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Unfortunately, most privacy policies are written by lawyers, with headlines inserted by marketing veeps. The tone is schizophrenic. The big type says, "We would never tell," and the fine print inserts exceptions, excuses, and bland generalities that leave anyone wondering, "Are they sincere?"
We do this, we do that, but what about you, the user?
"We use advanced technology and well-defined employee practices to help ensure that customer data is processed promptly, accurately and completely," says American Express.
American Express feels much better now, but I don't.
Those employee practices, in particular, give me an eerie feeling that something isn't being told; for instance, why aren't those practices actually spelled out here, if they are so well defined. And what difference do they actually make to me?
Politically, you may have a hard time getting rid of bogus phrases like:
But make the effort.
A ten-page legal document is not simple.
Making money is probably more important than privacy.
So don't make bogus claims, or you vitiate the whole purpose of the policy, which is to build trust.
Guests don't think of you as a philosophy professor, so edit the heck out of the boss's reflections on subjects like "consistent service quality."
In fact, try not to sound like the boss.
The managerial perspective seems alien to most customers, even when couched in "you" phrases.
True, but here we are looking at things with the eyes of an Information Technology Officer, or CIO, not a consumer.
Also, watch out for grandiose phrases reflecting
Lying, of course, is the biggest stylistic problem in privacy policies, and one reason so many people distrust these otherwise bland and boring documents.
As a mere writer, of course, you can only do so much to force your organization to be honest with consumers. But give it a shot.
And if you get a lot of jive talk back, maybe you should pull out your resume for a little update.
Too often the authors of privacy policies assume that the reader knows acronyms like SSL, understands the subtle differences between internal and external sharing and selling, and enjoys hearing about encryption standards.
Using industry or in-house jargon without explanation simply makes readers suspect that you are trying to pull the wool over their eyes.
Sure, you may have to talk about your security precautions, but walk people through these safeguards in plain English before you mention IP addresses. Remember, a lot of people still think cookies are a great snack.
People are used to this organization on the Web, and it breaks the information up into digestible chunks, in the give and take of a virtual conversation. Answer questions like these:
If you can answer most of these questions in plain English, you will surprise and please most consumers, even if your legal team has a fit.
If you must defend yourself against your own firm's lawyers, do some user testing to show what people understand, and what they don't, in their prose and yours.
Then make the case that the document claims to be addressed to the general public, not just lawyers, and so the norms, conventions, and standards of ordinary people are what the text must be judged by--not the stricter, but slippery language that is legally correct.
Protecting privacy is like defending your home.
The makers of our Constitution undertook to
secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. …
Is this what I ordered?
Writing that Works!