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Author: Nicole d’Entremont of Plainly Speaking

What is plain language?

Plain language is a way of writing or speaking that’s clear, concise and helpful. It’s the opposite of wordy and confusing communications. Plain language seems effortless, but it takes time and skill to put it into practice.

Four reasons your organization needs plain language

Plain language is a powerful tool for any organization. Whoever your audience is, plain language can help you:

1. Attract attention

Your audience is busy, and there are many organizations competing for their time. You can help your organization stand out by writing content that’s quick and easy to read. Research shows that even people who have large vocabularies and can read quickly prefer concise content [1].

2. Gain trust and understanding

Complicated language is often misinterpreted by readers, who may feel confused, frustrated or misled. Plain language ensures readers understand what you mean, giving your organization an air of credibility and transparency.

3. Drive action

Plain language makes information easier to act on, meaning people are more likely to comply with your rules, recommendations and requests. You can use this advantage to increase customer conversions and improve the user journey.

4. Save time and money

Making information easier to find, understand and use will reduce the number of questions and complaints your organization receives. This frees up valuable resources, allowing your organization to cut costs or focus on more profitable activities. Alberta Agriculture rewrote a large number of its government forms in plain language and saved around $3.5 million per year as a result. The department was able to cut processing times by ten minutes on each of the 1 million applications it receives every year [2].

Plain language myths you should know about

Too many organizations dismiss plain language because of misconceptions about it. Luckily, there is plenty of evidence to set things straight. We’ve busted three common myths below:

“Plain language means simplifying and watering down content”

Some people think they are being told to oversimplify concepts and sacrifice nuance to write in plain language. The opposite is true – writing in plain language ensures precision and clarity. This is because it leaves no place for ambiguities and faults in logic, which often hide behind big words and dense text. As the saying goes, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

“Plain language ‘talks down’ to educated readers”

It’s true that plain language can improve understanding for the 49% of Canadians with low literacy skills [3]. But a key aspect of plain language is tailoring your writing to your target audience. For example, you can use technical terms if your intended reader is likely to understand them.

It’s important to recognize the difference between content that’s designed for a highly educated audience and content that’s unnecessarily wordy. Studies show that even experts – including medical professionals, scientists and engineers – prefer content that’s digestible, concise and scannable [1].

“Plain English is clear, straightforward expression, using only as many words as are necessary… It is not baby talk, nor is it a simplified version of the English language.”
– Professor Robert D. Eagleson, Writing in Plain English

“Plain language doesn’t hold up in court”

There’s strong evidence that legal documents work better when they’re written in plain language instead of traditional legalese. Many governments, law societies and bar associations promote the use of plain language as a result, and most large law firms are rewriting their standard precedents in clearer terms.

The flip side of the myth that plain language doesn’t hold up in court is the myth that traditional legalese does. Take the example of this clause in a lease contract (we won’t blame you if you skip bits):

“[The tenant shall] when where and so often as occasion requires well and sufficiently … repair renew rebuild uphold support sustain maintain pave purge scour cleanse glaze empty amend and keep the premises and every part thereof … and all floors walls columns roofs canopies lifts and escalators … shafts stairways fences pavements forecourts drains sewers ducts flues conduits wires cables gutters soil and other pipes tanks cisterns pumps and other water and sanitary apparatus thereon with all needful and necessary amendments whatsoever …”

This obscenely long clause boils down to, “The tenant must repair the premises.” The writer probably thought that more words meant greater precision, but they were wrong – the clause still ended up in court over a dispute about its meaning [4].

“[The legal profession] prefers to seek safety in verbosity rather than in discrimination of language.”
– Charles Davidson, Precedents and Forms in Conveyancing, 1860

How to introduce plain language to your organization

Each organization can adopt plain language in its own way, depending on its needs, structure and capabilities. But we usually see the most success when an organization follows these steps:

  1. Commitment – Senior management commit to investing in plain language and integrating it into the organization’s communications strategy.
  2. Audit – The organization reviews its existing communications, processes and capabilities.
  3. Strategy – It develops a strategy to get staff buy-in, provide plain language training, rewrite existing materials and ensure plain language is used consistently in future communications.

You can help your organization adopt plain language successfully by bringing in experts. At Plainly Speaking, our team members have won 8 international awards from the Center for Plain Language. Together, we have decades of experience in communications, writing, editing and training. Want to see what we can do for your organization? Get in touch.

Sources

[1] Writing Digital Copy for Domain Experts, Nielsen, 2017.
[2] Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law, Joseph Kimble, 2012.
[3] Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), Statistics Canada, 2013.
[4] What is plain language law and why use it?, Peter Butt, 2002.

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