Clear Beyond Words   The More Carrot Blog

In the Netherlands, plain language is the law. But what, exactly, does that mean?

by Josiah Fisk, June 1, 2014

It’s pretty easy, while struggling with some impenetrable pile of words from a company or government, to catch yourself muttering that there ought to be a law against this sort of thing.

In fact, I’m willing to bet a bottle of good Dutch jenever (oude or nieuwe, your choice) that you’ve had that very thought at least once.

You’re not alone. Many government entities in Netherlands support the idea of clarity. Some have even passed laws or regulations requiring it. Yet Netherlands, like the rest of world, is still awash in reader-unfriendly websites, notices, and other communications.
Does that mean the laws aren’t working? According to Tialda Sikkema, a lecturer in legal writing at Hogeschool Utrecht, the answer is mixed. Her research into the matter has so far turned up little direct evidence of enforcement. No Netherlanders, in other words, have done any prison time or paid any fines for abusing their language (or their constituents’ patience).

But that doesn’t mean the laws have had no effeWhatCommunicates4_Graphic_05may14ct. In the US, the Plain Language Act of 2010 has yet to generate any enforcement actions, but it h
as prompted a flurry of plain-language activity within the federal government (the law’s target). The same is likely true in Netherlands.

To those who doubt the value of
plain language laws (a group that includes both supporters and detractors), the main issue is the laws’ vagueness. It’s true the laws are limited to saying, in effect, “your documents should be understandable by ordinary people.” Until definitions of “understandable” and “ordinary people” are developed that work adequately across the entire range of circumstance, vagueness seems destined to rule.

Yet even vagueness isn’t the main issue. Almost by definition, communication requires goodwill on the part of both speaker and listener. (Even then, it often fails, as we know all too well). And no law was ever written that could compel the existence of goodwill.

So will bad communications ever become the exception rather than the rule? I say yes. It’s happening already. Businesses and governments are waking up to the fact that bad communications cost them money. Meanwhile, if the passage of plain language laws helps draw attention to the issue, so much the better.

Click to see this column in the June 2014 issue of Discover Benelux.

Do you enjoy reading about macroeconomic overlays?

by Josiah Fisk, May 1, 2014

No? How about currency forwards? Securities lending? Haircut policies? (These are all actual terms from investment prospectuses.)

Well, here’s some good news. Every UCITS, OEIC and other collective investment scheme in the EU is now required to publish something called a Key Investor Information Document, or KIID.

Unlike a prospectus, which is all about legal protection and regulatory compliance, the KIID is about communication. Each KIID has to say what the investment aims to do, how it intends to do it, and what levels of risk and cost are involved. Not only that, KIIDs are limited to just two pages (except for certain complex investments) and should be in plain language.

The KIID is truly innovative. It’s the first investment industry document that is a hybrid between a legal document and a consumer document. So rather than endless lists of possible techniques and risks, a well-written KIID describes the investment’s overall “personality”.

The KIID also makes a valuable distinction between the two main types of risk. A numerical scale (from 1 to 7) reflects the investment’s “everyday” risk level, while short descriptions tell you about the “bad day” risks — the ones that occur rarely, but can be significant when they do.

So how do today’s KIIDs measure up, communications-wise? Most could be better. Plain language requirements notwithstanding, they often are full of jargon (although at least there’s only two pages of it).

But the best ones do communicate. And it’s likely that firms will improve their KIIDs over time. The regulator in Luxembourg, the CSSF, has welcomed innovative thinking about the KIID, and among European regulators has led the way in embracing the spirit of the regulation and not just the letter. That’s important — because Luxembourg happens to be the EU’s largest center for investment funds.

Like healthcare and legal matters, investments are something most of us wish we understood but assume we never will. The KIID represents an effort to change that. It’s a small effort and an imperfect one. But you have to start somewhere. And the KIID is a great start.

Click to see this column in the May 2014 issue of Discover Benelux.

When compliance gets outbid

by Josiah Fisk, April 30, 2014

Yesterday’s WSJ has a too-short piece on Richard Bistrong, the man who was convicted of trying to bribe UN officials and earned a reduced sentence by helping out in a bribery sting operation.

It’s not what Bistrong said so much as the fact that someone in his position was saying it. His main point (to paraphrase a bit) is that when it comes down to a choice between telling your boss that you made your sales targets and telling your boss that you complied with company policy, sales targets are going to win. That may be a hard point to accept, but it’s sure hard to argue with the logic behind it.

What’s interesting to me is what Bistrong didn’t say. He didn’t say it was an easy choice. He didn’t say it felt good. He didn’t say nobody takes compliance seriously. Pretty much the opposite, in fact. But his point is that it doesn’t really matter how seriously you take compliance. In a situation where bribery is (or is perceived as being) the only realistic option for getting business to happen, most employees will feel they don’t have a choice.

Who has the power to change this? Management. Any company that sends their people out into bribery country believing that compliance is not an option is a company that isn’t serious about compliance.

We tend to think of “compliance education” as something that is mainly about awareness and that mainly applies to rank-and-file employees. But as Bistrong’s sad tale shows, in all too many enterprises there is a lot of compliance education that remains to be done at the senior levels as well. Until that happens, building a culture of compliance at any level outside the C suite will be an effort in futility.

If there’s another corner of the world so well-run, enlightened, and generally user-friendly as Benelux, I’ve never found it.

by Josiah Fisk, April 1, 2014

Yet some things here still resist the improving impulse. Exhibit A: bureaucratic communications.

I’m thinking about this because a friend recently received a fat envelope from the CCSS, Luxembourg’s social security office.

Inside was a 10-page letter and a form. My friend wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of wading through it. But he never doubted he’d figure it out.

Ha! The armour-clad letter resisted my friend’s every assault. He wielded his razor-sharp university degree. He deployed a bunker-busting two decades of business management experience. The letter just laughed.

Defeated, he made an appointment to see a CCSS representative. That’s where he learned the truth about what they wanted from him.


The office, it seems, had taken 10 jargon-choked pages to say that his new account was now open.

And the form? For additional insurance, if desired. Completely optional.

So my friend lost half a day of work for nothing. But that wasn’t his main concern.

“Don’t they know that a WhatCommunicates2_GraphicALT_25feb14shorter letter would benefit them too? They’d save on printing, on postage, and on paying staff to deal with confused customers like me.”

That’s the main point: good communications benefit both sides. To their credit, there are some signs the CCSS is beginning to understand this.

Meanwhile, if you get a fat envelope from them – well, my friend sends his sympathies.

Click to see this column in the October 2014 issue of Discover Benelux.

Hating on PowerPoint, but not for the usual reasons

by Josiah Fisk, March 21, 2014

Do you love PowerPoint? In the immortal words of my Magic 8-Ball, my sources say no.

Loathing it, ranting about it, and even out-and-out banishing it all seem to be fast-rising national pastimes. Take this piece from NPR, pointing out how scientists, CEOs, and even the military — in other words, people who otherwise would never agree on anything — are all totally done with PowerPoint.

Let the record show that nobody is more done with PowerPoint than I am. For years, I’ve created my slides in InDesign and shown them in Acrobat. It’s true that if you want a slide in which bullet points are added one by one (so people can’t read ahead — more important to audience attention than most people realize), you have to build it like a flip book, with a separate slide each time you add a bullet. And yes, you have to live without cute animations and sound effects (if you consider that a minus rather than a plus, you need more than this blog to set you straight about what makes a good presentation).

But none of this is what the PowerPoint-Hating Masses are taking exception to. Their beef is that people essentially use their slide decks not as something to get their point across, but as something to hide behind. They stand up there, droning on, clinging to their slides for dear life, and in the process become incapable of so much as answering a simple question from the audience — or so the rant goes. They’re like those low-functioning tourist-trap guides who, asked a question, simply repeat the most recently uttered sentence from their canned spiel.

This is a completely legitimate concern, and a huge one. My point is that there are further huge concerns with PowerPoint that nobody seems to be mentioning, which, just in case more ammunition is needed, I want to call attention to.

One of the main issues with PowerPoint from a communications standpoint is that it is so focused on keeping people from creating abysmally unprofessional presentations that it ends up making it really difficult to create any type of presentation that is better than mediocre.

A lot of this has to do with the widespread confusion about what makes a presentation interesting. Hint: it’s not lots of colors, typefaces with a backlit glow, or diagrams that look like a convention of neon amoebas. Interesting presentations consist of interesting content. It would be handy if software could change that inconvenient fact, but it can’t.

The sad thing is that even interesting content can seem facile and ignorable when it’s accompanied by primitive animations, goofy artwork, and funny but irrelevant photos and cartoons. The problem with PowerPoint is not just the program itself, but the attitude toward presentations that it has spawned.

That attitude teaches that the secret to an interesting presentation is to take a boring presentation and dip it in a tasty candy coating. In promoting that approach, PowerPoint steers you away from working on your content and instead coaxes you to work on slicking up your delivery. Worse advice has never been given.

Do some presenters hide behind their PowerPoint slides, as the critics charge? Absolutely. But that’s a sign of a different problem. It might be stage fright, it might be fear of offending the powerful, it might be that the presenter is afraid (or knows darn well) than they have nothing to say. Those are all real problems (and all of them, by the way, are completely distinct and have entirely different solutions). But they’re not problems of PowerPoint per se. They’re problems you would have with any type of visual presentation.

Before you decide that that sounds like a backhanded defense of PowerPoint, let me be clear. The real problem is that PowerPoint has fostered the belief that anyone can, and should, get up in front of others and give a slide presentation that has a quality of slick professionalism. Not only is that cruelly delusional, it’s not even the right goal. A good presentation is one that is articulate. That is the quality we humans respond to.

Instead of enabling the masses in their presentation abilities, PowerPoint has crippled them, by encouraging false values and providing false confidence.

I don’t for a moment believe that presentations without slides are inherently superior to those with slides. But if it’s necessary for us to do without any type of visual support until we can sort out what actually does and does not make for a good presentation, then a total, worldwide moratorium on PowerPoint sounds great to me.