Clear as mud

Issues don’t get much more complex than the migration crisis, but at least there was clarity from the British and French interior ministers in their joint article in The Sunday Telegraph and Le Journal du Dimanche this month.

“We are both clear: tackling this situation is the top priority for the UK and French governments,” proclaimed the second paragraph of the piece by Theresa May and Bernard Cazeneuve.

But if you parse the phrasing, just how clear is the meaning? The part after the colon speaks for itself, but what about the words “We are both clear”? Do they express unambiguous resolve and unity? Or are the ministers saying they fully understand the situation? Or might they perhaps mean they’ve achieved Scientology’s “full glory of the state of Clear”?

OK, that last interpretation is unlikely. Amid the allegations of transnational tensions, powerlessness and panic, we can be reasonably sure the ministers are trying to convey strength of purpose and unity of approach. But if you watch or listen to UK politicians more generally, you’ll be struck how often they preface muddy answers with the rather empty formulation “I’m clear” or even “I’m very clear”.

The “I’m clear” preface is a tried-and-tested technique for politicians dodging sticky questioning from broadcast interviewers. Putting it in print, however, seems to expose the artifice even more brightly.

Even if you sincerely wish to express decisiveness, writing “I’m clear” is redundant at best. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is fundamental to good writing: strive for simple, direct language rather than piling on the adverbs, adjectives and subordinate clauses. Would the May/Cazeneuve piece really have lost impact with this starker sentence? “Tackling this situation is the top priority for the UK and French governments.”

(Not that that’s anywhere near perfect. It’s tempting to start editing it down to a still-imperfect “Tackling this is our governments’ top priority”. Powerful writing almost always entails ruthless revision.)

Like all writers, corporate communicators and especially those drafting for the C-suite are in danger of over-egging their prose, to the detriment of their message. But thankfully, there’s a sure trend towards clearer wording even within large organisations, as the realisation dawns that simple, straightforward writing makes for clear, compelling reading.

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