In recent conversations with 2 of my clients, I explained that their website content should be written in plain language, and recommended they write at a junior high level.
They both pushed back: their customers were are all university educated. They can understand the way they are writing, and even want the added complexity. I get resistance from my post secondary clients as well. Faculty will tell me, “If they can’t understand the content on the site, they aren’t the kind of student we want here.”
Keep reading and I’ll explain how these arguments don’t hold water. And no one has ever complained that writing was too easy to understand.
What is plain language?
The International Plain Language Federation says that, “A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”
Let me repeat that last part:
Find what they need. Understand what they find. Use that information.
Isn’t this the purpose of every website? Indeed, this is the only way you will successfully engage and convert. And you can’t do that if your content isn’t catering to your audience.
Elements of plain language
Let’s start with a few before and after plain language examples.
- BEFORE: Would you care to explain the reasoning behind your decision to withdraw from the assembly early?
- AFTER: Why did you leave the assembly early?
- BEFORE: The application must be completed by the applicant and received by the financial office by June 1st.
- AFTER: Submit your application to the financial office by June 1st.
Writing at a lower grade level is usually the first thing people think about with plain language. However, it also takes into account audience, structure, and word choice.
- Writing for your audience helps you attract and engage the right people
- Structuring content for the way people read online guides them through the message
- Word choice is critical to comprehension and findability
- And grade level helps combat the skipping & skimming of content
Need more convincing? Here are 8 benefits of writing in plain language on your website.
Why is plain language important
1. Your message will be communicated faster.
People read differently online than print. This is why the argument about the intelligence of the audience falls flat. People don’t read online – we scan and skim and skip. Plain language works better for these behaviours; shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs mean customers will get the information they want more effectively and efficiently.
2. You’ll seem smarter.
If the audience doesn’t understand your content they don’t blame themselves. They’ll think, “why aren’t they able to explain this to me? Is their service going to be this complicated too?”
So plain language is not ‘dumbing down’. In fact, it’s smartening up. Removing letters and words does not mean you’re removing meaning.
3. You’ll seem more trustworthy.
If your content is overly complex people may think you’re trying to hide something. People don’t do business with people and organizations they don’t trust.
4. You’ll win over new customers.
Maybe your current customers are university educated and know what you’re talking about. They have learned that over time.
But what about new customers? They need to be introduced to your products and services – to learn what you offer, how you compare to others, and why they should choose you. If potential customers think your competitors’ content is easier to understand, they are more likely to choose them.
5. It’s inclusive.
Not writing in plain language is ableist. People with learning disabilities, mental illness, head trauma, migraines and other cognitive disorders are less able to understand your content.
Plain language also enables screen readers to interpret and communicate the cadence and pronunciation of your content more effectively.
As well, plain language will help those for whom English as an additional language. Their comprehension levels could be even lower, at elementary school grades, so if this is your audience plain language is a must.
6. You reduce the cognitive load and improve comprehension.
Part of writing in plain language means removing distractions. Hyperlinks are designed to distract and this reduces comprehension levels. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes, “Deciphering hypertext substantially increases readers cognitive load and hence weakens their ability to comprehend and retain what they’re reading”.
This means that even if you choose not to click on a link, the act of pausing to decide – if only for a second – hurts comprehension.
7. You’re respecting people’s time.
Everyone appreciates it when you use their time wisely. People would rather spend 3 minutes on an article than 8, and get on with other things they need to do. They will thank you for it.
8. You’ll be easier to find.
Search engines love plain language. It ensures the keywords of your audience are in your content, and that it’s lean and well structured. These mean your webpages are easier for them to index and more likely to rank well.
What can you do
Remember, you are not your user. Often it’s ego that gets in the way of committing to plain language – we want to demonstrate our smarts. Get over yourself and use these tools and resources to help.
- Learn the basics. Take a look at PlainLanguage.gov – it’s an excellent resource with lots of great examples.
- Use free online tools like Hemingway Editor or Readability Analyzer to measure how easy your content is to read. Microsoft Word also has readability stats, in the same area you check word count.
- Test your content with your audience. Show before and after versions, giving testers the same amount of time to view each. Then, take it away and find out what they learned.
- If your information is more complex, don’t litter your content with hyperlinks. Gather them together and list them at the end. Check out Nicholas Carr’s, The Shallows for more about what the internet is doing to our brains.
Plain (language) and simple truth
When you write in plain language, your audience thinks you’re smart for explaining things so clearly. They will have more confidence in you and will be more likely to want to enter into a relationship with you – as a partner, an investor, an employee, or a customer.
Are you interested in plain language training for your organization? Ask about my half-day workshop for your team.