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14 -10-2006

Top Birmingham lawyer and new Stirrer columnist Diane Benussi drowns in the verbiage of the modern workplace, and dreams of a simpler life.

A couple of months ago, I visited the Operation Overlord exhibition in Portsmouth where I read the battle plan for the allied invasion of Normandy drawn up by Lt Gen Frederick Morgan. This involved the deployment of 21,000 vehicles and four million people. It was a plan that was wide-ranging in its scope and broad in its principle.

Interestingly, it was only 600 words long. That's about the length of this article. Hard to believe, isn't it? Yet, as I read it, I could see all the necessary information was there.

How things have changed in half a century. Today, documents of infinitely less importance than Operation Overlord run to many more words than that. In fact, I can't remember the last time I read one that wasn't several pages long.

When I first started out in the legal profession, there was a protocol for the drawing up of contracts known as ‘travelling copy'. First amendments were marked in red pen, second amendments in green, third in blue and fourth in purple. If you reached the purple stage it was a sign you weren't very good!

In today's age of word processing, it's easy to extract pages and pages of data and insert it into documents. The immediacy of email means they can be amended and re-amended almost endlessly. I was only speaking the other day to someone who was poring over the 13th version of a work document. That's not just crazy, it's outrageous.

Then there is the way documents are written in the first place. The general rule of thumb, it seems, is to over-write in long, convoluted sentences using woolly phrases, impenetrable jargon and pretentious vocabulary.

The irony is that word processing and email were designed to make life easier: instead they've had the opposite effect. Yes, it's a lot faster to type on a keyboard and erase mistakes with a click of a button than to bash away on a manual typewriter and use vanishing ink to correct errors, but in the days when the latter method was the norm, people kept words and amendments to a minimum.

What should concern all of us in business is that the constant batting backwards and forth of amended and re-amended documentation can produce as many errors as it seeks to rectify. Not only that, long-winded, complicated and data-laden copy can distract from the essence of what is being said. Also, if so much time is being spent over-writing, over-inserting and over-amending, then surely not enough time or effort is being channelled into other aspects of people's jobs.

As with so many things, it's time to go back to basics. The business community would do well - and, I contend, serve its clients better - if it simplified its written communication and documentation. It would save time, trees and eye-strain and it would reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings or plain incomprehension.

If Lt Gen Morgan could do it, then so can we.


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