Why complicate things?

You’ve been asked to write the publicity for a new report.

You read through the executive summary which, as the title suggests, is a summary of the whole thing.

Man yawning at desk

You’re confused and read it again. You read the following sentence three times, then yawn deeply.

‘A principal aim of public health interventions for reducing morbidity and mortality due to elevated plasma protein in the blood should be to encourage a healthy lifestyle among the general population irrespective of individual blood protein levels.’

You wonder why it can’t be written in a more simple way, one that won’t require more than one read through.

Why do so many people write this way when they don’t speak this way?

Why complex writing is unnecessary 

You rub your eyes and read it again. You think it means:

‘Encouraging a healthy lifestyle should be the main aim of public health programmes to cut illness and death from high plasma protein in the blood’.  But you’re not entirely sure.

Cartoon of couple talking with speech bubbleYou picture the report’s author at home that evening saying to their spouse: 

‘My elevated blood plasma protein is increasing my morbidity tonight my dear. I could do with a public health intervention.’

You read on while your eyelids droop:

‘The total risk factor approach integrates the contribution of major risk factors to determine absolute risk of stomach cancer and is a more efficient approach for identifying those at highest multi-factorial risk and preventing the disease in developing countries.’

It’s one of those time-consuming, unintelligible-to-anyone-not-in-a-specialist-community monsters.

You have no choice other than to put on your translator cap and dismantle it.

Paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, word by word.

The painful process of keeping it simple

Man asleep under newspaperLet’s try and do this without falling asleep.

So, the beginning: The total risk factor approach

Straight-forward enough – it’s the object of the sentence, the thing they want to explain to the reader with the words that follow.

But because it’s not part of everyday English, it’s best to put phrases like this into quotation marks: The ‘total risk factor approach’.

Still here?

Let’s move onto: …integrates the contribution of major risk factors…

What does ‘integrates‘ mean in this sense? Takes account of? Considers? Looks at? Includes?

Put the two amendments together and you get: The ‘total risk factor approach’  takes account of ….

This is much better than ‘integrates the contribution…’

And then …the contribution of major risk factors… What does this mean? Is the word ‘contribution’  even necessary?

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far.

Businessman holding his head in frustration

When bad writing creates frustration: am I the only one who doesn’t get it?

I’m persevering because if your job is to present clear information to the public, you need to understand how to deconstruct babble.

So many press and communication officers give up and leave words like ‘integrates’ , thinking it’s just them who doesn’t get it.

It’s why there are so many poorly-written press releases and other communications material in circulation.

Try imagining you’re telling a child or a friend in the pub about the subject as an aid to shift brain-block.

If you were writing it to your friend you might replace:

…integrates the contribution of major risk factors to determine absolute risk of stomach cancer …

with:

takes account of the major risks that increase the chance of developing stomach cancer.

Now the last bit:

‘…and is a more efficient approach for identifying those at highest multi-factorial risk and preventing the disease in developing countries.’

Doesn’t this just mean: ‘It is a more efficient way of identifying people who are most at risk and preventing the disease in developing countries’?

Eyes propped open with matchsticks

Here’s the original sentence, if you can bear it:

‘The total risk factor approach integrates the contribution of major risk factors to determine absolute risk of stomach cancer and is a more efficient approach for identifying those at highest multi-factorial risk and preventing the disease in developing countries.’

And my translated version:

‘The ‘total risk factor approach’ takes account of the risks that increase the chance of developing stomach cancer. It is a more efficient way of identifying those most at risk and preventing the disease in developing countries.’

Isn’t this cleaner? By taking each phrase and translating it in a micro fashion, you can avoid changing the meaning.

Once you’ve finished translating the report and have written your publicity material, always check with your seniors that your version is accurate.

If they want to keep the original words you can only offer advice on targeting journalists and leave it at that.

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