Using Plain English is important for your business for many reasons – but in simple terms, it helps you get to the point fast and sell your products and services effectively.
First, you should find the easiest and most straightforward way to describe what you’re selling. For instance, if you were playing ‘Guess the Animal’, would the clue ‘Equus quagga’ or ‘stripy horse’ get you to the answer ‘zebra’ faster?
On and offline, the same principle applies to everything from product descriptions to internal memos and social media captions to white papers.
But plain doesn’t have to mean boring – read on to find out why communicating clearly allows you to write less, but say much more about why your brand’s so brilliant.
What is Plain English?
The Plain English Campaign was set up in 1979 to combat ‘gobbledegook, jargon and misleading public information’.
Since then, it’s advocated for all organisations to use language which ‘gets its meaning across clearly and concisely to its intended audience’. Here are some tips on starting to use Plain English:
- It involves choosing the simplest expressions possible, with only as many words as necessary, to make sure that your customers always know exactly what you’re talking about.
- If you sell technical products and services, you should try to find accessible ways to describe them to customers who might not have your level of insider knowledge, otherwise the way they make their lives easier won’t be obvious.
The Plain English Campaign’s Crystal Mark accreditation scheme was launched in 1990 and it’s basically a seal of approval that proves your commitment to Plain English Principles to staff, customers and anyone else who might come in contact with your organisation and its content. If clear communication chimes with your values, working towards this award is worthwhile.
How do you know if you’re using Plain English?
If you communicate while focusing on the needs of your audience first, it’s more likely that you’re already using Plain English. Take a look at these examples:
- Making your writing complicated might be impressive to a professor marking an academic paper, but using the same language to talk to customers about the new toaster you’re selling will seem confusing and downright weird.
- If your internal communications and conversations are cluttered with the latest corporate buzzwords and abbreviations, you might think that you’re keeping up with the latest trends, but the substance of your message can remain a mystery. So ditch phrases like ‘blue sky thinking’ to appear less jaded and get your point across quickly and effectively.
- If you’re drafting policies and procedures, using the easiest way to describe them lets you make sure that they’re understood in the same way by staff and are more likely to be followed closely.
Succeeding in business often means being accurate and moving with speed and agility – without straightforward language, you’ll probably spend more time struggling to explain what you’re offering to customers than actually selling it.
Why is Plain English important for your business?
Unclear communication can negatively affect almost every aspect of your business, so using Plain English can prevent many common corporate problems from occurring, improve the way you work and even increase your profits. Here’s why:
- When it comes to digital marketing, you’ve got 15 seconds to convince customers to stay on your website. So if your landing page doesn’t do a good job of engaging them with clear language, instead of clicking through to your products, they’ll find what they want from your competitors.
- Plain English works well with the way most people prefer to read websites – by including the most important information at the top and left of your page, with easy words, short sentences and less dense paragraphs, your formatting is fit for purpose.
- Plain English also aligns with SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), because in many cases, keyword research shows that the words and phrases customers type into search engines like Google are straightforward – so why wouldn’t you want to include them in your content?
- If your business is international, making sure the copy and content you use avoids metaphors and turns of phrase specific to one territory means there’s less chance of important information getting ‘lost in translation’ when you expand to overseas markets.
- Using Plain English when you talk or write to colleagues saves a huge amount of time – think of how much shorter your meetings and emails could be.
- Clear communication influences the ways employees behave towards each other and perform when trying to complete tasks, so it directly affects productivity and profitability.
As you can see, starting to use Plain English could boost your business in many ways. But as well as its more general advantages, it’s especially effective in certain sectors.
Can your law firm use Plain English?
If you work in law, you absolutely can and should use Plain English – here’s some more background information:
- There’s an organisation called Clarity which promotes plain legal language around the world. Using less ‘legalese’ and more straightforward communication can win you clients and make legal proceedings more understandable to ordinary citizens.
- In part, obscure legal language has developed because in adversarial proceedings, where one side is pitched against another, using words and phrases which can have several different definitions allows lawyers more ‘wriggle room’ to adjust their arguments. But this practice can be counterproductive when witnesses, defendants and claimants lose track of what’s going on.
- Authorities in some nations have made efforts to remove complex legal language from proceedings in favour of everyday communication. A great example of this can be found in this article on Legal English in Singapore, which explains that before this move, lawyers themselves struggled to understand some of the statutes they were working with.
Last but not least, as well as the issues we’ve mentioned above, using Plain English might make it much easier for you to attract new clients from all walks of life – so if you want to position yourself as a practice that cares about ordinary citizens, it’s a smart move.
How can you change Legal English into Plain English?
Many legal systems still use Latin terms which can be tricky to translate precisely into Plain English.
But apart from this, there are many ways to switch up the way you draft notices and reports so that they’re aimed at your clients rather than colleagues. Here are two examples:
- Legal English – ‘It was the opinion of the Panel applying their judgment to the facts and circumstances of the case that Misconduct was established in this case.’
- Plain English equivalent – ‘The Panel decided Misconduct was established after considering the facts and circumstances of this case.’
- Legal English – ‘Any decision by the Panel which involved an interference with the worker’s ECHR rights required to be taken in accordance with the principle of proportionality.’
- Plain English equivalent – ‘Any Panel decision interfering with the worker’s ECHR rights had to be proportionate.’
It’s easy to see that by shifting words around and writing more naturally, the Plain English versions of the sentences above are easier to understand and moreover, that their meaning doesn’t change.
Is Plain English used in literature?
Plain English has been used by some of the most powerful communicators of all time. And in many art forms, there’s a running debate about whether more creative and unusual or straightforward and direct approaches are more resonant.
For instance, the battle between F. Scott Fitzgerald’s flowery metaphors and Ernest Hemingway’s crisp active verbs is the stuff of literary legend.
Both authors have described the same section of the Cote D’Azur in their dramatically different ways:
- Here’s Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night’:
‘In the early morning the distant image of Cannes, the pink and cream of early fortifications, and the purple Alp that bounded Italy, were cast across the water and lay quavering in the ripples and rings sent up by sea-plants through the clear shallows…but the diffused magic of the hot sweet South had withdrawn into them – the soft-pawed night and the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below – the magic left these things and melted into the two Divers and became part of them.’
- And here’s Hemingway’s ‘The Garden of Eden’:
‘They passed Golfe Juan with the good bistro and the small open bar and then were through the pine woods and moving along the raw yellow beach of Juan-les-Pins.
They crossed the small peninsula on the fast black road and passed through Antibes driving beside the railway and then out through the town and beyond the port and the square tower of the old defences and came out again into open country. “It never lasts” she said. “I always eat that stretch too fast”.’
Which of the two passages you like best comes down to personal preference, but while Fitzgerald weaves a spellbinding web with his words, Hemingway gets us to our destination faster.
Getting back to business though, story structure is as influential as writing style when it comes to mass appeal – novels which follow the traditional three or five act form still sell in their millions, therefore simplicity is influential in more ways than one.
Final thoughts on Plain English
There’s no need to commit to all of your communications being completely devoid of descriptive and creative language, because without a little flair, your brand won’t have any personality.
But if muddled and complicated messaging is turning off customers and confusing employees, using Plain English can transform the way you operate and bring you closer to the people you care about most.
And remember – the next time you can’t figure out the right words to use, picture that stripy horse.