Usability, content, search and analytics on the corporate intranet

Plain English for corporate intranet content

3 October, 2010 – Luke Oatham

At work, I teach a course on writing for the intranet. It takes an afternoon and covers online writing and editing techniques, SEO, how to handle graphics and accessibility. I also touch on writing in plain English. For this part of the course I usually use the latest IT announcement as a demonstration. IT announcements highlight how not to write plain English. Right on the button. Every time. Guaranteed.

While useful for my course, it always annoys me that people from this department (who now call themselves ICT, the C for communication!) often fail to think about the people they are writing for. Their audience is the whole organisation, yet they write from their own point of view, using acronyms, technical jargon and internal project and process language.

So here’s our latest announcement. I’ve colour-coded it to help with my analysis:

Important Windows XP and Office Security Patches will be available to all workstations on your IT network from 4th October. This is part of an ongoing process to ensure all IT equipment is secure and to minimize the risk from computer viruses.

 What do you need to do?

You are advised to manually install these updates onto your desktop PC as soon as they are available. This is a simple process that will only take a few minutes of your time. For instructions on how to manually apply these security updates please click here.

If you are unable to apply these patches for whatever reason, they will be automatically applied to your workstation overnight 9th October, 20:00. However, we do advise you to manually apply these updates where possible.

Switching off your workstations

To ensure the security updates are correctly applied, you must restart your desktop PC after installation. This can be done when you shut down your PC at the end of the working day. Users are reminded that it is recommended that they ‘Shut Down’ their PC at the end of every working day – see below.

To shut down your PC, click on the ‘Start’ button and choose the ‘Shut Down’ option. Please remember to switch off your monitor as it is not switched off automatically by ‘Shut Down’. Some monitors have a very subtle ‘on/off’ switch that is flat and touch sensitive and located on the underside of the bottom right corner of the monitor; the blue light will be steady or flash until the monitor is switched-off.

Remote Workers

It is recommended that remote workers are onsite and logged in to their workstations when the Security Patchesare being applied. If this is not possible then the patches will be available remotely, however the update may take a little longer.

Analysis

It is clear that the writer has no audience in mind. The piece switches from talking to me directly, to speaking about users, to some invisible person who isn’t specified because of using passive voice (“this can be done…”)

The message is inconsistent, taking ages to tell me how to shut down my PC but making me follow a link for the actual instructions to download the update, which is the point of the announcement. There’s a line that reads *see below*, below meaning the next sentence? And then there’s just plain daft stuff like recommending that I’m logged on to my workstation to download and install the udpate. No, really?

The message is mixed. Along the lines of “we have an update, you can download it yourself, or it will install automatically if you don’t, but, you know, you can do it yourself if you want.” Why not just install the update on my machine automatically and not bother me with having to read through this tripe? Is it that important that I know that this technical maintenance is going on?

The colour-coded headings below refer to the coloured sections in the original announcement.

Passive voice

I can spot passive voice a mile off. Years of editing online content tends to drum it into you. And there is a very good reason that IT people use it. To appear distant, to avoid the issue, to misdirect attention. Better for speech-writers and spin doctors. On the intranet, we want to get the point across quickly and clearly. Passive voice clouds the issue causing the brain to fire internal questions trying to fill in the gaps due to missing information in the text.

Captialisation

When We Capitalise The First Letter In Each Word It Makes It Really Hard To Read.

While not so bad in this IT announcement, you’ll often find capitalised project names, department names, process names and technical terms. In this announcement, what is so important about security patches or remote workers that they deserve capitalisation?

Bad names for links

Seeing a *click here* makes my blood boil. It is wrong for so many reasons. Staff using screenreaders will often request the software to group and read out all links on the page. Hearing click here, click here, more info, find out more, is not helpful. Similarly when the search engine reads the page and follows a *click here* link it does not help. It just registers a great page in the search index called “click here” that everyone is linking to. Even for staff who can see the page, it’s not clear from the link text what you will get if you click it. Link text should always accurately describe the target destination.

Fluff

Important corporate announcements should just give me the facts. Not self-promotional fluff. I don’t need to know that what they are asking me to do is part of their ongoing process. And apologies to my non-English-writing readers, but there is a Z where there shouldn’t be.

Content rewrite

Instructions for how to download and install an update, including how to shut down your PC are already available elsewhere on the intranet. Assuming that the IT department can’t automate the updates, here’s how I would rewrite the announcement:

Important Windows XP and Office updates for your workstation will be available from 4th October
What do you need to do?
You can install the updates yourself. Read instructions on how to install the updates.

If you can’t do this yourself, we’ll update your workstation automatically at 20:00 on 9th October.

Remote workers
You’ll find it faster to install the update if you login while on site. You can still update remotely but it will take longer.

 


I know what I’m talking about here isn’t so important in the greater scheme of the workings of the organisation. But by taking just a few minutes to stop and think about what we are writing, we can help staff to save time in reading and understanding the finished piece. My rewritten example is shorter and clearer. The simple instructions makes it easier (and more likely) for staff to carry out the task. I have cut down the original announcement from 302 words to 78 words. With online corporate content, less is more.

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