Plain language key to better communication

January 20, 2009

abc2Whether writing company memos, facilitating the monthly staff meeting or composing a media release, using plain language and straightforward writing is a must. Copyblogger, a blog for online writers, makes this case well in a recent post by Sonia Simone.  Simone compares writers who use big and/or complicated words and phrases to the children’s literary character, Fancy Nancy who always aims to make things more “sophisticated” and out of the ordinary than they are (e.g. she reads “tomes” rather than “books”). Simone points out that this quality can be charming in a 7-year-old but is not effective for a communicator. Many business leaders and communicators fall into the Fancy Nancy trap.

It’s tough to sell this idea to some. Doesn’t it sound more intellectual to use the word “utilize” rather than “use”? Doesn’t that insider-business-speak give the impression that we know what we’re talking about (e.g. “We need to leverage our vertical markets as part of industry best practice). Why should we dumb down what we’re trying to say?

Plain language isn’t ‘dumb’ language

It’s actually more difficult to write using simple, clear language than it is to use jargon and “fancy” words. The goal of writing, or speaking, is to deliver a message. Yet business writing often fails to be clear. You may think that corporate-speak is making your speech or writing more inspiring or credible-sounding but it’s actually leaving your message open to interpretation. People may be very unclear about what you’re trying to say but will rarely tell you  for fear they will look stupid. It also has a way of making people tune out because all of the “thinking outside of the box” catch phrases  sound like tired hype.

The path to clear writing

A quick Google search for “plain language” will point you to many resources, but here are some quick tips.

1. Review for clear language after the first draft – Sentence by sentence, check to see if you’ve used the simplest language possible. Exchange flowery, multi-syllable words for straight forward ones. (e.g. use about instead of approximately, most instead of preponderancetone down instead of modulate).

2. Cut down on words per sentence – Readers can get lost in long sentences so break long sentences into two if you can. Also get rid of unnecessary words (e.g. Replace phrases such as, that being said with but or the fact he did not succeed with his failure).

3. Get rid of jargon – Every industry has jargon and it’s very difficult to do away with it entirely. However, if you can use a non-jargon word easily, do it. This is particularly important if you are writing for an outside audience.

4. Avoid hype – If your  product really is “ground breaking” or “cutting edge” you don’t have to tell people that, they will know it by your description. If it’s not really that great, declaring that it is won’t make it so and will just make people roll their eyes.

5. Stop overused phrases – Stay away from trendy catch phrases such as, “world-class”, “shifting paradigms”, “mission critical”.  These types of phrases have become so overused they’ve become meaningless. People tune them out. Describe what you mean and ditch these credibility suckers.

6. Have someone else read it – Get someone you trust will tell the truth to review your document. Have the person circle anything that isn’t clear upon a first read through.

There are oodles of blog posts about the issue of  clear writing and folks seem to love commenting on their pet peeves, banished buzz words etc. If we talk about it enough, maybe one day, everyone will be a plain language writer.

If you have other suggestions for ensuring plain language/clear writing, please leave a comment.


2 Responses to “Plain language key to better communication”

  1. Mark Buell Says:

    Great post! Plain language is mandatory for ALL communications (internal and external) at my organization. Each employee is provided with a copy of our Communicatios Guidelines, including guidelines for plain language writing. As a health research and health promotions non-profit, we find that uptake of our materials is much greater if it can be easily understood by all of our audiences, from community members to senior government officials. It also makes our materials easy to translate (We work in French, English and even Inuktitut at times). It’s sometimes a tough sell to get employees on board, but it’s mandatory! Email me if you’d like a copy of our guidelines (

  2. Mike Unwalla Says:

    If the target audience does not read English as a first language, or if you want to use machine translation, additional rules apply. For example, use syntactic cues.

    A syntactic cue is a part of language that helps a reader to analyse the structure of a sentence. Sometimes, syntactic cues are optional. For example, both of the following sentences are correct:
    * The machine on the left is broken.
    * The machine that is on the left is broken.

    The second sentence contains the optional words ‘that is’, which help to make the sentence clear both to people who do not read English as a first language and to machine translation software.

    For more rules, see


    Mike Unwalla

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