Plain Language: Easy to read; hard to achieve.

Among the many observations that language expert Joe Kimble[1] shared with the corporate lawyers at his “Sure Fire Ways to Improve Your Writing” workshop last week, three in particular stuck with me:

1)      Plain language is not about “dumbing down.”  It is about writing more clearly and effectively for your audience.  For lawyers, in particular, he cautioned, “It is the opposite of the jumbled, dense, verbose, archaic style that has come to be called legalese.”

2)      Writing in plain language can be “devilishly” difficult.  Good writers just make it look easy in the same way that a good athlete makes a tough play look effortless.

3)      Finally, said Kimble:  “Good writers make their readers feel smart. “ 

The last point resonated with me again today when a client suggested that I needed to make the language in a financial information brochure “more highfalutin[2] and intellectual” so the readers would know “how smart the company is.” 

Catching – and keeping – the reader’s attention

I agree that it’s absolutely essential for a company to let customers and shareholders know “how smart it is” and to remind them in myriad ways that it remains fiscally sound, socially responsible, and prudent about managing investment risk.  But that doesn’t require that the content to support those points be labored, pretentious, or difficult to digest.  On the contrary, the idea is to communicate the company’s strength clearly and convincingly, with factual, direct statements that engage readers, make them feel smart — and keep them wanting more. (“So how do you manage market risk?”)

Of course, you don’t want to get too folksy and risk diminishing the value of the message.  But neither do you want to give your reader any excuse to stop reading, skimming, scrolling, or clicking through. In the 24-7 information age, it’s hard enough to capture someone’s attention, much less hold on for more than 51 seconds. [See my blog: Can you tell your story in less than a minute?]

Top 10 ideas for clear, concise content

So what are some of the rules to follow as a plain language advocate?  At a recent client seminar, I offered these top 10 best practices for plain language:

  1. Write it the way you say it.
  2. Talk to real people about real situations.
  3. Use the active voice.
  4. Be precise, concrete, and specific.
  5. Follow a logical structure.
  6. Don’t be wordy.
  7. Use acronyms sparingly.
  8. Think visually.
  9. Avoid industry and legal jargon.
  10. Test your documents on typical readers.

More observations on plain language in my next post.


[1] Professor Joseph Kimble, Thomas Cooley Law School, Lansing, MI

[2] from the Dutch word verlooten, meaning stilted

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