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5 Reasons you should start using plain language

Hands up if you’ve ever read the same paragraph five times and still had no clue what it was about? For me, it used to happen all the time in seventh grade Ohio History class. What can I say? Those text books just didn’t sing. Now, more often than not, it happens when I’m reading dense reference material supplied by incredibly smart engineers who know their products inside out… but don’t always know how to write about them (#sorrynotsorry). The solution to conveying all that ultra-complex information is actually quite simple. Literally. Write your marketing materials in plain language, and your audience won’t have to work so hard to keep up. Here are a few more reasons to give plain language a try:

1. If it’s good enough for the U.S. government…

In 2010, President Obama passed the Plain Writing Act (thanks, Obama… no really, thanks!), which requires federal agencies to communicate clearly with the general public in ways they can easily understand. The Act is particularly relevant to documents that explain federal benefits and services and how to apply for them, but it’s intended to create efficiencies in all forms of communication between federal agencies and the general public. The U.S. Census Bureau even lists plain language tips – complete with a “use this, not that” word list – that are super helpful to beginner writers.

2. Secret codes stop being cool around sixth grade

Remember in middle school when the popular girls formed cliques and had secret code names that let them gossip about everyone? Yeah, it wasn’t really cool then, either. In the business world, secret code names pop up all the time in the form of acronyms and industry jargon. They make sense to you and function well as shorthand during internal discussions, but these terms just confuse your target audience. Limit the number of acronyms you use, and always spell them out in full at the first mention. In terms of jargon, it’s best to just avoid it. Meet your audience wherever they are in terms of understanding.

3. Readers need plain language

The average American reads at a seventh to eighth grade level. Additionally, 87 percent of American adults surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education showed an inability to compare the viewpoints in two editorials due to low reading proficiency. Plain language not only tailors to the average consumer, but it also makes your content more accessible to non-native English speakers and people with cognitive difficulties or sensory processing disorders. It’s tough enough to get your audience to listen, amirite? Why not make your message as easy to consume as possible?

4. The internet isn’t Moby Dick

If you’re writing for the web or writing content that will be repurposed for the web – which, let’s face it, covers most content in 2018 – remember that there is a different expectation in online environments. Users scan, rather than read word-for-word. User experience is carefully crafted to be as intuitive as possible (translation: use as few words as possible), and if a webpage is too copy-heavy, chances are that your audience is going to TL;DR you and move on. Plain language aligns with the quick, need-to-know style of writing geared toward website and SEO best practices.

5. Graphic designers will love you

If I had a dollar for every time a designer asked me if I could trim the copy to fit the design… let’s just say I’d be drinking a lot more Starbucks. Of course, design and copy need to work together to tell the same story, but the reality is that effective design needs to have breathing room. If a layout is too copy-heavy, there won’t be enough white space to create emphasis and hierarchy in impactful ways. Plus, the design will likely look cheap and dated. Simplify your language, and you will inherently reduce your word count.

Get started with these plain language tips

In my experience, people don’t try to make their writing overly complex. It just sort of happens when you’re too close to the subject matter and not a writer by trade. Here are a few guidelines that can help:

  • Front-load important information – Don’t try to create suspense. Just directly state the most important information first. It’s also a good idea to summarize key points later on.
  • Keep it short – This applies to sentences (aim for 15–20 words max), paragraphs and sections. Think small, digestible chunks of content.
  • Use active voice – Active voice means the subject of the sentence is performing the action, rather than being acted upon. For example: the girl threw the ball (as opposed to: the ball was thrown by the girl.) This keeps your writing fresh and energetic.
  • Get a second set of eyes – There are actually tools to rate your writing in terms of plain language, but I think the easiest and most effective thing to do is to just ask someone who isn’t familiar with the content to read it and give you feedback.

This whole plain language thing is pretty simple if you think about it. I would say “no pun intended,” but it totally was. See? There’s one more perk. Plain language leaves a lot more room for puns, er… I mean, brand personality.

Want a little more help getting your content in tip-top shape? Get in touch.

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