Leslie O'Flahavan Relationships at Work podcast

Plain Language At Work withe Leslie O’Flahavan

In episode one of Relationships at Work, I chat with Leslie O’Flahavan, as we discuss how we communicate with each other in the workplace and how incorporating plain language can benefit your relationships with others.

 

And here is why she’s awesome – Owner of the E-write consultancy, she’s a professional writing trainer, coach and instructor, professional speaker, and you feel the benefit of her expertise through organizations like Air Canada, US Fish and Wildlife Service and Caterpillar. She teaches and writes frequently on the topic of plain language, leads Plain Language Weekly on Clubhouse, and is a member of the Center for Plain Language.

 

Check out all the episodes of Relationships at Work. Connect with Leslie on her platforms:

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • What is and is not plain language
  • Why people struggle to speak plainly
  • How to consider your audience when speaking in plain language
  • Three things to incorporate in your communications to improve simplicity

“You’re writing in plain language if your intended reader can understand, act on and care about what you’ve written.” Leslie O’Flahaven

FULL TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW

Russel Lolacher
So on the show today we have Leslie O’Flahavan and here is why she’s awesome. She is owner of the Ewrite consultancy. She’s a professional writer, trainer, coach instructor. If you have not taken her LinkedIn learning courses yet, please fix that. She’s a professional speaker a you may feel the benefit of some of her expertise through some organizations like Air Canada, US Fish and Wildlife Service caterpillar. But this is why she’s on the show. She is a plain language advocate, aka nerd. I love this quote, actually, on her website, it says, I can help the most stubborn, inexperienced or word phobic employees at your organization improve their writing skills, so they can do their jobs better. That’s basically this episode. She teaches and writes frequently on the topic of plain language even lead to plain language weekly on clubhouse. And she’s a member of the Center for plain language. So in plain language, she’s kind of fantastic. So welcome to the show. Leslie, how are you?

Leslie O’Flahavan
I’m great. I’m so happy to be with you today. Thank you.

Russel Lolacher
I cannot believe the energy level I have. I don’t generally get up this early in the morning. So thrilled to have you here. I’m full of coffee and excited about the topic. Let’s do this thing. So plain language. Why don’t we start by just asking what is plain language? How is it defined?

Leslie O’Flahavan
Plain Language is a communication philosophy. And it’s not very new. And it’s simply defined this way. You’re writing in plain language if your intended reader can understand, act on and care about what you’ve written.

Russel Lolacher
Okay, so what’s what’s the opposite of that? What, how is how is something not plain language by that definition.

Leslie O’Flahavan
Un-plained language is writing in a way that disregards your readers main goal. So if your readers main goal is to complete a set of steps, and you have a very long preamble, or a long background section long introduction, you’re making it harder to act on that set of steps. If you use words and acronyms your reader isn’t likely to understand you make it harder for your reader. And if you don’t answer the question, why should I care about this? For your reader? You’re not writing plainly, I think plain language is somewhat burdened by the word plain. Because it sounds like we’re trying to scrub the sophistication out of language. That’s not it at all. That’s not it at all. It’s are you writing in a way your reader can understand, act on and care about?

Russel Lolacher
Why is this important? Why should employees, leaders, co workers, your colleagues all the levels of an organization, what is so important about plain language?

Leslie O’Flahavan
Well, the focus on the readers needs is what’s important about plain language, or in the example you gave the focus on the employees needs worthwhile internal communication helps employees do something, care about something, plan something. So we must write in plain language when we’re communicating internally. Because we’re thinking about what does this reader need? Not what do I have to say, in a vacuum of my readers needs? But what does my reader need?

Russel Lolacher
What is plain language do you feel is the role in employee engagement? People come to work? People want to feel like they’re heard. They’re understood that they’re listened to? How is plain language, a part of that employee engagement workplace culture sphere?

Leslie O’Flahavan
Well, so much of the ways we create and sustain employee engagement are written, you know, they come in the form of emails and intranet content and slack conversations and every little ding ding team’s message that says, can you talk Do you have five minutes, and and all of the policies and all of the instructions on how to change maintain your benefits and sign up for your insurance, all of this, so much of it is written so much of the way we engage employees is written. So we have to think about plain language. And the way written communication with employees creates a culture. In a lot of ways being working in a company in an organization is like being in a family in the sense that we put up with a lot of crap from our family. And we do put up with a lot of crap from our employer. And a lot of times the craft comes in the form of difficult to understand information to frequent communication. You know, there’s a reason we call it blowing up my inbox. And these are all Things we put up with that plain language can free us from in organizations where they communicate that way.

Russel Lolacher
And you’re getting exactly what I was gonna ask next, which is how can unplanned language, as you mentioned, it is a trigger for disengagement within an organization, somebody opens up an email, and the topic in the email is actually in the fourth paragraph, some something about or they never hear from their executive, how can that have an effect a negative effect on engagement? Well, Leslie O’Flahavan If you don’t mind, I’m going to lay out a little metaphor here. So I want you to picture the writer and the reader on a seesaw. Okay, and we want the writer to do more work, work is heavy, we want the writer to do more work. So the reader gets lifted up in the air. In unclean communication, the reader has to do more work, the reader has to do more work and the doing exerting more effort to understand something does not create engagement, it creates weariness, or resistance or distrust. So when the writer in communicates with employees, and the writer does more work to make it easy to understand, easy to act on easy to care about, the readers level of effort can go down. And when the effort is less, the opportunity for engagement is high effort and the engagement are somewhat in conflict, the more effort you have to put into understanding something, the harder it is to feel connected to it.

Russel Lolacher
You’re saying there is a downside, now I’m putting the effort, even more so on the writer because sometimes you’ll hear from executive or even middle management where they’re writing an email internally, but 17 people have to go through it and scan it and approve it. That doesn’t ever seem to help. It makes it more sterile. It makes it more disengaging, I guess for a better lack of a word. Have you run into that a lot?

Leslie O’Flahavan
Yes, indeed. But you know, that’s like a separate cycle, I think the cycle we’ve been talking about is the cycle of creating and publishing worthwhile information. That’s the cycle of approval for the ideas, usually, or preventing risk or exerting caution. And when these two cycles kind of overlap, they can really harm the information. Rarely are all 17 of those reviewers really concerned about the word craft. They’re concerned about risk or budget, or whether the communication lines with some policy, that kind of thing.

Russel Lolacher
I’ve also seen it might be risk, risk aversion. It’s certainly what you’ve nailed there, but maybe a lack of confidence in their communication skills, too. And that they they know they want to say something, but they need everybody to take a look at it to make sure that you know did I get my message across? And I love that you nailed the point that they probably don’t really care how it’s crafted just did we get in trouble? Does it? Does it avoid the concerns of making us look stupid, rather than actually getting the message out there? So I don’t understand why this is. Here’s a funny thing about common things. They’re not common. So plain language seems to be challenging for a lot of people. Why is this such a hard thing to do in the internal culture world?

Leslie O’Flahavan
Well, there’s a few reasons and I regard these difficulties with tenderness because my life’s work is to help people write better so one reason that people struggle to write plainly is because their learning years their high school and college years, they’re taught to write uncleanly. In the academic setting, you write for one expert reader who exerts great power over you in the workplace, you write for many experts and non experts at the same time and and you exert power over some of them. So the academic world does not prepare people very well for writing in the workplace. So they come to this task without a lot of training for the to do what they need to do. Also, fear makes us right on plainly and whenever you’re whenever you’re guarding yourself, you’re afraid of retribution. You’re afraid of legal risk, personal risk, professional risk, you always blow yourself up like a puffer fish and that’s terrible for your writing you sound you know, more more more vague or vague, vague, all that kind of thing. And also writing has we write in communities we write in communities with cultures, and sometimes the culture is one of on plainness. So if you think about a government agency, some of them have Very unclean cultures, and you just start to write in the way the other people around you, right? It’s a type of mimicry. And so you may just perpetuate a bad habit and habit of being obscure or bureaucratic or abstract, because you just read that all the time. That’s how you’re going to write. But we can change.

Russel Lolacher
I love that you dropped culture in there, because there are a lot of organizations, public, private, all across the board that have a real issue with the term of candor, where the idea of being completely open and honest and transparent, might not be as available might not be within the DNA of the organization. And I can totally see that bleeding in to the way emails are written or newsletters are delivered in the language where it’s much more corporate speak, because cookie cutter is safer. Cookie Cutter is more Yeah,

Leslie O’Flahavan
yes, yes, indeed, is not only the safety, it’s you know, communication is saturated with culture. And in most, most of the cultures we travel in as people, we do mimic what we see, you know, you’re with your friends, and you’re dropping F bombs left and right, and then you go to your grandma’s house, and she’s got her friend rose over, you’re not dropping the F bombs anymore. You know, you switch cultures. So we do that at work, and we need to fit in, there’s a cost to not fitting in. And if you’re if you are a plain language communicator, and everyone around you, is abstract, cautious, and obscure, you know, you will pay a price you it’s important to continue to communicate that way. But it wouldn’t be without costs.

Russel Lolacher
Looking at some of the internal documents, we’ll stick around email, because that’s usually the most common way people communicate. It’s also funnily enough, some of the surveys I’ve seen the preferred method, people communicate within organizations, they just, they just want less shitty ones. So they just, it’s okay that they get emails, it’s just they don’t want so many and ones that are so difficult to read. So what are some common mistakes people generally have when they’re writing an email, they’re sending it out? What what are some things you’ve seen that are, you know, tangibly mistakes that they’ve done

Leslie O’Flahavan
to the to that harm, the quality of email, the most are writing a poor subject line, and failing to put what you’re asking for in the beginning of the email, you know, and the subject line problem is made even worse, because the software email software retains the subject line, it’s the bubble boy of communications, it will, you know, the software will retain the subject line till nuclear winner has destroyed every server we have, you know, and it fascinating to me, here we are in 2021. And I’ve been teaching email writing workshops since 1993. And the software has changed a lot. You remember back in the day where you, if you put a hyperlink in an email, you couldn’t put a period at the end of the sentence, because it would disable that for like, but the one thing that has never changed is how software treats the subject line, ever. I mean, think just think of that this is a mini tangent I, I accept it, I’ll keep it short. But, you know, the software we use to communicate at work has changed so much, you know, year upon year upon year, but that’s never changed. So when you make a bum choice with the subject line, and you start a conversation, and you involve six people in it, the software is going to hold on to that, you know, in a death grip. So you really mustn’t make a bad choice with the subject line. And the other writing skill is, you know, put the bottom line up front put the main message in sentence one, or sentence one and a half right away. You can say, I hope this message finds you well if you have to, but get to the point right away.

Russel Lolacher
Well, it’s funny that you mentioned subject line because writing, whether it’s a blog, whether it’s a report, whether whatever it is, there’s always the old adage that you need to spend almost as much time on the title as you do on the body of the content. And that subject line is the title. And people don’t take enough time to understand that that is the first impression that people are getting. So if you have a convoluted, confusing, subject line that is misleading, that is too dazzling, to try to get people’s attention, then you’re really not being effective in your language. So I love that. I mean, we could do a whole podcast just on subject lines. Yes, we could. Leslie O’Flahavan Yes, we could. We’d have two listeners for it. You and me.

Russel Lolacher
Fair comments. It is the first episode everybody be gentle. I’m sure my mom’s listening. So how can you mention we talked about that there are different audiences within an organization? How can plain language change in an organization depending on who your audience is, whether it’s executive, whether it’s your colleagues, display language, change it all, or pretty much the rules of this, they are what they are.

Leslie O’Flahavan

The principle is the same though you, you might use different strategies once you’re in the document. But the principle is the same. And that is, I am thinking about my reader, I am anticipating my readers questions, and I’m creating content or a document that suits my readers needs. So I think what a great question you’ve asked us because think of the the name, okay, you have a report, and it’s long, it’s six chapters long, it’s 71 pages long. What’s the name of the short thing at the beginning that boils it all down? It’s called the title, subject line. Executive Summary. Got to abstract. Sure. Right. No, I let’s call I want to talk about the executive summary, though, because this is like a plain language object lesson.

Russel Lolacher
I like that you’ve already quizzed me and I failed miserably. But yes, right? And Leslie O’Flahavan Then wait, no one else can see us. We’re, I’m think I’m camera and I gave you a finger guns too. Go!

Russel Lolacher
You didn’t bear Smith on the camera. It’s fantastic in HD here. Beautiful, thank you.

Leslie O’Flahavan
But the idea that we would flex different writing skills, when we’re writing for different internal audiences is basically plain language in a nutshell. And the example I gave is a report that has an executive summary, that it’s not called an abstract. It’s called an executive summary. Because executives don’t need the appendices, and the tables and charts, they need the three page distillation of the 71 page report, right? So if we think about it, you know, one of my clients is a transit system here in Washington, DC, they have 9000 employees, and 6000 of them don’t have desks, because you don’t need a desk if you’re repairing a train car, you know? And so what does it mean to write in plain language for those employees? What do they receive from their employer that’s written? Where do they read it? How do they read it? And how do they use it? So the principle of plain language is actually golden, for the range of readers it within it for internal communicators, that we think of what do they need? How much do they want to read? And what will they use my information for?

Russel Lolacher
Just generations have something to do with how you communicate plain language? I mean, obviously, there’s different levels in a hierarchy. But there’s also the whole Boomers, Gen X is millennials, and how they may receive information. Would the principle stand with that too?

Leslie O’Flahavan
Indeed they do, but can you see I’m taking up my virtual soapbox, and I’m standing on it now I stepped up on my virtual soapbox. I don’t know sick and tired of talking about the generations. I as I feel like describing people by generations is like a big heavy stick in sooner if someone’s going to pick it up and wield it, they’re gonna hit you with it. I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s very interesting. But I do think there is a big dividing line in in the wide range of age of people in the workforce in how much what role email plays in their personal life. For older people in the workplace, email has always played a role in their personal life. And it plays a therefore it plays a comfortable role in their work life. For people in the younger side, in the workplace, email has played a very small or non existent role in their personal life. And so they come to email in their work life. They treat the channel as an unwelcome stranger, you know, I just I don’t do this in my personal life, I don’t like it. I don’t do it. And so when I have to do it at work, I actually have to learn to do it at work, because I don’t do it in my personal life. And if you don’t have any place for email, in your personal life, you probably have a big place in your personal life for messaging. And therefore you’re going to like messaging better at work. Also, simply because it’s a muscle you exercise all the time, and you know, why you care about it, how to care about and how to participate. So that’s about as, as much as I want to talk about the generations is, what role does email play in your, your self in your life as a communicator, inside and outside of work? Right? We could also say the same about the phone.

Russel Lolacher
The medium is as important as the message. I remember, I remember talking to an organization who was asking me about how they were going to integrate this new shiny tool, this new app that they wanted to do to communicate with their employees, because they were so the executive was so frustrated that currently they’re their employees, were using a bulletin board at the back of the hall communally. We’re using that as a way to communicate with each other. And they were like, but we want to use this sexy app. So what do you suggest we do? I’m like, use the bulletin board. Who’s it’s not about you? It’s about them. Right? Okay, then let’s use the archaic technology that is actually effective, rather than the thing that’s gonna make your ego feel better, because you got a sexy new tool…

Leslie O’Flahavan
Right? And then those, those employees that the transit system I was mentioning, they they’re their internal communications team publishes newsletters all the time with important information in them. And how does how does somebody without desk, get a newsletter? Well, the manager gets a PDF, and they print it off.

Russel Lolacher
Old school still works if as long as you don’t have a dead letter carrier pigeon, doesn’t matter. Use it. Yeah. We talked about not burying the lede, we talked about subject line. So what are maybe three things to really incorporate plain language in people’s writing? What are some things that people can do to start that process?

Leslie O’Flahavan
Use person personal pronouns use i, we and you, and whoever told you that you can’t use the pronoun “I” in business communication was wrong, or is probably now dead. (GASP)

Russel Lolacher
I’m sure it was a lovely funeral, it’s fine. Moving on.

Leslie O’Flahavan
So use personal pronouns. The second thing is make the content scannable. You know, you get over your bad self, your reader is not going to read the whole thing, it’s not going to happen. So make it possible to not read the whole thing. And the written features that make it possible for a reader to move around in the body of a document and email. Other types of content are scannable features like headings, subheadings, titles, whatever you want to call them. The second, the third thing is, what’s your sentence and paragraph length, because I was talking earlier about the culture of communication. And if we contrast the culture of writing in most workplaces now, 2021 to maybe 30, or 40 years ago, one of the stark differences is in how people prefer much shorter paragraphs. Now, it almost doesn’t matter how complex the information is, people will glance at the content. And if the paragraphs are long, they make a decision that this will be difficult to read before they’ve read it. It’s cultural, it’s cultural. So we would just make sure your paragraphs are built. To satisfy that expectation readers have that shorter paragraphs are more modern and are easier to read. So personal pronoun scannability, and so much shorter paragraphs,

Russel Lolacher
I can hear some people just thinking about plain language, and saying, but I want to sound professional. But I want to this, this might make me sound too. Oh, laissez faire, for lack of a better term, just I want to sound professional in a professional environment. And I’d argue based on what you’ve said, Well, do you want to be effective? Or do you want to be professional? Do you want to be an action?

Leslie O’Flahavan
Or that’s not a choice? What they’re saying is professionals in that case is a euphemism for authoritative or authoritarian. Okay? So here’s, it’s not professional, unprofessional. It’s not sophisticated versus plain, those are not the choices. So what we want to say is, if you need to sound sophisticated, okay, or if you need to sell if you need to demonstrate your expertise, fine. If you need a section of your content that’s actually extremely difficult to understand and is only meaningful to other experts just like you, fine. But if everyone is not an expert, just like you make sure the non experts can see where that section is. So they can skip it, you know, so it’s not it’s not about authoritative verse or professional versus simplistic. It’s about understandable to your intended reader and accessible. If your intended reader is just like you, then you can go ahead and blow up that for Saurus. And write in the most sophisticated effort demanding way you want to, but if you’re reading is the least bit different from you or has a different use for the content, you have to accommodate your reader?

Russel Lolacher
What’s your feeling on buzzwords because organizations certainly go down that rabbit hole. Ah, there’s one, whether it’s talking about digital this or synergy that are agile, this what you’re feeling is I, I just, they disengage me when I hear them so much as if I’m hearing words that are used and used in us so much, they just feel like they lose their feeling. And that actually makes me feel less engaged.

Leslie O’Flahavan
You’re so true. It’s so true buzzwords, I think the day or week someone invents one, like the buzz phrase from stopping, like, your content is so good, it’s thumb stopping. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that one, we should have a reunion, because if you haven’t heard it, now, you’re going to have heard it soon. And by you know, 18 months from now we’re going to be eye rolling about thumb stopping. But they start out really clever. They they’re the first use. They’re clever. They’re surprising, you know, the person who first said, think outside the box, and the other 10, who joined them, it was it was clever. It’s just an incredible overuse, which makes something a tiresome buzzword. And then what what happens when we have a tiresome, overused buzzword, it gets wrung out of meeting. And so it’s really it becomes really drab, but it’s also insider language. And it’s very hard to discourage people from using insider language. Because as you recognize in all your work, we want to feel like we’re inside something. And so buzzwords are type of coded inside or language or tiresome not that when they’re born when they’re born. They’re fun. The buzzwords are fun, then they become tiresome, but we reluctant to let them go. Because, because they’re inside our language, they’re comfortable. And they’re shared the idea

Russel Lolacher
Of “curse of knowledge”, which is the we know what we know. And we talk our own language to each other, which actually can find that more empowering around employee engagement because you’re kind of your own tribe. When it starts becoming words that people are jamming down your throat because somebody was witty once, and then they grabbed on to that and my God, they’re gonna run it into the ground, then people like, Could we get a thesaurus? Could we? Could we think of a different word because I’ve heard this so much. It’s lost all meaning to me. So there is that there is that sort of argument of it’s our language versus its numbing language. Lesley, we could talk all day, you and I, we Leslie O’Flahavan I would love that Russel Lolacher Word nerd, word nerds. But I’m going to wrap it up with the two questions I like, I’m gonna ask every one of our guests. You’re the first guest, so I’m throwing you to the wolves. This is gonna work. I hope this is gonna work. Nervous, nervous, nervous. Okay, so first question is, what’s your best or worst employee experience?

Leslie O’Flahavan
Okay, well, you know, I’ve owned my own company now for 25 and a half years. So this is going back a little ways. This is my worst one. I was a high school English teacher, I loved my job. And I had a vice principal, to whom I reported, and we could not connect on any level. And I was in a stew of frustration, because I had always loved my work was good at my work. And I connected with leaders and I could not connect with this person at all. And we were having some kind of a debrief after she had observed me teaching. And I got so aggravated and upset and despairing that I started to cry. It was awful. I wasn’t wailing, I had water dripping out of my eyes. But I was crying and the feeling of being out of control. And I didn’t only disrespect her, I disliked her. And just having me lose my cool in front of a person who I didn’t trust or like it was just awful. Thank you for letting me relive it. Sure.

Russel Lolacher
My next question usually is what is the effect it had on you, but you kind of mentioned that but also look at how long ago it was, and how vivid it still is. 20 plus years later, that this is That’s how much of an effect bad and hopefully good employee experiences can have for people. They just nobody realizes the effect they can have. For example, high school still remember it? Yeah, people in their 70s and 80s He remembers stuff that impacted them back then. So you have to understand the impact of your actions and words at work. So Leslie, my final question, what’s one simple action that people can do, whether it’s plain language or not? What they can do right now to improve relationships at work?

Leslie O’Flahavan
Well, this one will be a funny one, it is plain language, but it doesn’t involve a keyboard and that is they can choose Live Synchronous means of communication instead of email more often. Because the distance and remoteness that email can cause between colleagues, or especially the bad email can cause between colleagues can really be the distance and remoteness can be replaced by connection and intimacy, really, if we talk to each other on the phone, or in a virtual meeting. So that’s the longest way around to say to improve relations at work. Talk to each other live.

Russel Lolacher
Love it, love it. Well, that’s That’s it. That’s in a nutshell, we are done. Thank you so much, Leslie, for being our inaugural guest on relationships at work. I appreciate it.

Leslie O’Flahavan
It is my great pleasure. And we will collaborate again. We know it right.

Russel Lolacher
Nailed Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Yes. Yes. Big. Yes. With big exclamation mark, though. That was let’s see. Oh, Flo Haven, who you can find on Twitter. Let at Lesley Oh. Which is how I’ve known her for years. And years. And her website. Is he right online.com. Again, appreciate your brain today, Lesley. And thank you so much for being a part of the show.

Leslie O’Flahavan
It’s my pleasure. I will see and talk to you soon.    

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