“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” That’s a quote from Leonardo da Vinci, and I agree. Also, I suspect that this genius of the 15th Century would have held a similar view about writing.

Say it plain

In business, communication must be clear and easily understood. Otherwise, what’s the point? Today, progressive organisations recognise this fact, and so they adopt a style of writing called Plain English.

Plain English is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it —  plainlanguage.gov

Many organisations, however, chose writing styles that are far from plain. Consequently, their words are vague, convoluted or irrelevant to their intended readers.

And, here’s the problem:

  • Vague promises and claims are often perceived as untrustworthy.
  • Memos and newsletters consisting of uncommon words, jargon and overly long sentences can be too difficult to understand.
  • Marketing usually makes no impact if it fails to address a specific target audience.

Vague promises provide ‘wriggle room,’ so an organisation can’t be held accountable. Isn’t that just good business? Big words and jargon are impressive, right? Won’t marketing material that relates to no one in particular appeal to everyone?

Well, the answer to all of the above is no, no and no.

The benefits of Plain English

For most businesses, the reason for doing almost anything is to improve the ‘bottom line.’ And adopting Plain-English can do just that.

When you write in plain English, you save time and money. Yes, your customers will understand your offering the first time and not need to phone and email you with questions. They will also make fewer mistakes when placing orders.

Some examples:

  • British Telecom saw customer inquiries drop by 25% every quarter after rewriting their bills in Plain English.
  • Arizona’s Department of Revenue rewrote one letter in plain English and received around 11,000 fewer phone calls than the previous year.

Source: Simply Put.

An organisation that uses Plain English is seen as more trustworthy. In reality, the more vague and complicated your communications are, the less credible you appear. The finance industry, for example, is known for confusing the heck out of their customers with hard-to-digest ‘gobbledygook,’ which is possibly why most Kiwis don’t trust banks.

5 tips for writing in Plain English

Writing in Plain English isn’t difficult — you just need to apply some simple rules. Here are five of them:

1: Write for your audience

Use words that your readers understand. If your audience is broad, then stick to everyday language. Jargon is okay so long as you know that readers know what it means.  Also, write in the first and second person by using the pronouns I, we and you. It’s more personal this way.  Don’t, for example, write, “Acme Corporation provides widgets for customers who long for an easy life.” That’s cold and distant. Instead, try, “We provide widgets so that you can enjoy an easy life.” Doesn’t the second version of the message sound better — more open and friendly?

2: Use active voice

Active sentences relate to verbs (doing words). They are direct, dynamic and easy to read. Passive sentences, on the other hand, can be ambiguous, confusing and, well …  boring.

Here’s an example of an active and passive sentence:

  • Active: John (subject) drank  (verb)a beer (object).
  • Passive: The beer (object) was drunk(verb) by John (subject).

Which sounds better?

The active sentence is clear and direct; it’s how people usually speak. The passive sentence, though, is awkward and unnatural and uses more words than the first.

Like with word-count, not every verb must be active — sometimes passive sounds more natural or interesting. However, as a rule, active voice is better. To identify passive verbs, I’ve found that Grammarly is a useful tool.

3: Avoid normalisation

Normalisations are abstract nouns formed from verbs, and they typically express procedures, feelings and other intangibles.

Here are a couple of normalisations followed by improvements:

  • Normalisation: “On completion of the project.”
  • Alternative: “When the project is complete.”
  • Normalisation: “We had a discussion.”
  • Alternative: “We discussed.”

Why avoid normalisations? Well, they usually come across as official and bureaucratic; most people hate them. By avoiding normalisation, your sentences use fewer words and are more direct. They are more active — something is happening.

4: Write short sentences

Short sentences are easy for readers to digest, so I aim for a maximum word count of 30. Of course, sometimes I break this rule. However, when a longer sentence is unavoidable, I put place core (what the sentence is about) at the beginning.

Let’s look at this long sentence:

My dog, Rufus, who shows he’s always happy to see me with welcome-home barks, sloppy licks and a frantically wagging tail, is a far more welcoming and loyal pet than my cat, Tiger.

The core of the sentence is My dog is more loyal than my cat, Tiger.

It’s better to put the core at the beginning.

My dog, Rufus, is a far more welcoming and loyal pet than my cat, Tiger, because he shows he’s always happy to see me with welcome-home barks, sloppy licks and a frantically wagging tail.

Get it?

Remember, that good writing requires rhythm, so don’t fall into the trap of making all your sentences similar in length. Mix things up.

5: Use headings and bullet points

Most people scan information, particularly when online, so make life easy for them.

Headings create white space, which makes your words undaunting (no one feels like reading a wall of text) and easy to scan. Make sure that your headings explain what the information that follows is about so that readers can find what they seek without wading through the rest.

Bullet points are ideal for breaking down complicated information into digestible chunks. Don’t overdo them — too many can complicate things as much as if you had none at all. They also make the page look plain ugly. Limit one idea per bullet and only use numbers if there is a specific order to items. 

Being in business is tough. It’s competitive. You’re competing against many competitors. So, to cut through the ‘noise’ and stand out from the crowd, don’t try to be clever by complicating your communications. Take a leaf out of Leonardo da Vinci’s book and embrace simplicity.

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