Plain language – the choice is clear

Publication date
Thursday 25 May 2023

There are barriers to implementing plain language; understanding these barriers will help you to explain the benefits.

Plain language is a writing style that is clear, concise and easy to understand. It is a way of presenting content that is accessible to a wide range of users, regardless of their background, education or situation.

I recently attended a plain language event led by Dr Amanda Laugesen and Peter Lechlein. The talk covered tips for writing in plain language and the benefits of plain language.

Interestingly, one of the most asked questions was ‘How do I sell plain language?’ Specifically, how can managers be encouraged to use and endorse plain language.

The headline

Plain language is for everyone.

Complex language can be:

  • inaccessible
  • exclusive
  • inefficient
  • ineffective
  • incomprehensible.

Plain language:

  • is easy to understand
  • is easy to act on
  • is inclusive
  • builds trust
  • saves time.

There is more to it

Of course, if it was easy, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. There are barriers to implementing plain language and it is helpful to know what these are. Understanding barriers means you are better able to explain the benefits.

Habit

Writing style is often deeply personal and ingrained. The person you are trying to convince – let’s call them the ‘Decision Maker’ – may have retained the writing style they learned at school or university. A Decision Maker’s writing style is also shaped by their work history and the preferences of their former managers. Change is hard, particularly when it relates to something deep‑rooted and habitual. 

Misunderstanding

The Decision Maker can believe that complex language is ‘professional’ because they learned to write in a professional, academic or technical environment. An environment where complex writing is part of the culture – lauded, even.

That environment could well have been the public service. Early in my career I contorted and mangled words into long, complex, passive sentences. I wrote that way because it was the convention. It was considered the professional way to write.

Lack of knowledge

Due to habit and misunderstanding, the Decision Maker may think there is no problem to fix.

Perhaps the Decision Maker doesn’t even notice when content is in plain language. Most people don’t. This is because the focus is the message – not in the decoding of the message.

So, if the Decision Maker is comfortable with complex language and doesn't notice plain language, they might not see what the fuss is about.

Avoiding direct communication

No-one likes to deliver bad news. Perhaps the Decision Maker believes that delivering bad news in a roundabout way softens the blow. Or perhaps they want to avoid taking personal responsibility for the message. Using passive voice in sentences is an effective way to make it unclear who is doing what to who.

Of course, this just makes it worse. The reader may need to contact the writer to clarify the message. There’s also a risk some will misinterpret the content and act accordingly.

By the time the user understands, they feel disappointed AND frustrated.

Obfuscation

I’d like to think it doesn’t happen, but convoluted language can be used to deliberately mislead. This means the Decision Maker is trying to confuse the user or hide the truth within the content. It could be an act of self-preservation, but concealing meaning under the weight of complex words is unprofessional.

Benefits

Now let’s look at some of the reasons you can use to persuade the Decision Maker to adopt plain language. It’s worth a try.

Easier to understand

Using plain language improves comprehension. In other words, it makes content easier to understand. Users can struggle to understand long words, technical jargon and unfamiliar terms. We often see this in areas like health, law and finance. In these situations, complex language can cause confusion and even harm.

Plain language also reduces the cognitive load on users. It allows them to process and retain information better.

Accessible

Content written in plain language is more accessible. It is understood by a wider audience. This includes people with disabilities, low literacy and limited English.

Plain language is also more accessible to people who are experiencing situational disability. Situational disability is temporary and based on a specific set of circumstances. It includes stress, trauma, a noisy environment and pain.

Good for busy people

Is the content for executives? Remember that they are:

  • busy
  • under pressure
  • responsible for many priorities
  • reading large volumes of content.

Make it easy for them.

Plain language can express complex ideas and save busy people time.

If content is difficult to understand, it may drop to the bottom of the pile. Or maybe it has frustrated the executive – which won't help your cause. You might be told to rewrite or provide extra briefing, which adds to time pressure.

Efficient

Plain language improves efficiency. When content is clear and concise, users quickly understand what they need to do.

It also reduces follow‑up questions, rework and mistakes, all of which are resource-intensive. This is efficient for everyone.

Improves compliance

Plain language makes information about rights, rules and obligations easier to understand. If you are required to include complex terms, explain them in plain language. This makes is easier for people to access entitlements and fulfil obligations.

Builds trust

There are several elements of plain language that help build trust. When you make the effort to create good content it shows that you respect your user and their time. Being open and clear displays integrity and intent. Using plain language demonstrates your credibility and authority. And explaining something clearly shows that you understand it.

The round-up

There are many benefits to using plain language. There are also blockers. Knowing why your Decision Maker is reluctant helps you to encourage them to change.

Be gentle, you may be challenging habits of a lifetime or an entrenched culture. But be persistent; the benefits are worth it and the benefits are for everyone.

Susan Baird is the Style Manual engagement officer.