"The sad truth about the Polish commercial language is that it doesn’t really exist,” says Dr Tomasz Piekot, linguist and communicologist, coach in interpersonal and social communication. One of the founders of Pracownia Prostej Polszczyzny (Plain Polish Language Workroom, PPP) which has already simplified around 1,000 various texts. Along with Dr Marek Maziarz, expert in new technologies and statistics at Logios research group, they explain what plain language communication with customers is about and why it is so rare.
Pracownia Prostej Polszczyzny (Plain Polish Language Workroom) was formed in 2011 at the Polish Philology Institute, University of Wrocław, headed by Dr Tomasz Piekot. PPP experts monitor the Polish writing culture, study the straightforwardness of public texts, and carry out linguistic audits of texts created by ministries, offices, companies and corporations. Logios Research adjusts communication within companies and institutions to the real recipient. We can do this by combining linguistic and computer knowledge with lots of experience. The company develops computer applications for companies to be able to control their texts.

Pracownia Prostej Polszczyzny mostly deals with improving official communication messages, but you also have researched e.g. prompt notes sent to customers by corporations – whether companies try to make such notes sound commercial and do not feel tempted to copy severe official messages sent e.g. by a tax office. I was wondering, what characterizes this commercial tone, as opposed to the official one?

Dr Tomasz Piekot: I will surprise you here! So far PPP has mostly been simplifying commercial communication. For the past few years we have been providing services for companies from large sectors: banking, insurance and telecom. These were not one-time actions. We were responsible for simplifying the entire company communication: from advertizing and websites through to contracts and rulebooks. And since we do a scientific research on both official and corporate languages, we’ve discovered a rather sad truth about the Polish commercial language. To be frank… it doesn’t really exist.

This is for historical reasons. Back in the Communist times we had no commercial language whatsoever, and after 1989 the mushrooming companies started to acquire the style which was binding on the market of a totalitarian state. That language was very formal, long-winded and unfriendly to the reader. It was intended to disorient the recipient and make him feel insecure. Even today many companies are unable to set free from that legacy. I would call this ‘official DNA’. This is clearly seen in loan collection, that is a situation when a customer does not fulfill the contract. The way companies communicate with us in such cases is just like the notes we get from a tax office or the national insurance company. It is a bit better in marketing and welcoming communication.

 

logo-logios-300x94Check your polish text ! Automatic style diagnosis developed by experts from Logios research group will determine how vague the language of your messages is.

 

PPP develops and tests efficient writing principles. Logios group checks which of them can be automatized and turned to a computer application. This is how the first Polish automatic language readability evaluation program (FOG-PL) was created.  What other text readability, apart from the FOG index, are tested by Logios research unit?

Dr Marek Maziarz: We can see a turn towards plain language both in communication with customers and in internal communication. For seven years Logios has been following what Polish people read, how they speak and write, and we advise companies on what kind of language they should use in order for their message to reach the audience. Our applications test the level of vagueness in texts (the FOG index, or more advanced MIST index), how easy a text is to read (Quick Reading Index) and various other parameters which hinder text comprehension, e.g. length of sentences, difficult words, passive voice or hidden activities. We compare the results with the norms for an average Polish person. It looks a bit like a medical diagnosis; in this case, however, the patient who needs to be treated is the text, and the man is the norm – not the other way round.i

Did you notice any particular problems in the broadly understood brand communication with customers or employees – is there anything in particular that you can see as a disadvantage? I used Logios tools to check a few company texts that I had at hand, and the diagnosis was: very difficult language, 18 years of education or more!

Dr Tomasz Piekot: There is a number of problems. I will tell about the two most general ones. The first thing is the language and the form of communication are inadequate for the current reality. Most companies fail to notice that consumers do not have time to read, and that they see company messages as something disturbing. We must make access to our information easier for them. In this sense plain language is one that respects customers and their free time. The main problems at this level include too lengthy sentences (hard to process), lack of navigation within the text (without subheading it’s difficult to know what is where) or too much content.

The rescue here can be a language in which we communicate using only the main thoughts – without any marketing trinkets or official redundancies.

The second problem is the level of brand-customer relation. It is very often the case that customers are ignored in communication – companies use impersonal notes or address customers in general (not an individual customer). Unfortunately, such mistakes have serious consequences. Only extreme personalization of a message allows brands to build individual experiences which eventually become the most important element of their offer. If we add the paternalistic tone (e.g. “how can I help you” brands) the vision of language experiences is rather gloomy.

Dr Marek Maziarz: Customers have little time, so they want to receive messages that are simple, short and to the point. An average customer gets back home after a hard day at work, sits down in an armchair in front of the TV and during the commercial break opens the letter he pulled out from his mailbox this morning. The letter is from the bank or the security company or the gas plant, so he has to read it. He can be a little surprised because in this case reading does not equal understanding. First, he needs to find his reading glasses because the letter is written with a tiny font. Then, he must go through a whole number of different variants, because how could the company know whether he is a man or a woman and what title they should use to address him.

As soon as he finds the form adequate for him, he has to go through sentences so long, that before he gets to the end he already forgets where it all started. He also has a long way to go through the land of abstract with grammatical attractions, e.g. the passive voice (“it has been paid,” “was turned off”) and hidden actions (“the payer,” “turning off”), which don’t make it clear who paid to whom and who turned something off. The customer must translate this information into his internal language, so he is primarily looking for the fragments which talk about him directly, about what he did or didn’t or should do to eventually be able to watch that Monday TV series. When this average customer is given two banks, insurers or energy providers to choose from, he will choose the one that speaks a plain language.

It seems to me this impersonal form of communication – e.g. avoiding the pronoun “we”, expressions such as “Your personal identity number should be put here” instead of “Put your identity number here” etc. – is considered safer by the authors. The senders believe that this style indicates culture and formal diligence – this is what we see as elegant, neutral writing style appropriate for a professional text in a magazine.

Dr Tomasz Piekot: Your diagnosis is very accurate. Double impersonalization (avoiding “we” and “Mrs/Mr) is due to Polish brands’ fear of the sincerity of everyday conversations. Instead, we get a formal language which upholds the precision of product description but avoids responsibility for the basic activities (such as collecting charges and commissions).

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When this average customer is given two banks, insurers or energy providers to choose from, he will choose the one that speaks a plain language.

dr Marek Maziarz

 

Communication within a company (e.g. a company magazine) has to face various recipients – employees at the production plant and the office. One might presume that the latter are better at specialized texts and will expect articles to be “up to the mark.” How does one adjust communication to a diverse group?

Dr Tomasz Piekot: There are a few universal rules, which streamline communication with any type of customer:

First, navigation. An internal communication text needs to have headlines and crossheads. This allows the reader to quickly find what is interesting to him.

Second, short sentences – up to 15 words. Polish people don’t usually read longer sentences even in their free time (e.g. newspapers, blogs, bestsellers have sentences up to 20 words long).

Third, neutral style instead of formal one. This allows to limit the formal DNA and start building an internal language based on comprehension, not on a ritual. It is particularly important to get rid of all the ‘information pushdowns’ (e.g. I kindly inform, It is worth noticing, At the same time I would like to explain) and pompous words.

I have noticed that internal corporate texts often “lose their identity,” that the company is called by its name in the third person but there is “we” in the next sentence. Why is it so important to decide on one form used for all communication and should it really be “we”? Maybe this is also the way to differentiate between internal and external communication?

Dr Tomasz Piekot: When it comes to external communication, a company should always use the form “we” (except for press releases, where it is unacceptable). Consumers see texts addressed as “we” as more friendly and more personal.

In internal communication, the problem is slightly more complex. Along with the form “we” (all employees) there should also be the form “you” – for instructions and procedures, which work best in this mode.

You should definitely avoid the form “we” as an emanation of the HR department’s identity:-) The phrase: “Remember to code the files” is simple because it is about me and the files. The phrase: “We remind you to code the files” is more complicated, because it adds the HR department as an entity that controls, manages knowledge and admonishes.

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We should use neutral style instead of formal one. This allows to limit the formal DNA and start building an internal language based on comprehension, not on a ritual.

dr Tomasz Piekot

 

We often communicate in order to urge somebody to do something or to cause a change in their behavior. How do we know all these plain language hints actually work? What are the proofs that simplified language will be more effective in urging the recipient to take up certain actions?

Dr Tomasz Piekot: We can check the effectiveness of plain language in two ways. In both cases we need to use the text in both versions (before and after). This is slightly similar to the AB test known from usability testing. The first way is declarative research, that is asking customers about their opinion. In this case the research nearly always shows an increase in good opinion about the brand. The second method, however, is far more reliable. We are talking about behavioral research, which shows the customer in action. Here we measure the form filling time, but also whether customers return to the helpline with the subject or whether there is an increase in payments after prompt notes. The success here is most often spectacular (see an experiment by Polish tax office).

If you were to provide one golden rule of thumb that a person writing a text should always keep in mind, what would it be? I mean a quick way to verify a text, e.g. a question one could ask themselves to know if the writing “is going in the right direction.”

Dr Tomasz Piekot: I truly recommend to all authors the “several seconds principle.” The idea is to make sure that within the first few seconds spent with the text the reader understands:

  1. Who the addressee (the recipient) is?
  2. What is the main information (the main thought) in the text?
  3. What is covered by each section (chapter)?

 

Dr Marek Maziarz: I would add automatic testing to the several seconds test. Today it is very easy to build advanced technologies for measuring numerous language parameters in real time (see e.g. English language application Hemingway: http://www.hemingwayapp.com/). The research by Logios shows that when it comes to Polish, whether reading is easy or not depends in two thirds only on two parameters: the length of sentences and the percentage of difficult words. I would primarily pay attention to these two features of writing.

We’ve said a lot about badly written texts – what about good examples of well prepared texts?

Dr Tomasz Piekot: Poland has its famous tax office style. We also have a lot of good bank agreements, general insurance conditions, prompt notes and complaint response forms, not necessarily improved by us. The greatest improvement is seen in communication of companies selling products and services online.

PPP offers on its website e.g. text designing – when you need a ready-made templates for mass mailing. Can we find out more about such templates?

Dr Tomasz Piekot: This may sound a little surprising – but we shouldn’t use templates for non-meritoric elements of letters, e-mails or phone calls. In other words, conventional situations such as welcoming, goodbye, apologizing, congratulations should always be spontaneous and sincere in corporate communication. The template should only include the meritoric (business) elements. Developing such a template starts with analyzing many texts of the same kind. This helps find the average structure. Then there comes Logios, which points to the strengths and problems within the text. The template is then given to our “translators.” They remove the official DNA, shorten sentences, get rid of redundant words and phrases. And that’s how we come up with an espresso text: the very essence of thoughts that the company wants to convey. Now the template can be processed by a layout designer.

What should the work on changing the language within an organization look like? In a discussion at the Service State conference Dr Tomasz mentioned that in order for a change in communication to take place, one has to educate the managers, directors, so that they understand that a simpler language does not take away any meaning or seriousness from a text. But it is often not the management that prepares the texts. So I assume an effective work on a better language should later include a wider group of employees, e.g. those from the communication department, editors?

Dr Tomasz Piekot: A change in language policy within a company should take place two ways. On the one hand, we need mini-projects whose goal is to change concrete texts (agreements, statute, response forms for contact center). On the other hand, the change will not be successful without central coordination of the project that goes top-down. The direct supervisors of the authors/owners of texts are indeed a bottleneck – it is them who control the quality of texts and very often tend to restore their original form. We’ve named this mechanism ‘bullying’ (like in an army). It is a ritual of bringing back the dominance of an old, proven language. It is also particularly important to fit the new company language into its tone voice (the voice of the brand) and to conduct a dialogue with the legal department from the very beginning.

Dr Marek Maziarz: It is sad that organizations don’t usually get a birdseye view at their own communication. Very often companies don’t even realize how many notes they send to their customers as part of a given process. Meanwhile, there is a simple solution that gives a company a competitive edge. I mean mapping readability, or perceptual attractiveness of the company’s language, and – what’s very important – comparing many of its aspects with the language of customers. Letters, notes, e-mails, phones from customers are the greatest treasure for an organization. In this stream of linguistic data hides the key to success.