In 1942, during the Second World War, the United States government was all set to issue a blackout order, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt blocked it.
The order read: “Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.”
Offering a clearer alternative, President Roosevelt said: “Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.”
Some 70 years later, clarity in written communication remains a pressing need. You probably experience this first-hand on daily basis: You read a memo or a report, you go back and forth, and still you can’t “get” it.
What’s the secret to clarity in written communication? Why can some people write clearly while others can’t? There is no magic bullet — clarity is more like a destination you arrive at after crossing the following stops:
Know your readers
Before writing anything, draw up a profile of your likely readers. Are they technical or non-technical people? How familiar are they with the subject? What are their concerns and priorities? Then tailor your message accordingly, using the appropriate language style, content and focus.
For example, if you are an engineer who is writing a proposal on energy-saving measures for the top management and you draw up a profile of your audience, how is it going to affect your writing?
Most likely, you will see the need to write in jargon-free, easy-to-understand language, avoid complicated technical details and focus on commercial implications.
Know the purpose
Isn’t it common to receive a long awaited e-mail or a report that unexpectedly falls short of delivering clear answers, directions or recommendations? Clear communication is always purposeful. Before you write, ask: What should the readers be able to do or accomplish after going through this report or memo?
Clear your head
Einstein once said: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” Similarly, you can’t achieve clarity on paper unless you first achieve it in your head: A muddled piece of writing is nothing but a reflection of a confused, cluttered mind.
When confronted by a complex issue, employ the most effective journalistic tool to attain clarity: 5Ws and 1H (what, when, where, who, why and how).
If you are writing a technical report on solving a complex problem, start by asking: What’s happening? When it is happening? Where it is happening? Who is involved? Why it is happening? How it is happening? And slowly, clarity will emerge from the shadows of confusion.
Use plain English
Plain English is defined as writing that the intended audience can read, understand and act upon the first time they read it.
Out of the many recommendations of how to achieve plain English, the following three are particularly useful in improving clarity of writing:
Use short sentences: Keep your average sentence length limited to 20 words and the maximum sentence length to 35 words.
Use short and simple words: Avoid long, complicated, unfamiliar words in favour of short, simple, familiar ones. Instead of writing “We are cognizant of the reasons for the delay in shipment”, write, “We are aware of….”
Use active voice: Instead of writing “The machine will be commissioned by Joe”, write instead, “Joe will commission the machine”. Active voice is direct, less wordy and easier to understand.
Explore the power of plain English at www.plainenglish.co.uk and www.plainlanguage.gov
Revise and review
Despite all the above steps, your first drafts may not be clear enough. Just as dirty water passes through stages of filtration and treatment before it becomes drinkable, your first drafts will progressively achieve clarity — if you review and revise what you have written a few times.
As you rise in your career, you rely increasingly on your words — spoken and written — to influence others. Clarity in written communication will aid your career growth and influence on others.