How not to get lost in translation


Small business owners communicate with different types of people every day, using various media for numerous purposes.

Whether it is suppliers, customers, funders or employees the small business owner is interacting with, communicating clearly is essential to avoid misunderstandings that could sour relationships.

Whilst small business owners may take it for granted that their websites, contracts, invoices, business plans, e-mails, and verbal instructions are easy to understand, their target audiences may not agree. Common pitfalls include the (over) use of business jargon and technical terms, vague metaphors and similes, unnecessarily complex vocabulary, and the inclusion of too much detail.

Yes, small business owners may find themselves in situations where they need to demonstrate their grasp of technical, financial, legal and other concepts to sophisticated audiences. Yes, small business owners may want to impress customers, or to appear to be in touch with popular culture. Regardless of how well-intentioned the small business owner is, none of that matters if the message is misinterpreted or met with complete incomprehension. Worse, the small business owner may be perceived as pompous or detached from reality for choosing to use inaccessible language.

Keeping it simple and communicating in plain English makes life easier for small business owners and the people around them. So what is plain English? What follows is a slightly modified version of what is stated in the United States Securities and Exchange Commission’s ‘Plain English Handbook’ endorsed by Warren Buffet. Plain English means analyzing and deciding what information is needed to make informed decisions before words, sentences, or paragraphs are considered.

Plain English uses words economically and at a level, the audience can understand. Its sentence structure is tight. Its tone is welcoming and direct. The handbook also points out that plain English does not mean omitting content in its entirety and completely avoiding certain topics or subjects. Rather, it is about distilling key ideas and concepts and communicating them simply and concisely.

Communicating in plain English does not mean the small business owner is unintelligent or uneducated or unworldly.

Instead, it shows that the small business owner is interested in meaningful interactions and getting things done. If plain English is good enough for billionaire Warren Buffet, maybe it is worth a try by the humble small business owner?


Was this article helpful?
0 out of 0 found this helpful
Return to top
    This is important - for us being in the communications field it holdsespecial resonance. No client wants to feel that they've been manipulated into doing something they would have otherwise declined by complicated jargon. We all have a healthy fear of 'the fine print' and this is essentially what this is. It erodes trust and goodwill compromising your relationship with customers and clients. Speak plainly and honestly. On the flip side complicated jargon-laden internal communications can also hamper a company's relationship with it's most important stakeholders - their employees and shareholders.... This article provides two case studies - Coca-Cola and Enron about how plain-speak denotes authentic leadership while clever-sounding gobldygook is covering for some serious leadership fails....
    Agreed use the simplest and most direct method of getting what you are trying to say across. I find that when people start using flowery and unnecessary language I tend to either stop listening and start thinking about what they are hiding behind the language...I also feel that the more you know about the topic/product the less you have to hide behind jargon.
    We regularly bang on about lengthy terms and conditions in the hope that they’ll eventually disappear. But instead they seem to be getting longer and more and more absurd. Amazon is the latest culprit. Their Kindle terms and conditions are 73 198 words long. Were you to want to read them it would take you about 9 hours – but why would you or anyone bother? So this leaves the question of the validity of the terms and conditions if they make it a ridiculous length that no reasonable person would read can they hold up?
    For many years we’ve struggled to influence the language of the courts. Legal language is still very much how it’s always been – largely archaic Latin-heavy and pretty much impenetrable to non-experts. There’s never been a justifiable excuse for this – just as there’s absolutely no reason why barristers and solicitors don’t use plain English rather than language very few can understand. But there's hope that this may be changing... At the end of last year we awarded Mr Justice Peter Jackson for his unprecedented much-shortened plain-English summary featuring emojis for a case involving children. This was widely applauded largely due to nobody having seen anything quite like it. In truth Mr Jackson’s admirable example was overdue and we were hoping his efforts and the overwhelmingly positive coverage his summary received might lead to more examples.
    Don't get me started on those! such an obvious attempt to obfuscate - and it begs the question - why is so much fine print even necessary? what's buried in there that they don't want us to know? creates an inherent suspicion of the offering...
    In most companies and financial institutions each customer document has different owners: business legal marketing (corporate identity brand identity) IT and the CUSTOMER. Each owner has its own needs and requirements for a particular document. If the CUSTOMER experiences the document as clear relevant informative “exactly what I would expect of this institution or “exactly what I need for this product” the document has served the business. The customer perspective is also central to the definition of plain language in the Consumer Protection Act. According to section 22(2) of the Act a document is in plain language if and only if it is clear and understandable for the target audience.
    I need to look that case up i'd never heard of it! Wonderful!Truth be told i almost feel like the complex language of the law is set up to exclude the unwashed masses and leave a very lucrative industry in the hands of those who've attended very expensive schools to gain the expertise. there's no reason why the law we're all so dependent on is so inaccessible to the average citizen. And as a client i would certainly have much more trust in a lawyer or advocate who could break down the complexities for me in an accessible fashion.
    What many people don't know is that this is actually legislated and regulated in South Africa. In South Africa several Acts of government regulate the use of plain language in consumer communication: The Short-term Insurance Act 53 of 1998; The Long-term Insurance Act 52 of 1998; The Companies Act 71 of 2008; The South African National Credit Act 34 of 2005 regulates that “information to consumers must be in plain and understandable language”. The South African Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 not only regulates the use of plain language but also define the concept for a South African context: Right to information in plain and understandable language (1) The producer of a notice document or visual representation that is required in terms of this Act or any other law to be produced provided or displayed to a consumer must produce provide or display that notice document or visual representation— (a)in the form prescribed in terms of this Act or any other legislation if any for that notice document or visual representation; or (b)in plain language if no form has been prescribed for that notice document or visual representation. (2) For the purposes of this Act a notice document or visual representation is in plain language if it is reasonable to conclude that an ordinary consumer of the class of persons for whom the notice document or visual representation is intended with average literacy skills and minimal experience as a consumer of the relevant goods or services could be expected to understand the content significance and import of the notice document or visual representation without undue effort having regard to— (a)the context comprehensiveness and consistency of the notice document or visual representation; (b)the organisation form and style of the notice document or visual representation; (c)the vocabulary usage and sentence structure of the notice document or visual representation; and (d)the use of any illustrations examples headings or other aids to reading and understanding.
    Exactly! Why is this still allowed and not regulated?
    Thanksfor this Shaun - it's of huge importance in a country that has 11 official languages - that's another layer to this issue of accessible language! As we provide services to a very diverse population what is our responsibility to ensure that the very language itself is inaccessible?It's widely understood that English is 'business' language with Afrikaans a close second but as the prioritization of African languages continues apace will we will soon be seeing some kind of legislation around this for businesses? I notice that some banks already provide paperwork and ATM's language options in all the languages...
    That's really clear and straightforward. The intent of these documents should not be to leave the customer confused about their rights & responsibilities. This ambituity serves no one really - and since we're on the topic of buidling up client bases and fostering positive interaction with customers shouldn'tthe intent be to demonstrate goodwill while delineating rights and responsibilities?
    Completely agreed Marang!
    South Africa differs in a number of ways from the countries where plain English norms were developed. Our customers are multilingual multicultural and cover a broad socioeconomic spectrum. I found some local research that has already indicated that the rules of plain English do not necessarily apply...
    Words that English first language speakers use commonly might not be well known amongst the average African language speaker (Slabbert 2010); A communication style that is considered to be brief and to the point in one culture could be received as rude condescending or inappropriate in another (Finlayson and Slabbert 2002 Pienaar 2002); Higher socioeconomic groups want detailed information – it cultivates trust. Lower socioeconomic groups find detailed information overwhelming – it inhibits trust. (Telkom research as quoted in Slabbert 2010). Interesting findings! What is your take on this?
    In a marketing context the use of plain language in communication and marketing is essential. Consumers need to understand the product or service they receive. Language can hold the key in reaching and impacting your specific target audience. In addition to the general principles for clarity and accessibility in language and layout and design the local context profile of the target audience purpose and use of the document will ultimately determine to what extent the selected language and information structure will be perceived as clear and accessible by the target audience.
    @Marang I agree. I think the emphasis on plain talk (in whichever language) & not legal speak or 'false news' is the way to better communcation & greater trust. If the message sent is clear and simple thereis less likelihood of misunderstandings and better chances of positive business relationships.