Omit needless words

Why global communicators must use basic English

Are you a global communicator? Meaning: are you occupying a communications position in a multi-national company?

Does your company have production sites, or offices, or individual colleagues working in different regions around the world? If only one of these applies to you, you should consider yourself a global communicator. Sounds like a very responsible occupation. And, well, yes, it is. But what is required on the job? Sure, great communication, planning and organizational skills are key to succeed. But let’s start basic. Let’s talk basic English.

The company I am working for, TE Connectivity, is a truly multinational company. We develop and provide sensors and connectors for pretty much every aspect of life. We produce in various countries, on four continents. And we employ highly skilled staff. Hence, in my role as senior manager communications for TE Connectivity Industrial, I am a global communicator.

And, believe it or not, I am frequently asked what I think is most important in communications. My reply is straightforward, but oftentimes underestimated: use basic English. As English is the common, if not official language of large multinational companies, communicators must work harder to find ways to be clear and understandable.

While “basic English” sounds easy, it is challenging. Let’s do a quick self-assessment: As an international communicator, you have a high level of English vocabulary. You probably have a university degree and great academic writing skills. You most likely also are inclined to use words to illuminate your text. You love to write. You love to talk. And you probably also love perfect texts. Now, here’s the thing: This is all great. But it is not sufficient.

You will exceed in your role when you manage to write in a concise, compelling, and understandable way. So, even if your writing is grammatically correct, it could be perceived as highly academic, not useful, or verbose.

Less is more. Or: omit needless words.

 Let’s go back in time. Exactly 100 years ago, in 1918, William Strunk Jr published his non-fictional masterpiece called The Elements of Style. In this book, he lies out some very basic, yet important rules of English language. “Omit needless words” is one of them. The 1918 recommendation from Strunk still holds true today: Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but make every word tell. — "Elementary Principles of Composition", The Elements of Style Fun fact: The 1959 edition of The Elements of Style is rated as the number one book in the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923. Here are some examples of concise writing from the book:

he is a man who                      

he

in a hasty manner

hastily

this is a subject which

this subject

his story is a strange one

his story is strange

 

The book is available online and a short read that can immediately improve your basic English style. e.g. available at Project Gutenberg in various formats.

Another round of basic English

In 1998, another guide to basic English came from the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as a need to have a simple, understandable approach to disclosure documents. This booklet is a good resource for corporate communications as the financial examples are relevant to your work. Here is the SEC’s list of common problem discovered in financial documents:

  • Long sentences
  • Passive voice
  • Weak verbs
  • Superfluous words
  • Legal and financial jargon
  • Numerous defined terms
  • Abstract words
  • Unnecessary details
  • Unreadable design and layout

What to do with this: work the basics.

Intrigued? Or nothing new? I would like to encourage you to go back and review a recent press release from your company. Ideally, one that contains critical technical and business terminology. Now, look at the overall composition and start working on a plain English version. Try to re-write the document by working on less words and making the text simple. This is a good start to reach beyond your advanced language skills to create a basic English text.

I collected some examples for you in the below. As nobody is perfect, I would also love to learn from you and engage in discussions: Where, in the current communications sphere, do you see the need for more basic English? What are challenges? And what are best practices?

Please let me know, I’d be so glad to discuss: @JGrahamGermany

References

  • Kachru, B.B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: The English language in the outer circle. InR. Quirk and H. Widdowson (Eds.), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 11-36.
  • Neeley, Tsedal (2012). "Global Business Speaks English: Why You Need a Language Strategy Now." Harvard Business Review 90, no. 5: 116–124.
  • Office of Investor Education and Assistance (1998). A Plain English Handbook: How to create clear SEC disclosure documents. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
  • Pakir, A. (1999). Connecting with English in the context of internationalism. TESOL Quarterly, 33(1): 103-113.
  • Strunk, William (1918). The Elements of Style. Ithaca, N.Y.: Priv. print. [Geneva, N.Y.:

Jonathan Graham

Jonathan Graham is Senior Manager Global Communications for TE Connectivity Industrial in Darmstadt, Germany. In his role, he manages both external and internal communications as well as product communications for TE Connectivity, the global leader in sensor and connectivity solutions. Jonathan has been working in the industry for more than 25 years, serving in various communications roles for HP and Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, among others.