Speaking plainly…Matt Brady
Flashy words are often seen as a natural partner for big ideas.
They’re grand. They’re opalescent. They coruscate.
And – yeah – they quickly get out of control.
Here’s why simple writing matters, and a few tips on how to keep it that way.
Write for everyone
Not everyone reads at the same level. 1 in 6 adults in England have “poor” literacy skills, and around 10% of the UK population has dyslexia. Simple writing means including those people – it’s just the right thing to do.
Plus, even expert audiences prefer simplicity. In one research project, 86% of Stanford undergraduates admitted to using ‘big’ words to look smarter.
But the people reading their work thought the opposite. They saw unnecessary complexity as a sign the writer had a weak grasp of their subject.
Readers just want to understand your point. Not wade through your words.
Help your readers pay attention
Nearly half the UK public thinks their attention span has shortened. Make their lives easier by being succinct. Pick which you prefer:
- “If I construct a long sentence to share the thoughts behind my writing with you, inevitably your attention will start to slide and you won’t scrutinise my words.”
- “If I waffle, I’ll lose you.
If you want people to read what you have to say, cut the fat. Here’s how:
- Remove repetition. (Paragraphs that repeat headers are a prime culprit)
- Cull words like ‘which’, ‘that’ and ‘of’. They sneak in, but often aren’t needed
- Be brutal. Only leave words with a purpose
- Use online tools to spot long sentences, then edit from there
- Take a break, then revisit your work – and see what jumps out at you
Don’t use ‘it’s complicated’ as an excuse
Some industries are full of ideas that are difficult to explain.
Finance is a good example. But finding simple ways to write about money matters. Because it’s one of a few sectors I can guarantee everyone uses – bar survivalists and crime syndicates.
Despite that, high street banks still insist on making a muddle of simple things. Like switching current accounts. See Lloyds Bank versus Monzo below.
What if something goes wrong?
You’re covered by the Current Account Switch Guarantee. We’ll refund any interest (paid or lost) or charges made on either your old or new current account.
Full switches are covered by the Current Account Switch Guarantee, so if anything goes wrong you won’t be left out of pocket. And we’ll make sure any payments to your old account always make it to the right place, even after your old account is long gone.
Monzo’s version is actually longer, not shorter. But the everyday language makes a world of difference.
If you can’t get rid of it, explain it
Cantilevers balance cranes and bridges.
Third-party liability insurance protects you if you’re sued after a car accident.
Jib sheets are sailing ropes to control your boat.
You’d have a hard time finding alternative words for these crucial things. That’s OK.
We know from our work with Standard Life that people sometimes look for technical phrases even if they don’t totally understand them. But you should explain what they mean.
For example, take a look at how MoneySavingExpert sums up third-party liability insurance:
This is the minimum level of cover needed to drive legally, and only covers damage to someone else or their property.
Halifax had the best explanation among insurers that I could find, but it’s much wordier – and quite formal:
Third Party Car Insurance is the most basic level of car insurance you can hold. It enables you to drive on public roads in the UK legally. This cover is designed to protect other drivers on the road in the event that you have a car accident.
Be ‘plain and intelligible’
If you need any other reason to be clear, here comes the UK’s Consumer Rights Act 2015. It was created to make UK consumer law clearer.
One section calls for businesses to put their terms in “plain and intelligible” language if they want to rely on them in court.
Now, that might sound like it’s just for your Ts & Cs. But other regulations say anything you give customers to help them make decisions is part of the contract. Logically, those bits need to be “plain and intelligible” too.
So, if the language you use to flog your product isn’t clear, your customer potentially has an upper hand down the line.
Time for a change?
“But we’ve always done it this way” – I get it. I really do. But it’s the greatest barrier to clarity I’ve ever come across. And I’ve come across it a lot.
The words you’re used to feel right because they’re what you’re used to. But they might not give your customers, or even your own staff, what they need.
When US insurtech firm Lemonade took on “word salads”, it didn’t tinker around the edges. It created an open-source policy document where anyone can suggest improvements. (I reckon it could still do with some TLC, but it’s far better than most.)
So be bold. Wrench yourself out of that comfort zone. Make your words clearer. And if you need a hand, we’re always up for a chat.