Why using simple language should be lucrative

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Woman in office

Good use of language should be lucrative for companies, says Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times.

Like most Brits, I find success in others pretty hard to cope with. When that success is combined with good looks, I can't tolerate it at all.

Apple's continued glory eats away at me like a maggot at my core. When the iPad came out I prayed that it would be awful, but alas it's sleek and gorgeous, and in due course I will go out and grumpily buy one.

Now I find that Apple has succeeded in an area even more revolutionary than designing beautiful products that are easy to use.

It has discovered something that other companies have long forgotten - if they ever knew - that language can also be beautiful and easy to use. Words can be fun to read, they can look elegant, they can make you laugh.

Not long ago it published a set of guidelines for apps sold at its App Store. According to the laws that govern this sort of thing, this document should have been doubly unreadable. It was a list of legal requirements and was aimed at techies. Instead, it was funny and clear and I found myself reading it effortlessly.

"We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store," it said. "We don't need any more fart apps. If your app doesn't do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted."

The tone is direct, comic and elegantly threatening.

Now compare this to the standard stuff on Microsoft. The brand new browser, it says, "delivers a richer, faster, and more business-ready Web experience. Architected to run HTML 5, the beta enables developers to utilise standardised mark-up language across multiple browsers".


Reading this I'm bored and restless, irritated and alienated.

Given the towering superiority of the first linguistic style over the second, will it catch on? You might think so, but you would be wrong. There is no sign that Microsoft has been suffering from its stolid, dodgy way with words.

Indeed it is one of the great mysteries of capitalism that there is no invisible hand that joins good language and good profits. If anything, the hand pushes the two apart.

A perfect example of the link between high profits and low language was a recent advertisement from "one of the largest and most trusted banking and financial services organisations in the world", which was hoping to hire a "customer journey re-engineering manager".

This title contains three layers of obfuscation: the ludicrous yet ubiquitous idea that a banking customer is on a journey; the idea that this journey needs re-engineering; the notion that this needs managing.

There is only one conclusion to be drawn - surplus profits generate bonuses and waffle in equal measure.

The only customers who are really on a journey are those of the transport sector. And as I looked at a collection of them chugging along into London's Moorgate station, I thought of another reason why Apple's brave effort to rehabilitate language won't catch on.

Words are finished. Customers on journeys don't read, they watch videos on their iPads, iPhones and iPods.