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IABC Victoria's Wayne Aspland talks about an exciting new trend in communications – simplicity.


In a former life, I used to have the unenviable task of reviewing proposal documents for one of Australia’s largest web design firms.

One day, I was reading a proposal written by a Sydney-based producer when I came across a rather curious phrase.

Forward-facing collateral”.

I could tell from the context that this ‘innovative’ term referred in some way to the client’s proposed user interface. But, despite several re-reads, I couldn’t for the life of me work out what it actually meant.

So I rang the author.

And, after about five minutes of head-scratching conversation, his long-winded explanation finally hit home.

“Are you talking about text?” I asked.

“Well… ummm… yes.”


The complexity virus

Over the last decade or so an insidious pandemic has overrun the world of communication.

This virus takes the form of complexity – verbose, self-obsessed, jargon-rich language that puts the writer before the reader.

Slowly but surely, we've all (including me) become infected by it. And, in many respects, it’s not hard to understand why. 

Complex language makes us feel like we’ve got one over the reader.

Complex language helps us massage the facts. The now common use of “negative growth” as an alternative to “decline” is a perfect case in point.

And (in one of life’s great ironies) it’s easy to be complex. Communicating in a simple, clear way takes work.

But, as enticing as it may seem, complexity is the sworn enemy of good communications. It puts a wall up between the communicator and the audience. It prevents mutual understanding. It stifles engagement and everything else good communicators are trying to achieve.


The tide is turning

Thankfully, it looks like the tide is beginning to turn.

Research suggests that simple language can have a massive impact on both communications and organisational performance. The recent #11ways benchmarking report, for example, found that high performing organisations were twice as likely to keep their language simple and jargon-free.

More and more leaders are standing up for simplicity. In this month’s HBR magazine, General Motors Board member Steve Girsky talks about his two-decade crusade for clarity, transparency and, what he calls, a “unified story”.

And it now looks like the world is taking action. Recently, IABC Victoria was lucky to receive case studies from Cisco and Telstra. Both demonstrate in no uncertain terms the power of simplicity.

In Cisco’s case, they began to realise some time ago that the way they spoke was unhelpful to pretty much everybody.

“We used a kind of internal code to talk with each other. It saved some of us time, but not all of us. And worse, customers didn’t understand us. It was bad for them, bad for our business, bad for sales and for our brand.”

In response, Cisco established a training program that has been rolled out to over 2,500 people worldwide. They now report that this program is underpinning significant gains in sales and marketing as well as driving strategic and operational improvements.

Australia’s Telstra Corporation has taken a similar tack. Their ‘Connecting with words’ program helps their people think more clearly about who they’re talking to and why. It then provides a range of tools and techniques that help people communicate in a way that connects with their customers.

Telstra has found an enormous appetite for this training, with over a quarter of all employees voluntarily enrolling for the course. Their program has led to a 3% increase in customer advocates (relating specifically to their employee’s communication skills). At the same time, it is acting as a powerful demonstration of how communications can support the corporate strategy.

Let’s hope more communicators follow Cisco’s and Telstra’s lead by embracing simplicity.

Who knows?

By changing your words…

You might just change the world.