the optimal sentence model to ensure your text ‘flows’?
First, let’s consider an example of a sentence from a recently published text showing a lack of flow:
“The XXX industry welcomes the government’s intentions to further address the issue of consumer protection and sees the proposal as a useful complement to the proposal for a Charter of Consumers’ Rights in order to better secure fair and transparent prices for consumers and acknowledge and deal with discrepancies in current pricing structures in the market caused by the existing overlaps in market regulations.”
Clearly, this sentence is too long. The intended reader is simply presented with too much information to process and actually retain in one reading.
Note also the typical ‘faulty’ linking devices used to continue the sentence: ‘and’ (x2) + ‘in order to’ + ‘caused by’.
Question: So, what exactly is the ‘appropriate’ length and information load for a sentence?
Answer: Two. A well-constructed, clear sentence has no more than two parts, typically equating to 1.5 – 2 lines in length.
Let’s illustrate this by applying this ‘Rule of Two’ to the extract above:
“The XXX industry welcomes the government’s intentions to further address the issue of consumer protection, seeing the proposal as a useful complement to the proposal for a Charter of Consumers’ Rights. We believe it will contribute to better securing fair and transparent prices for consumers. In parallel, we acknowledge it will deal with discrepancies in current pricing structures in the market caused by the existing overlaps in market regulations.”
So now, we have three sentences, each made up of no more than two parts and connected with more appropriate linking devices.
This revised version of the text now allows the intended reader to comfortably process the messages without the need to re-read. This significantly raises the text’s flow, clarity and impact.
Consistently apply the Rule of Two if you want to produce consistently clear sentences with flow and impact:
You can apply two concrete techniques to your professional writing to consistently avoid the two commonest ‘clarity pitfalls’:
1) The WHAT + WHY structure for your sentences – so you don’t bury your gold
2) The ‘Rule of Two’ – so you don’t overload sentences, producing ‘sentence breakdown’
Do this, and your text will be clearer and more easily readable for your target audience, with a stronger, lasting impact.
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