Grammar Phobic or Grammar Guru? Writing Rules to Use or Ignore (Part 2)

Written by Trina Rimmer | Jul 7, 2010 1:15:38 PM

In my last post we examined the use of Active Voice and Passive Voice to help Grammar Phobics write clear and compelling training. Now let’s look at two writing rules traditionally revered by the Grammar Gurus of the world - and why you may want to ignore them.

Rule #1 to Ignore: Don't Use Contractions

Me: "I don't know about the rest of you, but time and again I’ve been told that no one will take my writing seriously if I use contractions..."

Grammar Police: "Stop, or I will shoot!"

Uh-oh. Looks like I've been busted again. The charge: writing too informally. The evidence: Using don't in place of do not, and I've in place of I have, in my statement above.

The grammar gurus (especially the grammar police) rail against the use of contractions in business writing. But contractions like, shouldn't in place of should not and I'll in place of I will, are a common part of modern-day speech. When you remove contractions from the mix, you end up with writing that sounds cold and robotic - or worse, like the grammar police.

While informality in writing might be of concern to the legal profession, writing for training is about making change. That requires us to do more than just convey information like a robot. We need to connect with trainees on an emotional level by using prose that feels natural, relaxed, and approachable. In fact, research indicates that using contractions in writing sets a more conversational tone that actually increases readability. The bottom line for using contractions is this: Is it more important to write training that speaks to your audience or that saves you from the wrath of the grammar police?

Rule #2 to Ignore: Avoid Jargon

We’ve all been told that the use of jargon in training is a no-no because it alienates and confuses your audience. I think the following video hilariously illustrates this point…

Did you get all that? Okay so the Rockwell Retroencabulator jargon aside, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that using some jargon can improve the effectiveness of your training. Why? Because jargon is often the “secret language” HR, marketing, or front line teams develop around their company’s products or services and as such, it comes to represent the company’s internal brand with its employees. In some corporate cultures it even contributes to an employee’s identity (e.g. Disney’s use of the term “Cast Members” to describe theme park employees). So rather than write with formal language that isolates trainees by avoiding familiar terms, we need to write content that is more meaningful to them by “speaking their language.”

However, as we saw with the Retroencabulator video, too much jargon has the effect of confusing and alienating trainees who aren’t “in the loop.” So how do you use jargon to keep the interest of experienced trainees without alienating the newbies?

Use jargon but follow it with a brief definition. For example, a person new to technology might be confused by the acronym "UI" in reference to software applications. Use the term and then explain it, like this:

Following writing rules and regulations is comforting for many of us and it can be difficult to set aside the writing rule book. Whether you’re afraid of writing rules, blissfully ignorant of them, or you follow them religiously – the key is learning when and where to bend or break them. When it comes to deciding to use or ignore, ask yourself:

Then, put your fears, your ego, and your rule books aside and write in the way that works best for your trainees!

What rules do you ignore for more writing engaging training? Please share your ideas with us by clicking on the comment link.

Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training solutions. When her training skills aren't being tested by her children, you'll find her helping others to develop their own design muscles. Contact Trina at trina@rimmer.net.