When I run writing workshops , I encourage people to spot – and avoid – the kind of heavy, corporate prose that turns readers off. I explain why it’s a good idea to ditch long words and business-speak, and instead choose simple words that strike a chord. Why torture people by ‘aligning departmental strategic objectives’ when you can ‘make sure all teams are working to the same goals’?
However, at this point in the workshop, at least one person starts to freak out. ‘Our work is complicated. Isn’t that language too… simple?’ they say. ‘Don’t we need to write in a way that’s more professional?’
No. We need to write in a way that is clear, and – most importantly of all – human. And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the leading neurosurgeon Henry Marsh (CBE), whose book Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery manages to illustrate this point perfectly.
Marsh tells us about a time he chastised a junior colleague, a Senior House Officer who was giving an update about an elderly patient:
He turned a little sheepishly to face us.
‘Apparently she lived on her own and was self-caring and self-ambulating.’
‘Self-catering as well?’ I asked. ‘And self-cleaning like an oven? Does she wipe her own bottom? Come on, speak English, don’t talk like a manager. Are you trying to tell us that she looks after herself and can walk unaided?’
‘Yes,’ he replied.
The reason I love this is that Marsh is probably one of the brainiest people on the planet, and is doing the most complex and important work imaginable. But he doesn’t try to demonstrate this by using jargon and complicated language – in fact, he shows his deep understanding of his position through clarity and humanity. He reveals the truth of the situation by using real, everyday language. Unlike his junior colleague, who talks about the patient like an electrical appliance, Marsh reminds us that she’s a person, a lady, who lives alone but doesn’t need anyone to look after her.
Marsh’s language doesn’t make his message sound too simple, or – in fact, it only shows that he really ‘gets it’. It shows how smart he really is.