A guide for implementing
plain language in your content

The power of clear language

Even with the rise of video, the written word is still the most popular medium for communication. In a single minute, people around the world create:

  • About 188 million emails
  • More than 18 million texts
  • More than 500,000 tweets
  • More than 12,000 blog posts

In these communications, people rely on the power of the written word to make a compelling point, sell a product, or build a relationship. Maybe all three at once.

Of course, written content isn’t the only type of content on the web. From photos to videos to GIFs and more, the amount of information we see on a daily basis is staggering.

It’s practically impossible to absorb every piece of information we see during a typical browsing session, so our brains have adapted. Instead of trying to process an entire page of text, for instance, we’ll simply skim it and decide whether it’s worth more attention.

If you’re in the business of content creation, that means you need to make every piece clear and easy to understand. And that’s where plain language can help.

What is plain language?

If you produce written content, you want your words to grab readers quickly and make it easy for them to keep reading. Adhering to plain English principles is your best bet for appealing to a wide audience and enticing them to stick with your content.

Plain language is a writing technique that prioritizes simple words and straightforward sentence structures. It’s not used to “dumb down” content but to make content more widely accessible and easier for readers to consume.

Plain language is a writing technique that prioritizes simple words and straightforward sentence structures.Click To Tweet

Don’t let the terminology fool you: plain language doesn’t mean plain content. Your creativity can, and should, still shine through. In a sea of poorly written and complex content, following plain language guidelines helps your content float to the top people’s to-read lists.

Plain language doesn’t mean plain content.Click To Tweet

Why is plain language important?

Plain language guidelines help make sure that the text complements, rather than detracts from, the overall experience.

Reason 1: It helps you connect with your audience.

While website copy is just one piece of your site, it’s the one that tells people the most about your company and team. Poorly-written, overly-complex, mistake-filled copy won’t reflect well on your brand.

By using plain language, creators can make a website layout, in-app experience, or piece of standalone content more attractive. Given that 38% of people would leave a site if they find its content or layout unattractive, this is a pretty big deal. Poor online experiences cost companies millions in lost revenue each year, and bad experiences tend to outweigh the good ones. In other words, bad experiences on your site could lead to more lost customers than good experiences could gain back.

Clear language helps you build trust with your audience. Content that is difficult to understand will alienate audiences. In fact, 66% of customers assume that vague, overly complex copy is intentionally written that way. According to Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer Report, an easily understood “Terms & Conditions” statement increases consumer trust more than any other factor.

Clear language helps you build trust with your audience.Click To Tweet

By putting plain English principles into practice, writers will be able to connect with more audiences. People who lack insider knowledge or don’t speak English as a first language will have poor experiences if they’re struggling to understand your jargon. Plain language ensures your content is accessible for every audience. Equally important, you’ll connect with people who are crunched for time and therefore skimming — and in the modern world, that’s all of us.

But your content doesn’t need to be easily understood by everyone. It just needs to be easy for your audience to understand, and plain language guidelines support that. So if you know your audience members are familiar with some niche terms or jargon that make your content more concise, use them. No need to write “trying to access more money than you have available in your bank account” if you’re sure your audience will understand “overdraft”.

Plain language guidelines weren’t developed to suck the creativity out of content creation. In fact, they exist to make sure that creative content is more accessible and more shareable.

Reason 2: It boosts operational efficiency.

Customers are vital to any business, but the case for plain English communications extends beyond the need to connect with audiences. Deploying an economy of words actually boosts operational efficiencies as well. How?

  • The Cleveland Clinic simplified the language it used in billing statements. They immediately saw a significant increase in patient payments, allowing the care provider to recover an extra $1 million per month.
  • GE Aviation’s digital services business worked for three years to cut down on the legal jargon used in its business contracts. By reducing the number of words and pages in each contract, new contracts took 60% less time to negotiate. They also reduced the number of customer disputes over contract wording to zero.
  • Financial services provider TIAA saw increased profits when it rewrote an informational letter to investors using plain language. The first draft confused recipients and resulted in thousands of frantic phone calls. The second draft increased positive calls as well as investments with TIAA.
Plain language helps you connect with your audience and can boost operational efficiency.Click To Tweet

Ready to start using plain language in your content? Read on for a few tips for better writing.

What are some plain English writing tips?

In short, you should always aim for clarity, readability, and brevity. Long, flowing sentences and passive voice can be occasionally useful, such as in legal writing or to shake up the rhythm of your paragraph, but they shouldn’t have a large presence in your content.

  • Summarize your main point first. Tell readers at the beginning of the content what you want them to know, and then expand on that point. If readers can’t understand where content is going, they’ll move on or, worse, not get the information they need.
  • Be brief. You have limited time to convey what you mean. Our attention spans are short, and your sentences should be, too. Aim for sentences of no more than 25 words and paragraphs of five sentences or fewer.
  • Use headers and lists. Breaking up content into easily digestible chunks will help you keep readers engaged and will allow readers to quickly find the content relevant to them.
  • Cut the jargon. Be consistent in the use of naming conventions, particularly if you’re using unique spelling or punctuation. If you’re not sure who your readers are, don’t assume what they understand.
  • Use the active voice. Writing in the active voice will make your sentences shorter and easier to understand. Favor it over the passive voice whenever possible.
  • Simplify layouts. White space improves readability. Organize text in PDFs and flyers into two columns to prevent readers from feeling overwhelmed by a wall of text.

Big words and long sentences don’t make you sound smarter. They make your content more difficult to read and understand. Follow the advice of E.B. White (author, former editors of The Elements of Style, and certain forefather of the plain language movement): “Use the smallest word that does the job.” So try ‘use’ over ‘utilize’, ‘more than’ over ‘in excess of’, and ‘sad’ over ‘lugubrious’. You get the idea.

Use the smallest word that does the job.Click To Tweet

How do I know whether plain language is working?

Concise writing isn’t always easy, but it’s worthwhile. Even the most experienced writers need this reminder, which is why a corporate styleguide can be a useful document to have around. But from there, how can you make sure your plain language strategy is working?

The first step is to regularly test content to see if it’s effective and easily understandable.

You can perform internal tests to see whether employees grasp the key message in individual content pieces. (If the content is for internal use, test it with people outside that audience — perhaps your immediate team.) If your colleagues struggle to understand your content, that’s not a good sign. It means any external audiences, who don’t have the same context that employees do, won’t understand it, either. Use that feedback to adjust your messaging until your internal teams give it the green light.

You could conduct a usability test to get a more accurate assessment of how well audiences understand your writing. Find testers who are like your target audience. Then, create task scenarios that ask them to apply the knowledge they’ve gained from reading your content. For UX teams, see whether they can complete workflows and accomplish the goals you set for them when designing a website or software.

Several tools exist to help you perform this type of test; you could even use a platform like SurveyMonkey to create something similar. External testing services will allow you to get feedback on the mechanics of your application, your designs, and the copy. If testers don’t understand your content, revisit your plain language principles.

You could also run a Cloze test: remove certain words from your copy and ask test-takers to fill them in. This helps determine whether your copy provides readers with enough context to get a good understanding of your message.

Does a plain language converter exist?

Yes! If you’re looking for ways to use embed plain language into your content creation process, look into content intelligence software.

Content intelligence software reads written content and provides feedback. It can convert complex writing to plain language. It can also help align writing to other elements of your company styleguide such as brand voice and style. The real-time writing assistance makes it easier for anyone in your company to write clearly and embody your brand personality along the way.

A growing number of companies are relying on this content intelligence tools. One such tool is Writer.

How can Writer help my team use plain language?

Writer helps organizations craft their content guidelines and then align all their writers to those goals. It makes it easier to keep content produced throughout the organization clear, consistent, and on brand.

The platform uses natural language processing to help folks in your organization adhere to your content guidelines in anything they write. The AI gives real-time feedback, all based on your company styleguide — including how to convert complex writing to plain language. Once you set up your company styleguide in Writer, writers and editors can use it to quickly review each piece of content.

Writer gives suggestions to help writers:

  • Follow plain language guidelines, e.g.
    • Turn passive phrases into active voice
    • Shorten lengthy sentences
    • Simplify complex sentences
    • Adjust word choice to improve clarity and readability
  • Use your brand voice
  • Keep grammar, spelling, and punctuation consistent
  • Replace biased language
  • Remove plagiarized language
  • Update outdated messaging or terminology
  • Comply with relevant legal requirements

Make your words count

Modern customers demand authenticity from brands. Useful, understandable content always feels more authentic than complex, ambiguous communications.

Likewise, employees expect transparency and honesty from all internal communications. Messaging grounded in plain language can result in a happier, more productive workforce.

Adhering to plain language guidelines across all your content is good for your audience and your team. It helps your message come across the way you intended. It shows readers that you respect the time and energy they’ve given you. It can help you empathize with customers. And it should help you feel confident that your end users can achieve their goals.

With plain language principles at your fingertips, content will clearly communicate your message. From there, you have the freedom to add the spark of creativity that will set your content apart from your competitors.

To see how Writer can help you with your plain language strategy, try for free today.

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