Words at work

– 10 min read

I read you loud and clear: plain language beyond government

Ashley Coolman

Ashley Coolman

Governments around the world have been thinking and talking about clear communication and plain language for over a decade. The U.S. Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires all federal agencies to write in clear communication that the public can understand and use. The Center for Plain Language has even been grading U.S. executive branch agencies for writing and organizational compliance with the Plain Language Act since 2012. Across the water, the GOV.UK added a section on plain English to their style guide in 2014 and made it mandatory for all content on their site.

Many government organizations now tout the benefits of simplified, crystal-clear communication. But what about plain language for the rest of us non-government folk?

Plain language is an opportunity

As much as plain language is a set of rules and regulations, it’s also an opportunity for your organization to be people- and user-focused.

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Clear communication shows that your organization respects everyone’s time and reading ability. Less complexity in your word choices and sentence structures means no one has to read your content twice to get it. It helps people who aren’t fluent (whether that’s in English or your specific brand of jargon), and it’s better for busy readers who love skimming.

More companies and organizations have started adding plain language guidelines to their brand style guides. They’re applying it to everything from website copy to help center articles to legal paperwork.

For example, thanks in part to new regulations such as GDPR and CCPA, companies are reworking overly complex policy documents to make them reader-friendly. Check out Writer’s terms and conditions to see a live example.

Ensuring your content uses clear communication

By setting goals to write everything in plain language, you promise to:

1. Speak to your audience using their own words, so they can quickly understand you. This means replacing challenging words, jargon, and complex idioms. No more showing off your expansive vocabulary for the sake of it.

2. Write concisely, cutting out unnecessary words and sentences. Modern business writers prefer using the active voice because it usually shortens long sentences and simplifies subject-verb-object relationships.

3. Organize information so people can quickly find what they’re looking for, and help them skip irrelevant or already known information. Don’t try to force people to methodically read everything you’ve written — that’s self-serving instead of user-serving. Separate help information into short pages that help solve a single issue and give each page a distinct title. If you have long pages, outline them using a table of contents and subheaders.

4. Rethink stories. When you’re telling stories or making comparisons, you still need to make sure your audience can follow along. If they’re not all car people, don’t talk about cars. If they don’t all work in health services (or your industry of choice), use multiple examples. If you’re talking to people around the globe, don’t forget that their holidays, seasons, folklore, and cultural norms may be different from your own.

Clear, concise writing makes content easy for everyone to understand. If you’re interested in exploring it for your organization, learn about implementing plain language guidelines using technology on our site. You can also get plain language training resources from plainlanguage.gov.