Hans Hofmann, painter and teacher, said:“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” It’s a sentiment with which Candice Burt and Frances Gordon would agree. Through Simplified, founded by the pair in early 2005, theyare helping companies to use plain language to communicate with customers and staff more effectively.
“When people first hear the term ‘plain language’ they think it’s about talking down to people, that it’s about sentences like ‘The cat sat on the mat’. But we think of it as a very sophisticated language; it’s all about getting from A to B by the shortest possible route,” explains Burt, a plain language lawyer whose career passion is simplifying traditionally impenetrable legalese so that anyone can understand it. Her legal expertise is matched by Gordon’s experience in corporate communications. Their combined skills enable them to offer a full range of services to simplify all aspects of corporate communication.
Between the company’s two arms of training and simplification strategy, the Simplified team helps organisations to write in a clear, compelling style; draft legal documents in plain language; design information so that it’s easy to read and digest; and train staff to write well.Gordon elaborates on some of the more common writing mistakes evident in business communication: “What we find,especially in South Africa, is that people use big words to sound clever. Behind this lies insecurity, but the danger is always that you use the big word incorrectly.” She continues, “One of the places companies go wrong is that there is often a big gap between what their marketing promises and what their contracts actually state. Only by putting all their communication into plain language can companies hope to close what the financial services guys call a ‘trust gap’.”
By teaching staff how to plan and structure a piece of writing – whether it’s a contract or a monthly statement letter –Simplified hopes to help companies speak to their clients in a clearer, more accessible voice that will ultimately lay the foundation for better customer relationships. Their “going back to basics” approach teaches the building blocks of good writing. And while tips about remaining mindful of your audience and having a clear objective might sound obvious, a cursory glance at most corporate communication proves that these are things the majority of people don’t know.
“Clients who have completed the course feel they have changed theway in which they approach writing,” says Burt, to which Gordon adds, “They recognise that initially it will take them longer to write, but that as they become more practiced, good writing skills will actually save them time because they’ll be writing only what’s needed.”Simplified has created a niche for its services. “There are companies out there that offer writing services, but they either don’t have the legal side or the marketing and business side that we offer, and they don’t approach writing in the holistic way that we do,” says Gordon.
Not only is their service offering unique, but it’s clear that it meets a great need in the market. As Burt points out, legislation such as the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act and the recent National Credit Actrequire corporates to communicate with their customers in plain language. These requirements, combined with consumer activism pressure, have driven companies to realise the importance of communicating in plain language – and to seek help in doing so.
Burt and Gordon retain their edge by keeping their skills and knowledge up to date, regularly attending local and international conferences and participating in plain language forums. They have focused on growing their training division first because it’s easiest to upscale; they are pedantic about employing highly skilled staff, in whom they invest a good deal of training. Simplified’s client list – including Discovery, Liberty Life, RMB, Mutual & Federal, Ernst & Young and Deutsche Bank –speaks for itself. Speaking about the business’s achievements, Burt says, “I think we have been successful because we have remained focused on our core offering. Clients sometimes ask us to help them with branding or putting a manual together but we don’t do that. We’re passionate about what we do and don’t want to dilute our offering.”