I was asked recently, “Isn’t plain language just best practice?” My response was, “Yes, it is.”
Plain language principles have represented best practice in communication since Aristotle taught rhetoric. Aristotle presented rhetoric as a practical tool for persuading a general audience, in order to resolve practical issues. Today, we speak about Aristotle’s rhetoric and plain language this way: consider your audience, their situation, your end goal, and the style and arrangement of your words.
A best practice is a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and is used as a benchmark, according to Wikipedia. Professional writers and educators consider plain language best practice for any non-fiction writing.
Seeing the world as others see it.
A study by University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism discovered that business leaders consider five characteristics critical to success: “adaptability, cultural competence, 360-degree thinking, intellectual curiosity, and, of course, empathy.” [https://hbr.org/2015/09/empathy-is-still-lacking-in-the-leaders-who-need-it-most.]
The study, reported in Harvard Business Review, found: “Empathetic understanding is also indispensable in increasingly diverse markets…. Neither technical knowledge nor business acumen suffices. You must be sincerely interested in understanding other cultural preferences and choices.”
Plain language is empathetic. It considers the reader and is sensitive to the reader’s needs and expectations. You want to communicate with others, without irritating or distracting them from your message. And this starts with empathy.
Empathy for your clients, customers, or readers allows you to understand their world and their perspective. You see the world from others’ perspectives. And when you see others as they see themselves, you can be more effective.
Meeting new expectations and audience needs
Plain language processes and techniques – its writing-style guidelines– simplify and clarify writing to serve a modern world that is more diverse than ever. For example, Toronto is the most diverse city in the world. And businesses are working hard to diversify their workforces to facilitate innovation.
For the most effective means of communicating in today’s diverse word, Plain Language makes sense for these reasons, at least:
- Your readers are diverse.
- Because people are short of time, they scan information to decide if it is worth reading more carefully. Material written in Plain Language is clear, well structured and plainly laid-out on the page, making it easier to follow.
- Many businesses and organizations now communicate in Global English for policy reasons. Plain Language and Global English overlap in their techniques.
- For many of your readers, English is not their first language but the 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th.
- International readers visit your website, read your product documentation, and see your press releases. They need to quickly grasp what you’ve written or they’ll be gone in 30 seconds.
- Language is a not static.
- Because of the multitude of languages used internationally, your materials may need to be translated. It is easier and cheaper to translate information that is clear and simple. So avoid metaphors, hidden meanings, double entendres, colloquialisms, slang, and local humour, in your writing. A translator shared this example:
As for cultural differences, for example “an ox” symbolizes strength in English culture and it is fine to describe someone as “as strong as an ox” without sounding offensive, but if the same idiom is translated into Kurdish as aley gaye, it will sound offensive; and at the same time it gives a different meaning because to describe someone as an ox in Kurdish culture is usually reference to people who eat a lot.
- Your writing may need to be read by accessibility tools that are used by people with print disabilities.
It makes good business sense to respect your readers and to avoid offending them because, if they sense bias or prejudice, they’ll reject your message. It is even more important to try to see the world as they see it, because if they can’t relate to your perspective, they may give up reading.