The value of clarity

28 September 2010 0

People don’t tend to read small print for pleasure. But according to Lucy Kellaway of the FT, the guidelines for Apple’s App Store are worth a look.

Apple has shunned the usual arcane, obfuscatory dross and gone for a tone which is “direct, comic and elegantly threatening”, she says, comparing an extract from the document with one of Microsoft’s typically stodgy statements about its latest browser.

Kellaway laments that there’s no apparent commercial advantage in communicating in a clear, human way. But I think that’s a little pessimistic.

The authors of the 2005 book Why business people speak like idiots compared the readability of statements by CEOs of ‘admired companies’ and ‘companies associated with scandals’ (they used the Flesch Reading Ease score, which I don’t have absolute faith in, and I wonder how they defined their categories, but anyway).

What they found, not surprisingly, was that the admired companies (Google, eBay, Amazon, IBM) communicated in much more easily readable language than the scandal-hit ones (Enron, NYSE, Tyco, ImClone). They show the striking contrast between letters to shareholders from firms like Google and Amazon, which are written in clear, everyday English, and the corporate-speak horror of the likes of Enron.

Possible explanations for this:
1) Clear communication wins trust and admiration for companies
2) Companies that merit trust and admiration are inclined to communicate more clearly
3) Both of the above

I lean towards the second and third explanations, because I believe clear language is not just about skill, it’s about character. It’s about being honest and upfront about who you are and what you believe. So it’s a symptom as well as a driver of good business. I think.

However, if we’re talking about Apple, it’s worth pointing out that the guidelines for submitting apps to their store are breezy because they make the rules for what apps are and aren’t accepted, so they can say what they like. When it comes to the Terms and Conditions for buying from the store, it’s the same interminable guff as everywhere else. Also, Apple is currently fighting a court case to try to stop another firm using the term ‘pod’, so let’s not paint them as the good guys as far as language is concerned.


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