Where is your organisation in the fight for plain English?
Do you still value complex words packed like sardines into shudderingly-long paragraphs? Or have you transformed all of your content (internal and external) so it’s easy to read, follow and relate to?
Although the idea of plain English has been around for centuries (aka “Layman’s terms”), most companies were happy to ignore it in favour of technical language…until the internet changed everything.
A letter in the mail became 100 emails in the inbox. A good book branched into millions of “how to” websites and videos. 34 shop fronts at the local shopping centre morphed into countless online retailers across the globe.
As content expanded, reader attention spans plummeted. People simply got really clever at developing shortcuts to absorb maximum info in minimum time.
They’ve become experts on how to scroll, skim and scan. And they use these shortcuts when they read just about anything: internet and intranet content, policies, procedures, letters, emails, reports, brochures, and more!
Research tells us this applies to technical experts too. The general public want plain English so they understand what they read. Technical experts want it because they’re time poor and need to digest info fast.
When you know all of this, you never ask “Do I write in Plain English?”. But “How far can I go with plain English?”.
The value in editing…twice
Every writer has their own style. Some are great at humour, others are talented story tellers.
But not every writer understands plain English, and how to apply the rules of plain English to meet the needs of scrollers, skimmers and scanners. (When I say “rules” I mean best practice conventions shared by writers across the world, backed by extensive user research.)
Even writers who understand plain English don’t always get it right. There is always benefit in editing multiple times because every edit makes content better.
The better it is, the more chance that people will read it.
Check out this example…
I made it up, and the “not plain English” version is way more common than you might think – I’ve seen much worse!
Not plain English
Complex text is to be written by a skilled, experienced and where applicable qualified individual and that person is responsible for making it long and convoluted so it appears intelligent and confusing to the person who needs to read it. This is called “bureaucratese” and it is a widespread issue for a large number of companies that make the decision to write in this language style as they are of the opinion that it makes them sound more intelligent. They should instead be worrying about writing comprehensible content so the person who reads it understands the information that is being communicated.
Plain English version 1
Only a skilled, experienced and (if applicable) qualified person can write complex text.
They must make it long and complicated so it sounds intelligent and confuses the person who reads it.
It is called “gobbledygook” and it is a common problem for lots of companies that write this way because they believe it makes them sound more intelligent.
They should instead worry about writing clear content so the reader understands what they wish to communicate.
Plain English version 2
You can only write complex content if you are:
- qualified (if it applies)
You must make it long and complicated. This makes it sound clever so the reader gets confused.
We call this “gobbledygook” and it’s a common problem for many companies. They write this way because they think it makes them look smarter.
Instead, they should write clear content so the reader understands it.
My # 1 rule for plain English edits
I probably have about 30 rules in my plain English playbook, but this is my #1 rule:
People decide if they will read something at first sight. If it looks too long or complex, they won’t even give it a chance.
With this in mind, the perfect layout + the perfect content = perfection.
Make it real
Plain English is not art. It’s not creative, and it’s not clever. It’s REAL.
Leave behind almost every English class you sat in at school and write real words, for real people. Destroy anything that doesn’t add value to their experience, and your content will thrive.
As a copywriter, I certainly don’t consider myself a “creative”. That’s your job, in your field of expertise.
My job is to take your information and ideas, and apply what I know to your content so your customers:
- read it
- understand it
- relate to it
- act on it
Plain English follows a simple set of principles. Even your customers’ buying journey can be distilled to a simple set of principles (don’t believe me? Read anything from renowned psychologist and author Robert Cialdini).
Combine those principles and you’ve got a recipe for success.