Dude! Where’s my plain language?


 There’s lots of reasons to like Don Watson.

My main reason? He’s a great writer. He’s well known for being speechwriter to former Australian PM Paul Keating (and wrote a marvellous book on Keating called Confessions of a Bleeding Heart). He’s also the author of two books much-loved in my circles: Weasel Words (Contemporary Clichés, Cant & Management Jargon) and Death Sentence (The Decay of Public Language).

The overriding point that Watson makes in those two volumes is this –  governments and corporations often uses tricky language designed more to hide information from us than enlighten us. Have some fun watching the short Don Watson YouTube clip below:

Don Watson books
Don Watson books

I was reminded of this again recently when my youngest son brought home a notice from his school which advised parents of a narrative incursion opportunity’.

I had to scratch my head over that headline.  Turns out the clues were in the following paragraphs. The notice was about an author visiting the school, not an impending invasion where the school expected us to climb some barricades waving paperbacks in the air.

It’s not the first time the school has used education department-speak which forces the reader to wade through thick obfuscation to decipher what’s being said. It’s language that excludes and frustrates me immensely (as my Facebook friends will recall).

Given all of this, I’m heartened when I see government social media accounts that leap over this obfuscation and use everyday words. A well-known example of this was the Census 2011 Twitter account, famed for its ability to make its data interesting. In digestible tweets, it shared updates like these:

Census 2011 Tweet
Census 2011 Tweet

And it’s kept up the good work with this recent tweet  (referencing a reality TV show you may or may not have seen):

Census 2011 tweet - in 2013
Census 2011 tweet – in 2013

Some government accounts make pop culture references or talk ‘in our lingo’ in a light-hearted way that brings their messages home:

SAPOL tweet
SAPOL tweet

Some reference song lyrics:

SA Gov tweet
SA Gov tweet
Qld Police Facebook post
Qld Police Facebook post

Others remind us they’re human:

Qld Police tweet
Qld Police tweet

You’ll have noticed that many of these ‘plain language’ or fun posts come from police social media accounts. Why is that?

Here’s some guesses: Police need to work closely with the public. They need our help and want to have good relationships with us. Hence they try to use warm or funny phrases when they can. No doubt this was difficult in the early days of their social media accounts. Some agency members would have been nervous about taking this route. But it’s paying off, in my opinion.

In my 2003 edition of Death Sentence Watson writes:

“All elegance and gravity has gone from public language, and all its light-footed potential to intrigue, delight and stimulate our hearts and minds.”

I’d like to see more social media accounts that delight and stimulate us.  And I think it’s vital that government agencies do. That is, if getting the message through to us matters. And perhaps that’s where the problem lies …

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Patricia - social media wallflower says:

    Thanks Prakky for your plain speak. Just popped Don on my reading list.

    1. Prakky says:

      A pleasure! If I’ve introduced you to Don, I’ve achieved another thing this year 🙂

  2. Great blog. Very relevant currently to a national supplier servicing our business. Can’t publish my recent email to them re our frustration at their performativity.

    1. Prakky says:

      Cheers, Warren! I’m sure we both have lots of examples of frustrating language! I did email the school about the ‘narrative incursion’ and they’ve promised to pass my comments onto staff. I wonder if it happened? ps.thanks for the example via email, it made me laugh.

  3. Louise Stock says:

    Hi Prakky, funny that you mention Don Watson…..I tweeted something the other day about using plain language when writing and tried to find him on Twitter, but couldn’t. Do you know if he tweets? He’d be marvellous! Great blog, thanks.

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