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How to leverage plain language and connect with your users

When we work with clients on user research, service design, or website redesign projects, we always emphasize the use of plain language. We want to ensure users have an easy time finding and digesting the information they need.

Because everyone benefits from simple, effective content, we’ve developed some best practices for you to use in your day-to-day content creation efforts.


What we mean by “plain talk” or “plain language”

Plainlanguage.gov outlines it as a set of writing principles engineered to simplify your content and help your users:

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find
  • Use what they find to meet their needs

It’s required in federal government to adhere to those plain language guidelines, but making content simpler and easier to use benefits organizations in any industry.

And it doesn’t apply just to the web. Communicating in plain, audience-focused language works across communication channels. In our workshops on the topic, we meet participants who use plain language techniques to improve technical print publications, memos, letters to citizens, emails, presentations, and phone scripts.


Why is it important to plain talk your content?

  1. Your site visitors are very busy. Your users can’t put their lives on hold to do a site search to find helpful content. Plain language allows us to present information efficiently so that users can find it and move on.
  2. People at an organization overestimate the vocabulary knowledge of their users. We frequently see this with researchers and subject-matter experts. Not every user has an advanced degree in civil engineering. We still need to make sure all users understand how an upcoming construction project could affect surface runoff in their neighborhood.
  3. Whether you’re an aerospace engineer or you write blog posts for a living (ahem), we all read simple, common words faster than long, uncommon words. Simplifying your language helps all your users, regardless of education level. Studies have shown that making your content easier to understand for low-literacy users makes it more accessible for all audiences.
You can see in this table that plain-talking your content leads to an increase in tasks successfully completed and a decrease in time spent on tasks, regardless of the literacy level of the user.



Keys to Plain Language

So now we understand why plain language is important, but how do we adhere to those best practices? Here are some pointers to put you on the right path:

  • Write in active voice: Avoid the passive voice. You’ll be more direct with your users and cut down your word count.
  • Keep it short, don’t be wordy: This applies to sentence length and word type. Flowery language and million-dollar words are great for prose but hinder users trying to pay their utility bill. Use short, plain words and save the rest for your novel.
  • Identify your audience: This might seem like a no-brainer but having a well-developed audience with concrete tasks in mind will allow you to focus your writing. Who are you writing for and what do they need? Make that information as prominent as possible.
  • Avoid jargon: If you must use jargon, define it immediately for your audience and make sure it’s defined on every page it appears.
  • Use personal pronouns: Using “we” and “you” helps you connect with your users and puts them in a better mindset when navigating your content.
  • Structure your writing: Headings and bullet points separate large blocks of text into more digestible sections and highlight important information and calls-to-action. Use graphics and tables when appropriate to make information more understandable.
  • Respect your users’ time: When you write in plain language, you’re not “dumbing down” the material. You’re respecting your busy users’ time. This is a helpful point to have in your back pocket when negotiating with subject-matter experts.
  • Test your document: A full-scale usability test isn’t feasible for every new piece of content or text edit, but it’s a good practice to have at least one person review your content before it goes live. And it’s helpful if that person is not an expert on the subject matter.

Let’s look at some examples

These examples appear in our Writing for the Web workshop, which is adapted from the teachings of Ginny Redish.



Example 1:

Original

The student must register and the fee payment process must be started before the first day of classes or the student will be purged from the class.

Plain talk

You must register and begin the fee-payment process before the first day of classes or you will be dropped from the class.



Example 2:

Original

Approved fumigation with methyl bromide at normal atmospheric pressure, in accordance with the following procedure, upon arrival at the port of entry, is hereby prescribed as a condition of importation for shipments of yams from foreign countries.

Plain talk

If you import yams into the United States, you must fumigate them when they arrive at the port of entry. Follow this procedure to fumigate yams:



Example 3:

Original

Interested persons, on or before September 15, 2019, may submit to the Hearing Clerk, 1000 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20000, written comments regarding this proposal.

Plain talk

We invite you to comment on this proposal.
Deadline: September 15, 2019

Submit written comments:

By mail to Hearing Clerk 1000 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20000

By fax to (202) 555-1234 Attn: Joan Marx



Example 4:

Original

Retention of all tax records for a period of seven years is a requirement for all city residents.

Plain talk

City residents must retain all tax records for seven years.



Example 5:

Original

The purpose of this notice is to inform you that the Department will hold a mandatory all-hands meeting on June 20 at 9 AM in Room 200. You must attend.

Plain talk

You are required to attend the Department’s all-hands meeting at 9 a.m., June 20, in Room 200.



020 215

Plain Language Resources

You can find more information about Writing for the Web best practices on our Ideas and Insights blog. Go to Plainlanguage.gov to learn more about federal guidelines on plain talk. The Center for Plain Language also provides resources, classes, and a blog about best practices. And don't forget to check out Ginny Redish's "Letting Go of the Words", an invaluable resource for web writing.


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