Plain English is about putting your readers first by applying some simple rules for clear communication. It’s applicable for all forms of organisational communication and all audiences. No one, not even well educated readers, wants to perform mental gymnastics to understand a new policy or fill in a form.
There are numerous advantages to using plain English. For example, readers who can easily understand a written instruction know what action to take straight off. Both they and the organisation save time in getting it right in one go, with the organisation also saving the cost of answering queries and managing mistakes.
The basics of plain English are:
- writing in short sentences
- expressing ideas with the minimum words needed for clear communication
- using active rather than passive verbs, for example, 'we released a report' not 'a report was released'
- using everyday language and avoiding jargon and unfamiliar terms
- employing what's called a 'Dear Mum' tone, for example, using 'we' instead of 'the company'
- getting the main point up front (known as pyramid writing).
There is a misconception that plain English is dull. Wrong. It can be engaging, lively and powerful.
plain English in action
In our experience, lawyers like to say simple things at great length using complex language. Their laudable intention is to inform and protect. But what happens is the reverse because readers simply give up on the gobbledegook and stop reading. Or possibly don't even start reading in the first place.
Plain English can make a difference as we demonstrate below in rewriting a standard email error message.
IMPORTANT: This email from ... and any attachments to it, contains information that is confidential and may also be the subject of legal professional or other privilege. If you are not the intended recipient, you must not review, copy, disseminate, disclose to others or take action in reliance on any material contained within this email. If you have received this email in error, please let the ... know by reply email to the sender informing them of the mistake and delete all copies from your computer system. For the purposes of the Spam Act 2003, this email is authorised by the ...
This authorised email from ... and any attachments may include confidential information. If we have wrongly sent it to you, don't publicise or act on the contents. Instead, tell the sender about the mistake by return email and delete the message.
- Rather than four mostly long sentences of 27, 28, 32 and 15 words we have written three of 12, 15 and 14 words.
- We've deleted IMPORTANT — it screams 'read no further, incomprehensible stuff coming up'.
- The verbose is gone, for example, 'information that is confidential and may also be the subject of legal, professional or other privilege' becomes simply 'confidential information', without we believe losing any meaning. We've also replaced the string of prohibited actions 'review, copy, disseminate, disclose or take action ...' with 'publicise or act on', which covers pretty much everything anyway.
- The tone has changed with the use of the friendly 'we' and the admission that it's the company's mistake — 'if we have wrongly sent it' instead of 'if you have received this email in error'. The latter subtly shifts some blame to the recipient, as if they are somehow at fault in having a name similar to the 'intended recipient' and caused us to make the wrong choice from our contact list.
- The final sentence: 'For the purposes of the Spam Act 2003, this email is authorised by ...' is out. The essential bit, that the email is officially from a particular organisation, is explained in the opening sentence in 'authorised email from ...' No need to mention the title of the Act that, we're assuming, demands formal identification of email senders. Something for the lawyers only.
If an email error message really is important, it's worth writing so that the average joe can understand it.
Contact message matters for more information on how plain English can transform your company's written communication.