Do you feel that plain language is for other people?

Whenever I see ‘plain language’ mentioned in the media – such as stories about the recent Plain Language Bill passed by the New Zealand parliament – there is always a kind of ‘yes but’ response. It’s ‘yes but plain language over simplifies things too much for my educated audience’, or ‘yes but we have to use specialist terminology because we have to be precise’.

Plain language means clear language

When you use plain language, your users can find, understand, and use your information.

‘A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.’


And isn’t that precisely what you want for your customers?

Yes but plain language is too blunt

Some people equate ‘plain language’ with ‘plain speaking’, and therefore assume that writing in plain language means being too blunt. This is a myth. Plain language is not blunt language. It is perfectly possible to write in plain language with a polite and gentle tone, because plain language has more to do with sentence length and sentence structure than the words. Just don’t be wordy!

Yes but plain language is too basic

Some people think that using plain language means over-simplifying technical and complex information by replacing highly specific technical words with simple words that do not capture the nuances of the meaning. Similarly, some people worry that they are insulting their audience, by ‘dumbing down’ the information, and no-one wants to do that! Or they believe that their customers are ‘sophisticated’ and already understand all the words and phrases they use.

These are myths. If your audience understands the specialist language you use, go ahead and use it.


“It’s not the words you use, it is who you use those words with.”

So what is plain language then?

To write in plain language:

  • Use words that your audience will understand
  • Use short sentences
  • Use white space between sentences and paragraphs

Your customers will thank you

Believe me when I say that even though your customers may have ‘sophisticated’ knowledge, they are nevertheless busy people with many pressures on their time. You can make their lives easier!

We know from our research that people are more likely to start to read something that is written in plain language, and they read it faster.

Your organisation will thank you

Many of our clients tell us that the volume of calls to their call centres drops off after they introduce plain language in their communications to customers. This is particularly the case for letters. To offer a few examples, letters about recent cyber security breaches, claims or in response to complaints require fewer clarifications from customers than before.

Yes, but we don’t know what words customers are familiar with

If you are not sure what words and phrases your customers are familiar with then test your content with users or customers. This will show you the tone and style of language that works best for your customers. You might be surprised. One organisation we worked with discovered that ‘inception’ was not a word their customers understood, except as a movie title!

All you need to do is find a couple of pieces that generated lots of calls to your call centre or which always seem to trip people up somehow. Perhaps your customers ignore your instructions? Perhaps they don’t understand their policy? Whatever the content is that gives you the most grief test it.

We can do this for you

We are user-testing research professionals who know all there is to know about language and research. Contact Sue to find out how we can help you.

Susan Bell Founder & Lead Consultant
Sue Bell, Founder & Lead Consultant

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