Even Mr. Richie Rich himself, Warren Buffet, is all about plain language. In fact, he’s such a believer that he wrote the preface to the Plain English Handbook, published by the US Securities and Exchange Commission:
For more than forty years, I’ve studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said. If corporate lawyers and their clients follow the advice in this handbook, my life is going to become much easier.
Maybe you’ve never heard of plain language writing but I guarantee you’ve read lots of documents that could benefit from it. You know the ones — often they’re insurance or legal documents, reports, instruction manuals, brochures, or maybe letters from the bank or government.
They’re vague, impersonal, difficult to follow, and after the third reading you’re still left figuring out what they’re trying to say. You’ve probably asked yourself, “Who the hell wrote this???”
Check out this excerpt from the US Department of Education that earned a failing grade from The Center for Plain Language:
Plain language makes smart business sense. For example, General Electric saved $275,000 by redrafting manuals into plain English; British Telecom cut customer queries by 25 percent using plain English; and one study showed that UK businesses lose £6 billion a year because of badly written letters.*
*Kimble, Joe. Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing. Vol. 6. Michigan: Thomas Cooley Law School, 1996–97.
In this post I’ll outline how incorporating some of the rules of plain language writing can boost your connection with clients, strengthen your brand as expert communicators, and improve your ability to create straightforward proposals that win.
What is plain language writing and why should you care?
Plain language writing is about just that — writing in a clear, concise manner so that readers easily and quickly understand what you’re trying to tell them.
It’s also known as plain English in some circles but whatever you call it, it’s about removing all ambiguity, convoluted language, and jargon from any document.
Making sure your proposals, or any written piece your agency produces, are as straightforward as possible will make your clients happier. They’ll understand what you’re offering, what the process will be, and what results they should expect.
Plain language makes your proposal easier to understand, easier to remember, and easier for the reader to say yes.
If you think this is an issue of overzealous word nerds, you should know that various levels of government, industries, and public institutions in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S., have committed to making plain language a priority in their communications. There are even professional plain language writers who specialize in this service.
Plain Language Tips:
A couple of years ago I took a fantastic plain language workshop from Frances Peck at the Editors’ Association of Canada’s national conference. Not surprisingly, it was clear and straightforward plus Frances gave us a tip sheet that I still use as a reminder for myself and share with clients to improve their own writing.
If you ever have the chance to take a workshop from Frances directly, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, I’ll share her secrets along with a few of my suggestions for how you can apply plain language to your own business writing:
To get your message across and help people remember it, follow these seven tips. It might help to remember them as CPSAVES (Clear Prose Saves)
Use simple, concrete terms that readers can picture instead of difficult abstract ones they can't.
report, article (NOT instrument of communication)
workers, people (NOT human resources)
we, researchers (NOT knowledge disseminators)
This is especially important when dealing with sales leads or customers who aren’t necessarily experts in your line of business. And why should they be? That’s the reason they’re hiring you.
Maybe you call your customer experience a ‘journey map’ internally, but I’ll put money on the fact that very few of your customers know what you’re talking about. Use simple terms or if you really need to use an abstract term, make sure you explain it.
Use positive words instead of negative.
possible (NOT not impossible)
clear (NOT unlikely to be misinterpreted)
can do X if Y (NOT unable to do X unless Y)
Not only is it better to be positive from an attitude perspective, it’s also better to be positive from a clarity perspective. For example, maybe you enthusiastically wrote to a client or someone on your team about a potential new project:
We can’t not do this project.
We’re all busy, and we’re all guilty of skimming when we read. We don't read every sentence nor do we even read every word of every sentence. The way this sentence is phrased it could be really easy to see only the words ‘can’t’ and ‘not’ and then assume it’s negative response. Here’s a better way to say the same thing that leaves nothing up for interpretation:
We need to do this project.
Use simple connectors instead of strings of words.
about (NOT it was determined)
for (NOT for the purpose of)
if (NOT in the event that)
Linking words can turn short, concise sentences into long, complex ones. Plus it can make you sound pretentious and blow-hardy.
Maybe you’ve written something like this in a proposal:
For the purpose of this project, and in the event it is determined we require more information, we will assume the role of your customer and conduct an audit of your website.
This is much clearer:
If we need more information we can conduct an audit of your website from the perspective of your customer.
Use active verbs instead of passive ones.
they found (NOT it was determined)
the editors reviewed (NOT a review was done)
we value your effort (NOT your effort is valued)
The active voice clearly identifies an action and who is performing that action. Readers prefer the active voice because it resembles the way we actually speak, it’s a more natural way of communicating. The active voice makes sure there’s no misunderstanding of who is doing what.
For example, if you were writing a proposal and wanted to brag about the awesome campaign your agency developed, which do you think is the more powerful statement?
An online campaign was developed that resulted in bringing in 400 hundred new monthly subscribers.
Our team of experts developed an online campaign that brought in 400 new monthly subscribers.
The second statement makes sure the emphasis is on your successful action. There’s no ambiguity about who did what. This is especially important when you’re outlining roles and responsibilities between client and agency.
Use precise verbs instead of abstract nouns.
extract, take (NOT engage in the extraction of)
impact, affect (NOT have an impact on)
start, help (NOT facilitate the implementation of)
Verbs are there for action so let them do their job. Don’t let nouns be scab workers.
Our proposal app will have an impact on your close rate.
When you can say:
Our proposal app will impact your close rate.
Simpler, shorter, and more confident. Get rid of unnecessary words that don’t add value.
Use short, everyday words instead of long, academic ones
try (NOT endeavour)
use (NOT utilize)
long words (NOT erudite vernacular)
Don’t try to sound fancy, you’ll end up sounding like an arse. People will either think you’re trying to talk above them (and maybe feel you don’t respect them) or that you’re trying to sound smarter than you are. People like people they can understand. They trust people they can understand. They hire people they understand.
Use short sentences (15-20 words). Limit most to one main idea.
An easy way to test if you can break up a sentence is to look for the word “and” and see if you can replace it with a period.
Sometimes there is no getting around a long sentence. But the trick is to make sure that most of the other sentences around it are short.
Plain does not mean boring
It’s important to understand that plain language doesn’t mean you have to sound like a robot. You should still incorporate your brand voice in your writing, and be personal, using “I”, “we”, “you”. Yes, skip the flowery prose since you’re not writing a novel, but you do need to write in an interesting, compelling manner that connects with your reader.
Choose your words wisely.
Without realizing it, we often use words and phrases that create barriers between you and your reader, cause confusion, and in general make things more complicated than they need to be.
For example, instead of commence, try begin.
Instead of necessitate, try need or cause.
Or one of my peeves is utilize when use is much clearer.
Check out this list of common word offenders. It offers suggestions for simpler words that can make your writing stronger.
We need to get on-message about our global asset concepts.
This is no time to bite the bullet with our three-dimensional monitored projections.The consultants recommend optional third-generation consulting.
We need a more blue-sky approach to knowledge-based management matrix approaches.
I feel like I’ve read these exact sentences in proposals, websites, and annual reports but they’re actually from this fun ‘ Gobbledegook Generator’ found on the Plain Language Campaign website. If you ever need a good example of bad writing to keep you in line, this is the place.
And if any of your sentences sound anything like these, you know it’s time to “rigorously disentangle these components.”
Plain language makes plain sense.
There are many people who think that writing in a complex manner makes them sound smarter. This is just not true. It makes them harder to understand. If the whole point of writing is to deliver a message to the reader but the reader can’t understand what the message is, then you’ve failed as a writer.
And when it comes to business — whether it’s a proposal to a hot new lead, an email to a client, instructions on how to use your product, or pitch to an investor — you can’t afford to be misunderstood.