Plain Language: 10 tips for clear, efficient writing

We all have a distinctive voice in the way we choose to express ourselves. In fact we have many voices – parent, sports fan, business owner. We have the voice we use with a friend and the voice we adopt with a boss.

Is it possible that the voices we adopt – sometimes unconsciously – can get in the way of simple communication? Or worse, the voices we adopt do harm to our brand?

In a newsletter slipped under guests’ doors, a hotel boss wrote:

In our ongoing effort to provide meaningful communications to our Guests and Associates, we are delighted to present the Spring/Summer edition of Crowne Connection.  Despite the devastating effect of the adverse climatic conditions that brought hardship and change to the travel plans of many of our guests particularly from near feeder markets the Hotel continues to enjoy an above market performance in occupancy.

What do you think of the author, as you wade through the empty words (ongoing, meaningful), the grand language (devastating effect of the adverse climatic conditions), and the jargon (near feeder markets, above market performance)?

If you read the newsletter and felt the author was pompous, or boring, or self-important, you might think badly of his hotel.

The hotel manager didn’t want to harm his brand. Maybe he was  adopting a writing style he thought enhanced his message. He was trying too hard for important-sounding words instead of trusting himself to say ‘despite the bad storm, the hotel has been very busy’.

I used that example to open a workshop on Plain Language last week. The Plain Language Campaign has been growing over the last 30 years. But there are still some people who dismiss it as dumbed-down, over-simplified, folksy, not professional.

Plain Language is not an amateur’s method of communication. It’s very professional. It’s about communication that your audience or readers can understand the first time they hear or read it. It’s language that achieves its purpose. It’s purpose is to improve efficiency.

A Veterans Affairs office in the US was getting a lot of phone calls seeking clarification of a form letter about veterans’ benefits. Staff rewrote the document in Plain Language. The calls went down from over eleven hundred a year to under two hundred.

Here’s a quick guide to the essentials of Plain Language:

  1. Use the shortest word you can find that does the job (so rather than consequently, start rather than commence)
  2. Keep the sentences as short as possible. Aim for 15 – 20 words.
  3. Don’t build phrases when one word is good enough
    Despite the fact that… although
    At this point in time… now
    Ahead of schedule… early
    For the purpose of… to/for
    In the majority of cases… usually
  4. Cut the clutter. How often do you send two words when one will do the job?
    Free gift
    Joint cooperation
    Close proximity
    Necessary requirement
  5. Avoid turning verbs into nouns (turning ‘we met’ into ‘we had a meeting’)
    Conducted an analysis – analyzed
    Presented a report – reported
    Did an assessment – assessed
    Provided assistance – assisted (‘helped’ is shorter)
    Came to the conclusion that – concluded
  6. Use the active voice rather than the passive voice. Have people doing things in your sentences, rather than having things done to them. Subject-verb-object. ‘Fred rented the house’ rather than ‘the house was rented by Fred’.
  7. Keep you language conversational – everyday words that will be familiar to your audience.
  8. Use inclusive language – ‘we’ and ‘you’
  9. Focus outwards – it’s not about impressing with your vocabulary, it’s about expressing a thought as simply as possible
  10. If in doubt, remember the words of Dr Seuss:

The writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.

That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.