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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21 February 2014

Training your staff — more valuable than you realise

Training matters. I hadn’t realised how much until I read a chapter of management book What Were They Thinking? on the train this morning. Pfeffer says that when you invest in people, you’re rewarded with people who stick with you for longer, do their job better, and 'have a stronger sense of their own competency and capability'.

Investment in staff goes hand in hand with financial success

‘Companies on Fortune’s best places to work list have out-performed benchmark indices financially and are also among the leaders in their investments in their people. The Container Store’s employees average 162 hours of training a year. [That’s 20 full days!] Textile manufacturer Milliken requires workers to participate in 40 hours of training annually. [5 full days]’
Pfeffer, J. What Were They Thinking? Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007, page 30.

Practising what she preaches

My boss, Lynda, understands the value of training — unsurprisingly! Lynda has arranged one-on-one coaching for me when I needed it, assigned colleagues to teach me what I needed to know, invited external experts to present at our monthly staff-development afternoons, and welcomed me to sit in on any of the training my colleagues run for clients. 

Naturally, Lynda has staff who stick around for years and who love working for her.

Useful stuff sticks

When I think of the training sessions I’ve attended, I realise that gems from those sessions have transformed my work life. For example, our recent up-skilling session with Hilary Bryan from The Training Practice gave me powerful insights into the world of policy advisors. When working with policy advisors, I now target my training directly at the problems they face—and I do it with confidence.

Training is valuable

As a trainer, living and breathing training, I sometimes forget the value of what I’m offering. I worry that workshop participants might forget to use some of the techniques I present to them. I fear that habit is a stronger influence than a one-day workshop.

So thank goodness for 20-minute train rides! This morning’s reading reminded me I offer value to the people on my workshops.

In the New Zealand Herald today, you’ll find an interesting article about training for employees of small businesses—why it tends not to happen, but why it’s so valuable when it does.
Smallbusiness: training staff a win-win for SMEs

18 February 2014

Government Jargon buster booklet a step in the right direction

Bravo! Several government agencies who deal with procuring services have just released a jargon-buster booklet designed to help those of us who struggle with bureaucratic language. What exactly  is procurement, I hear you ask? I can now tell you. It's 'all aspects of acquiring and delivering goods, services and works. It starts with identifying a need and finishes with either the end of a service contract or the end of the useful life and disposal of an asset.'

Whew! What a relief. Anyone who has ever tried to bid for a government contract knows how dense and difficult the procurement process is. And the language of procurement has usually been the first major hurdle to be overcome by anyone trying to get a slice of government business. Scary jargon, overblown euphemisms and a sea of acronyms have often confronted anyone trying to fight their way through a Request for Tender or Expression of Interest document.

So it's wonderful to see that several government agencies, including the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Office of the Auditor General, Treasury, and the State Services Commission have collaborated on producing this useful jargon buster Common Procurement Words and Expressions Explained.

Jargon has a place, but clarity is best
The booklet will be a valuable, practical resource. We'll be keeping one close to hand at Write. I do have to wonder, though, whether we really need phrases like 'constructive market engagement' when the definition explains that it is really 'meeting with suppliers to discuss your needs and find out what's on offer in the marketplace.' Really, the bureaucratic jargon term adds very little.

Jargon does have its place. It can be a useful shortcut, to save time and space for those in the know. But there's the rub. Jargon is a type of 'in-group' language. It only works well for those who are part of the in-group. And all too often, writers over-estimate people's desire for, and understanding of, jargon. Clarity, simplicity, and accuracy trump jargon almost every time.

So congratulations to the government agencies who produced the procurement jargon buster booklet. But the very fact that the booklet is 34 pages long tells us that jargon is far too prevalent. Let's try to cut it right back, so that we have less need of booklets to translate jargon, no matter how good they are.

04 February 2014

Check your spelling on the door

We often check and double-check the spelling in documents and online material. Too often we neglect the face of the business—by that I mean the exterior of the business.

Poor spelling can lead to poor sales

We’ve all seen misspelled words in a sign. Does that lack of care affect our decision to enter a shop or buy a product? Last weekend I spied this sign at a wholesaler. 

Now you might think that photographing errors in signs is a bit over the top. But how you present your words outside your business can affect whether or not people enter it. Poor spelling can lead to poor sales.

So before you rush outside to erect a sign, take time to get the spelling right and have someone else check it. And remember: the more text on a sign; the more likely errors will creep in.

Unfortunately, one of the errors (Bacan) in this sign was more noticeable because the word was spelled correctly in a second sign on the same frontage. The sign has a second error. See if you can spot it.

Write the word you mean to write

A while ago I saw a sign that reminds us all to check that the word we write is the word we mean to write. Even with correct spelling, a word’s meaning can be ambiguous. And this sign outside a café had only two words: ‘Barrister needed’.

For a café? Now you and I know the writer meant ‘Barista needed’. I found the sign more amusing because it was at Palm Beach, Sydney. Given the location, maybe it was written in jest. Or maybe it was a gimmick to entice people through the door. Or maybe the business did need a barrister. The spelling was certainly in trouble. The possible meanings were endless. It reminds us all to make our meanings clear and not keep clients and customers guessing.

Signwriting is as much a skill as an art. The four tips that Brisbane-based Sign Age offer are: (1) make sure your spelling is correct; (2) make sure your logo adequately represents what you do; (3) ensure the wording on your sign makes sense and is grammatically correct; and (4) don’t try to cram too much on one sign.

So don’t check your spelling at the door. Check your spelling on the door. Only then can you make your signs sing.

We’ve included one misspelled sign on this page. We welcome comments (no images please) about any misspelled signs you might have seen.