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Peter Hammonds' speech on Crystal Clear Day

Peter Hammonds with Chrissie Maher

In 2000, we held a Crystal Clear Day on which we honoured various people who have made a real contribution to plain English. Peter Hammonds was the Company Secretary at Natwest Bank at the time. He gave the following address.

It's a real pleasure and an honour to be here today. You all know you get invited to a number of events, some of which you don't really want to go to, and there are very few events that are truly unmissable. And for me, in my diary, this is one of those unmissable events. It's a huge honour. I would like to share some of my experiences of transacting business with Plain English Campaign. The lessons that I can share with you, many will immediately empathise with. But there may still be a few people in the room that still need some converting or haven't had sufficient opportunity to test what Plain English Campaign can do for them.

It all started in the early 1990s. I decided that it really wasn't on that we didn't send new members of Nat West a welcome letter. We found that most companies sent nothing. But there were companies out there that were frankly ahead of us. But what they were sending was not particularly sparkling or exciting. So we set ourselves the target of producing a pack that was better than the rest.

We worked like Trojans on this. I don't know what made me think of it, but it's like that wonderful scene in 'The Snowman' when the boy doesn't know why, but suddenly it occurs to him to go outside and build a snowman. Suddenly it occurred to me, when we were already 90% of the way through the production, that we should Crystal Mark the document. Because we thought we were the ace team anyway, this was not going to be a particular problem.

There are many people in the room that will recognise the experience that we then went through...

The Plain English Campaign editors worked through the document and sent it back. When we opened the package a week or so later, already very conscious of the time that had already gone by, we were astounded to see just how much red ink there was over our 'wonderful' document that we had sent off, basically to be rubber stamped.

Our initial reaction was of course 'What do they think they're playing at?' But when we came to look at it, we learnt a very powerful lesson - we weren't truly empathising with our customers. We weren't truly seeing it from their perspective and through their eyes.

I have to say that when Plain English Campaign finished with the document it was supremely better than anything we had ever sent out. I'll never forget the moment when I looked at the document and realised just how much value these people had added by looking at it from the customer's perspective.

Then came the second lesson. I decided that I would go and visit Plain English Campaign and see how they did it. I don't know if you are familiar with the film 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'. They are chased and hunted down, and several times during the film, the Sundance Kid turns to Butch Cassidy and says 'Who are they'' in genuine inquisitiveness. This is what I thought about Plain English Campaign.

I came up to New Mills on my own and was granted an audience with Chrissie Maher. I sat opposite her at her desk and she told me stories of some of her experiences which many of us will be familiar with - how Plain English Campaign had been born and what her objectives were. And I sat there thinking 'What is this woman on?' She was eulogising, she was evangelising, and I couldn't relate at all to what she was talking about.

What she stated, very plainly, was that people had a right to access to information. It was only later that I had time to think about what she said. To realise and accept just how vital that message really is. For all my intellectual arrogance, it actually applied to me. None of us in our worlds, whether high and mighty or relatively lowly, hasn't come across jargon and complicated material. I came to realise that Plain English Campaign has a wide importance, even beyond the instances that Chrissie herself articulates so passionately.

Then there was the third lesson. We were getting on great, we were beginning to be recognised as working well with plain English. We turned to our employee share schemes, which had an unsatisfactorily low participation rate. It was a good scheme but all too many of the staff were not choosing to take advantage. I realised that a lot of this was to do with the poor communications. It wasn't just the words, it was the design and the accessibility and the channels that we were using.

But more importantly than that, and this is the third lesson that I learned, we came to deliver this message in a way that would genuinely appeal to employees and would in reality increase those participation rates. What we were doing was not only describing shares and share ownership, but we had to describe the operation of the scheme.

When you came to explain a complicated process, in our case to explain what you had to do to join the scheme, you say to yourself 'well why on earth do they have to do that in the first place?'

Our wanting to concentrate on clarity led to us ultimately changing the operation of the scheme - and plain English saved us a lot of money! It was truly astonishing. We were able to take out costs just on the back of trying to create a clear message.

Then the fourth lesson was that we forget just how fortunate that we all are as a nation. English has become the business language of the world. What a potentially wonderful opportunity and what a huge advantage this brings to us - and I say potentially because we don't exploit that anywhere near as much as we could.

At my own institute, the Institute of Chartered Secretaries, we were revisiting our constitution through Mark Ashworth. I persuaded the council of the institute that we should rewrite the constitution in plain English. This was not universally well received at all.

After we won that battle, Mark was the one who turned that document into plain English. I can't help but feel that so much of what we had been doing, both knowingly and unwittingly, was so arrogant when we put it into an international context, where we just expected that they will find their way through our constitution, through the information that we send out. We just expect that they can handle it and come to terms with all the nuances that we ourselves, in our own mother tongue, find so difficult to comprehend.

For this reason, Plain English Campaign has been a huge revelation to me, a huge impetus to do things and achieve things that I would frankly not have dreamed of doing. The inspiration for all of that comes from Chrissie and the staff at Plain English Campaign.

I would like to pay tribute to them too. It's not always easy to do business with Plain English Campaign. They have their own timetables, they have their own needs. In order that we earn the Crystal Mark, our document has to pass their stringent tests. The document musn't be too patronising or in 'Noddy' language. But as I've done business with them over the years, increasingly they too have adjusted to the needs of the business community and they have been flexible. They have taken a mature approach to allow the Campaign to mature and flourish.

I suspect that without Chrissie and her team, many of us here today would not have achieved the things we have done. If anyone is still unsure whether to put their foot into the plain English waters, please do. I promise that ultimately you will not be disappointed.

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