Plain Language

Harvard Business School professor Robert Simons asks: “How Do Your Core Values Prioritize Shareholders, Employees, And Customers? Along with identifying a primary customer, you must also define your core values in a way that ranks the priority of shareholders, employees, and customers. Value statements that are lists of aspirational behaviors aren’t good enough. Real core values indicate whose interest comes first when faced with difficult trade-offs.”

Here’s why plain language needs to be one of the core values of your organization and should not be sacrificed in a trade off.

Poorly written documents contribute to inefficiencies, management problems, higher administrative costs, staff distress, and poor public relations. Well-crafted communications that are clear and easy to follow portray both the individual and the organization in a positive, efficient, and responsive manner. Communicating clearly also improves relationships and gives everyone a better understanding of their rights and responsibilities. It also offers the following benefits.

Good For Customers

Customers are happier when their experiences with you are more efficient and effective. Customers are happier when you save them time. It actually causes the customer personal anxiety when they bad-mouth you on social media, not to mention the harm to your general reputation.

Customers like you better when they don’t have to nag you for the information they need to clearly understand. They like it when they don’t have to pursue complaints or turn to dispute resolution. Nobody wants to have to sue.

You can overcome consumer paralysis with simplicity and clarity that makes a purchasing decision easy. Watch this video presentation, Simplicity and Transparency in Banking. While Etzkorn gives valuable information, she is mistaken in saying that you can do “plain language” without empathy, simplification, and distillation.

Makes Language More Persuasive

Plain language guidelines make language more persuasive. For example,

  • Seeking simplicity and clarity
  • Using questions in headings to engage readers
  • Using 2nd person pronouns (you, your) and first person plural pronouns (we, our)
  • Avoiding hedges and unnecessary disclaimers
  • Not choosing passive voice to avoid responsibility
  • Preferring active voice to clearly identify who must act or take responsibility
  • Using positive language and frameworks to describe situations or actions.

Enhances Trustworthiness

  • Customers can tell if you are ducking, hiding, evading, or spinning.
  • Customers prefer that you communicate with them in a direct style that is plain spoken, genuine, sincere, and authentic. That style engenders trust.
  • It is said that the 4 most important words are “I made a mistake.” So be candid and sincere. At least, plain language makes it appear that you are honest and above board.

Good For Shareholders

Imagine the reduction in staff costs when customers don’t overwhelm the help desk and complaints center, because they are clear on what they are getting. Also consider the money you save when outside lawyers are not needed to handle dispute resolution or law suits.

Think of the cost savings—in staff time, training efforts, and lower translation and printing costs. Using plain language also makes your translators’ work less time-consuming and expensive. Not using plain language, in the first place, makes both globalization and localization more difficult and costly.

Those who are afraid of change and resist using plain language should consider the costs to their reputation and their business. Think about the gobbledygook and the risk it invites from faulty instructions and inadequate warnings.

Using plain language on the web increases your visibility because the newest search method–semantic search—can more easily deduce meaning and context. And it doesn’t prioritize content loaded with keywords and synonyms.

Good For Your Staff

Staff learn more easily and quickly when training is delivered in plain language. When directions are given in plain language, they are more likely to be understood and followed. Plain language also makes it easier for people to understand and apply organizational policies.

Accuracy improves with plain language. Clear instructions will deter customers from filling your phone lines and email boxes with queries.

You will earn the trust and loyalty of staff if you communicate with them in plain language. Transparency, openness, inclusion create a more comfortable workplace. It can also reduce turnover, reducing costs time spent interviewing new hires.

Imagine a staff that is happier working at their jobs because they are not regularly confronted by complaining customers. Imagine your staff having more time for important tasks because there is less time devoted to following up with irate or confused customers.

There is proof of all this in case studies and government publications dating back to the 50s. And more recent studies, that support these claims, can be found in Rewrite and Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please.



Cheryl Stephens, our guest author, has practiced and taught plain language techniques for over 25 years. She is know internationally for helping develop a strong and vibrant plain language community of professionals. She currently coaches and trains individuals and teams via distance learning. Visit her site at Plain


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

clear formSubmit