At last, recognition for speaking Bull-derdash

Four NHS organisations have finally achieved the recognition they deserve by each winning a prestigious ‘Golden Bull’ for gobbledygook at last week’s Plain English 2012 awards.

Up and down the country, NHS organisations have been using bureaucratic language, senseless acronyms and clinical jargon to confuse patients, staff and the general public for many years. But until now, much of this tireless work has gone unrewarded.

The Plain English campaign believes that everyone should have access to clear and concise information. Each year, they present awards to highlight the best and worst examples of English, but as with the Golden Raspberry (‘Razzie’) awards in Hollywood, it’s often the infamous ‘Golden Bull’ and ‘Foot in Mouth’ awards that attract the most attention for the sheer ridiculousness of the entries.

This year there was a total of ten ‘Golden Bull’ awards to cover all forms of public and private sector organisations. The NHS has put in a remarkable performance by managing to win four of the ten awards.

Step forward NHS Tayside, NHS Litigation Authority, NHS Norfolk and Waverney, and Cheshire, Warrington and Wirral NHS Commissioning Support Service.

My personal favourite is the nomination for the NHS Litigation Authority, citing this example in which the Authority rejects an application to open a pharmacy:

“The Committee concluded, having regard to the totality of the factors considered above that choice could not be given significant weight and that there was not currently a gap in the spectrum of adequacy sufficient to conclude that the provision of pharmaceutical services is not currently secured to the standard of adequacy. Accordingly the Committee concluded: The application was neither necessary nor expedient to secure the adequate provision of services in the neighbourhood, and therefore dismissed the appeal in this respect.”

If the report had been written in Plain English, it could perhaps have simply said: “‘The Committee dismisses the appeal for the reasons stated above.”

A spokesperson for the NHS Litigation Authority bravely collected the award, with the following comment:

“It’s a fair cop – we humbly accept the award and promise faithfully to not not try harder in the future! On a serious note we do take very seriously our role in effectively communicating our decisions….We have changed our approach to communicating decisions recently and…we will be working hard to ensure that all communication is in Plain English.”

There’s clearly some way still to go. This comment hints at the challenge every organisation faces when trying to introduce change. The NHS is made up of lots and lots of people. Communications with the general public do not start and end with the Communications Department. Any policy to embrace the principles of Plain English must somehow reach everyone from the cleaners and receptionists who pin up general housekeeping notes across the hospital, to the trust directors who issue directives from their boardroom. It’s very likely that to be successful, any new policy will require a different approach in each case.

It’s interesting to consider that excessive wordiness and the use of jargon often comes about as a result of the messenger trying to sound impressive. And yet the reverse becomes true, because the nature of the language undermines and distorts the delivery of the message altogether. It’s always worth remembering that by keeping it simple, you will come across as more professional – and also far more likely to be understood.

Here are some tips for writing in Plain English:

  • Think about the audience you are writing for and use the words you would use if you were speaking to them
  • Don’t use long or difficult words when shorter or simpler ones will do
  • Avoid jargon and explain any technical terms, even if you think your audience will understand them
  • Use the active rather than passive voice, e.g., ‘we will conclude’ rather than ‘it has been concluded’
  • Use short sentences containing one main idea; sentences in a paragraph should have a common theme
  • Only use capital letters where they are really needed; avoid acronyms and abbreviations
  • Cut out straight repetition, e.g., ‘concluded’ is used three times in the example above
  • Cut out pointless phrases, e.g. ‘having regard to the totality of the factors considered’

However, it’s not just the NHS that is guilty of gobbledygook, and as winners of the Plain English 2012 awards, the NHS was in esteemed company. The ‘Foot in Mouth’ award for worst speech in 2012 went to US presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Here is an example of one of his classic blunders, and let this be a lesson to us all:

“I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.”