This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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28 February 2012

Putting your main message first saves time — and other people’s nerves!

Someone I once worked with — when on the receiving end of a rambling conversation — would put his hands on his hips and demand with a lordly air ‘And this should concern me how?’ I thought that a rude reaction, but as time has gone by I find myself echoing the sentiment if not the exact words.

Put your main message first
One of our favourite mantras here at Write is put your main message first. By which we mean figure out the point of the writing (or the conversation) and make that the first thing you write (or say). I’ve become so aware of this principle that I’ve started applying it to all sorts of situations.

Can you imagine my reaction to retail salespeople who greet me with ‘And how’s your day been?’

Then there are phone calls. I find myself sighing with exasperation when the caller takes forever to tell me why they’ve called. ‘Just let me know what you’d like me to do?’ has been necessary to prompt the conversation along. My Dutch friend doesn’t suffer from any such lack of directness — and she reckons New Zealanders have a problem. But that’s another blog.

We find the MADE formula helpful
Recently, I told a friend about the MADE formula for structure in writing that we teach. M stands for main message, A for action, D for detail, and E for extra information I told her. My friend was so intrigued that, when she subsequently sent me an email about an arrangement we were both involved in, she spelled it all out using the MADE formula.

What was even more interesting was her comment on how writing to a structural formula affected her thinking. ‘I had to figure out what my main point was’ she said. ‘I actually had to think before I wrote.’ And her second comment was even more intriguing. ‘Using a formula like MADE forced me into a more formal mode.’

Emails are often sadly lacking in formality of language — resulting in unintended offence to readers. Giving an email at least a formality of structure lessens an otherwise over casual effect.

Nudge those who ramble
In a recent conversation with a friend who tended to ramble, I suggested he talk to another friend about a technical question I couldn’t answer. ‘My friend likes elevator pitches,’ I suggested. ‘Let him know in one main statement sentence what you’re after.’

The result was a picture. I could almost see my friend dredging up precious cargo from the undifferentiated sludge in his brain. He came up with a perfectly formulated version of the question he wanted an answer to. And got an answer he could use. Putting a main message first resulted in a more economical conversation with a more satisfying outcome.

And a good deal less wear and tear on the nerves.

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