The name ‘Plain Language Communications’ doesn’t do the craft justice. It sounds like you’re being offered a cup of simple, black coffee instead of being offered a double mochaccino with whip and sprinkles.
On the contrary, plain language isn’t boring and it’s not about ‘dumbing down’ information either. It’s about making information accessible for your audience. Plain language is about clear communication. It’s about using common words and presenting information in a straightforward, logical way. After all, the whole point of communication is to share information so if you’re using language or a writing style that your audience doesn’t understand you’re not communicating well.
Many organizations have been producing documents that require above-average English comprehension skills. This puts the responsibility for understanding on the audience which is not only an unfair expectation, but it’s bad for business.
Why should your business adopt plain language?
Time and money
There is no disputing that we’re busy which makes clear, quick communication all the more important. Your audience doesn’t have the time or desire to read through lengthy, jargon-laden, acronym-ridden reports, emails or product sheets. Chances are, if they receive one of these they quickly scan it or just read the bulleted points and hope that will suffice.
If you’re communicating anything head this advice: write and speak in a way so that your audience can quickly understand your message – or they will tune you out. By simply improving communication a business can increase productivity, reduce errors, improve customer satisfaction and boost profitability.
As much as 40% of the total cost of managing business transactions is spent on problems resulting from poor or misunderstood communication. One research study showed that a business with 100 employees spends on average 17 hours each week clarifying email communications. Over a year this costs the business more than $500,000.
Canada’s literacy challenge
Many people aren’t even aware there is an adult literacy issue in Canada. It’s a hidden problem with a big stigma and it affects Canadian businesses to the tune of $2.5 billion each year in lost productivity.
Most people think of literacy as either black or white – you can either read or you can’t. Literacy, however, is measured in a range of 1 (illiterate) to 5 (highly literate). In Canada, 42% of adults are functionally illiterate (falling below level 3) and more than 10 million of those Canadians are employed.
‘Low literacy’ or ‘functional illiteracy’ is defined as the ability to read and write basic information but the inability to understand and use information. For example, almost 1/3 of low literacy workers can identify, but don’t understand, information and warnings on a hazardous material sheet.
Recent research shows that two thirds of Canadian CEOs believe the lack of essential skills and poor literacy are significant threats to growth and 90% of Fortune 1,000 executives say that low literacy hurts productivity and profitability.
Businesses are communicating and interacting with ‘low literacy’ adults on a regular basis and they are often unaware that their message isn’t being heard. Using plain language communications can certainly help.
How to ‘do’ plain language
Here are a few quick tips to get you on the road to clear communications:
- Generally, write at a Grade 5-7 reading level.
- Put the most important points first.
- Have just one idea per paragraph.
- Use short sentences.
- Headings and bulleted lists help break down information.
- Use graphics to support information.
- Stay away from three (or more) syllable words.
- Write for your audience, not yourself.
Plain language is good for business: plain and simple. As poet William Butler Yeats once said, “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.”
The Language Lab Guest Blogger: Karen Payton is a writer and editor specializing in plain language and corporate publishing. Karen owns and operates Bright Communications, an agency specializing in plain language communications. You can reach Karen at firstname.lastname@example.org.