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Jot seven: Human speak

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Human speak

I’m a human, so I feel like I’m in a good position to talk about writing like one. Here’s what we covered at Jot seven: Human speak.

All humans communicate

Language is common to the human experience. So, what happens when the words we use fail on the most basic level? When you mush a whole bunch of jargon together that means nothing whatsoever? Well, no one knows what the flippin’ heck is goin’ on.

Some businesses forget their customers are humans

Especially businesses in the financial sector. Legal firms and the medical industry are really bad for it too. And it makes me grumpy. So I thought I’d best do something about it. Jot gave me a platform from which to share my wisdom (there was no physical platform and I’m not that wise – most of it’s just common sense when you break it down).

lily chatting

Only jargon between consenting adults

‘Jargon is a type of language that is used in a particular context that may not be well understood outside of that context.’ Generally, I don’t like jargon. But if it’s used within a group setting where everyone enjoys and understands these special words, phrases and acronyms, then fire on. The example I used on the night was the world of Drag. Terms like ‘fishy queen’ or ‘no T, no shade’ are commonplace. It creates a sense of togetherness within a community that was marginalised by the mainstream. It’s also fun and light hearted – playing with words and their meanings. I love that.

But if you’re using jargon to exclude people outside of your ingroup, then that’s well shady. Especially when it comes to dealing with customers within financial services. They don’t understand the inner workings of inheritance tax, drawdown plans or annuities, so don’t bamboozle them with it. It makes them feel small and stupid. And the Financial Conduct Authority doesn’t like it either.

The Financial Conduct Authority say that ‘A firm must ensure that a communication or a financial promotion is fair, clear and not misleading.’ Because of this, a lot of financial services companies are trying to fix everything they’ve ever written. It’s a massive job. But it’s much easier if you follow some simple guidelines. Which I shall set out henceforth (example of something that should never be written, except in jest). Oh, and all this can be used to fix any sort of writing – not just financial or technical stuff.


Passive language is rubbish

An easy way to sound more like a human is to make all of your language active. We don’t speak in the third person so why write like that? It’s like asking Jodie how her long weekend was, and she responds with ‘a trip was taken, to Disneyland.’ Aye, ok, cyborg lady. 

Active language makes it clear who is doing what to who. It’s the difference between ‘mistakes were made’ and ‘Sorry, I made a mistake.’ Or ‘a trip was taken, to Disneyland’ and ‘I went to Disneyland.’ We used the ‘by monkeys test’ on the night to easily spot passive sentences.

Ditch the formal, make it normal

Why do we write ‘to whomever it may concern’ when we really mean ‘Hi’? And why do Doctors write things like ‘the knee was aspirated’ – when all they really mean is ‘we took some fluid from your knee’?

There’s a weird disconnect for most people between the way they write and the way they speak. And folk tend to follow some pretty daft, old school rules about writing that aren’t even true.


You can start sentences with and, but, so and because...

These are conjunctives. And when we speak to another human person, we start sentences like this all the time. Your teacher might have told you it’s wrong, but it’s a total fallacy. Think of it like the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. Infinitely cuter than the conjunctive rule, but equally untrue.

Contractions are great

Again, this is how you’d speak to someone face to face. We use contractions all the time. They’re a handy mental shortcut and it automatically makes your writing feel warmer and more approachable. ‘It is not’ sounds like a scolding whereas ‘it’s not’ is less harsh on the ears and the page.

When it comes to writing like a normal human just read everything out loud. And if it sounds weird spoken aloud, it probably is.


Acronyms are the work of the devil

CBT means Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in one field and Core Based Training in another. To be honest, it could stand for Carrots Beat Tigers for all you know – because it’s just three random letters with some dots in between.

When you’ve worked somewhere for a long time these acronyms become ingrained and automatic. Before you know it, you’re writing nonsense like this to your customers: ‘SME’s agreed on these outputs according to RAID logs and CBT. Because we care about our CDD.’ JUST WHY?

Write things out in full. It doesn’t take that much longer. And if it’s an internal acronym it’s probably jargon too. You can’t just leave it hanging there – you need to explain it.

Some other things that happened

I touched on tone of voice a little, threw some Star Wars references into the mix and gave a little advice on working with old school companies. Because they can get super emotional. These emotions range from sad to mad. But mostly mad. I’m good at managing people’s feelings so I passed on some insights into why folk get so emotional about writing and how to help them with it.

We also workshopped some stuff. We made corporate robot speak into human words and I was well proud. I really enjoyed chatting to all the jotters and hope they learned something/ had fun/ at least enjoyed the prosecco. I had a great time being a human and they all did a great job of being humans back at me.


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