How plain language can strengthen communication—both inside and outside your organization
If your company builds robots for advanced manufacturing or develops novel biotherapeutics to cure rare diseases (or anything similarly complex), you may struggle when trying to describe your work to a non-technical audience. But using plain language is a smart move—and not just because it can help you avoid unnecessary meetings. Kate Goggin, a communications consultant to the federal government whose clients have included the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. State Department, among others, explains why this tool is so beneficial. Even better, she tells us how to use it.
Connecticut Innovations: Thanks for agreeing to share your expertise, Kate! You have extensive experience translating jargon and tech talk into clear writing, but our readers are mostly tech entrepreneurs and investors who often communicate with other technical people. Can plain language benefit them?
Kate Goggin: Absolutely. Plain language is a method or way of writing focused on reader results, so they can:
- Quickly find what they need.
- Understand what they read the first time.
- Use what they read to fulfill their needs.
Those goals are shared by businesses from every industry and sector. It’s a direct way of communicating, so employees spend less time explaining their messages to people, therefore saving time and money. Additionally, plain language, also known as plain English or plain writing, can improve customer service/user experience and increase brand trust.
More business and technical leaders are embracing plain language because they know those benefits quickly translate to bottom line results like increased sales, improved reputation, and decreased complaints. Also, I want to note that plain language writing strengthens internal communication. You know the saying, “this meeting could have been an email.” That’s very true, especially if it was a well-written email. Think about it, people know you first by your writing now. Between COVID and the rise of remote work, chances are high that you will “meet” virtually through your emails, prospectus, or project charter long before you actually meet a hiring manager or board member in person.
CI: Great point! A common misconception is that plain language simply dumbs down communications. Can you set the record straight?
KG: Plain language is not an oversimplification or “dumbing down” of important text. Also, it is not less precise, and it does not leave out necessary technical or legal terms. What it does eliminate, however, is unnecessary complexity and jargon.
I will be the first to agree that jargon is an important tool among peers inside a sector or field. I have worked with diplomats, scientists, lawyers, engineers, and computer experts who must use the same professional terms to establish credibility, compare results, or advance projects. But while jargon can expedite communications between peers, it can frustrate outside readers. Every employee needs to communicate clearly outside of their office, up and down the chain of command. Whether briefing stakeholders, the company president or new employees, plain language methods are the fastest way to communicate with everyone to get the results you want.
CI: Is there ever a case where you wouldn’t recommend plain language?
KG: No, every communication product can include plain language. The body of the document or online content may require using specific terms, acronyms or abbreviations known to the technical audience, but every product will also be read by non-technical audiences.
Typical sections for inserting plain language into a technical document include: the introduction, executive summary, recommendations and conclusions.
Ask any entrepreneur or contractor and they will tell you that often the executive summary is the only section busy decision-makers have time to scan these days. The experts know a well-written summary can be the difference between a funded or unfunded program or a positive or negative review. Technical peers may dive down into the details, but the media, the public or the board of directors will not.
CI: Are there different plain language guidelines for websites, press releases, software manuals, etc., or are the principles largely the same?
KG: Plain language principles are largely the same for different communication products. I train government and business clients, and I recommend the five steps to plain language outlined by the Center for Plain Language.
- Define your audience.
- Structure the content appropriately.
- Write in plain language with everyday words.
- Use information design.
- Review, test and design the content.
I also want to clarify, the plain language writing method is not the same as a style guide, such as the Associated Press style guide. Every organization can write text in plain language and then apply their own style guide or one required for distribution.
CI: Is plain language something you plan for, or is it an editing process after the fact?
KG: You can plan an original communication in plain language, but as you can see from your credit card policy, medical release form or cybersecurity manual, many organizations do not start with a plain language approach. That means there is a growing demand for training as well as editing services.
I encourage businesses to be proactive and improve staff skills now before the company web content, financial data or scientific report is misunderstood. Make clear communications a priority and reap the rewards.
CI: Anything else you want to mention to our readers?
KG: Plain language has become an important tool regarding access to information, citizen rights and a more inclusive culture. Access can include reaching non-native English speakers and people with cognitive disabilities or low literacy skills.
- Many local, state, federal and international organizations and governments now equate access to information as a citizen right, and plain language is the preferred method.
- In a related development, plain language usage is now also associated with ethical behavior because plain language documents help people act on their rights as consumers, patients or voters.
- Corporate America is quickly seeing the benefits of plain language usage to bolster sales, but also to expand access to inclusive programs such as:
- diversity and inclusion programs (and recruiting)
- corporate social responsibility programs (and outreach)
- financial literacy programs (and customer service)
- health literacy programs (and regulatory compliance)
CI: Thanks, Kate! We can’t wait to put your tips to work.