Written by: David Leonhardt
Every business, every organization and every cause needs to understand – and implement – plain language. However few need to adopt plain language as much as financial services and financial advisors. Just ask the Securities and Exchange Commission’s chief accountant. You may have heard this advice before but decided to ignore it after asking yourself any of these questions:
- Why is plain language important?
- Do I really need to bother?
- You want me to “dumb-it-down”?
Let’s answer these three questions first, then look at how to measure readability as well as the limitations of plain language editing. Finally, I will share with you three broad strategies for communicating in plain English and five specific tips you and your writers can follow.
“Plain language is an elevator to your business. If you make people take the stairs, only the most determined people will insist on being your customers”
Why is Plain Language Important?
The reasons you need plain language are many, but here are four main benefits to you:
- More people (clients) will actually read your plain language materials.
- People who read your plain language materials will better understand what you’re trying to say.
- People will read more of your plain language materials (they will skim less, they will skip less and they will continue reading longer).
- Most importantly, more people will take action, such as calling you, filling in a form or following your advice.
Do I Really Need to Bother?
“But why should I bother?” you ask. “My client base is educated. They have college educations. They can read grade 12, 13 or even 18 writing, why bother rewriting everything in plain English?” All probably true, but your client base may also be reasonably fit. They can walk up a few flights of stairs. Why rent an office in a building with elevators? The answer to both questions is the same. It’s not about what people can do. It’s about what people will do. It’s about what they are willing to do before giving up, before their eyes gloss over or before they choose to do business with your competitor instead. Plain language is an elevator to your business. If you make people take the stairs, only the most determined people will insist on being your customers.
You Want Me to “Dumb-it-down?”
Perhaps the biggest mistake that people in finance, science, medicine, technical and legal niches make is to equate plain language with “dumbing” things down. Yes, a plain language edit might sometimes include simplifying a concept. As a writer, I’ve had to explain aspects of communicable diseases to the average traveler. A lot of the ideas were too complex for them to grasp. In such a case, the ideas had to be reframed. Sometimes its important to “dumb-it-down”. Sometimes. But most plain language edits are simply about the language used. A good plain language edit explains complex ideas in a way that people can easily understand. It doesn’t dumb down the ideas or the information. It just uses easier-to-read language. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this question: does this article sound “dumbed down” to you? Or does it respect you, the reader, as someone who can grasp the concepts I am communicating. Would you believe this article is written at the grade 7 level?
I present some specific tips below on how to simplify your text without dumbing it down.
Not Everything can be Plain Language
A good plain language editor recognizes that some complexity can’t be simplified. Some language must be maintained for legal reasons. Sometimes there are names of organizations, laws and reports that are pretty near impossible to read. But you can’t change them. I worked on some text related to government grants and loans. Those are two words – grants and loans – that everybody understands. But some companies got confused by the word “loan”. To them, a “loan” had no conditions attached. Government loans do. We had to use the term “repayable contributions” in some places. So, the challenge was to decide where we could replace that complex term with the simpler “loan”, and where we could not.
Plain Language vs. Readability
The easiest way to see how much work your materials need is to run them through a readability tool. I use WebFX’s readability tool. That’s where the image above comes from. Look for the Flesch-Kinkaid grade level. For the general public, grade eight or nine readability is considered ideal. Much below grade seven might seem childish to educated people. Grade nine is considered best for more educated people. Even though lawyers and epidemiologists can read highly-complex material on the job, they tend to read around grade nine or lower on their own time. But be careful. Readability is just a quick status update. It’s like the stock market. The bulls might have it today, but that doesn’t mean that no stocks are falling. In the same way, not all edits for grade-level readability make your materials easier to read.
Strategies to Make Readability Work for You
Readability is an algorithm. It measures the length of sentences, the number of syllables, passive voice, and sometimes other factors. Just because something improves the readability score, doesn’t mean that you’ve made your message easier to read and easier to understand. Here are three handy strategies on plain language editing, before we get into specific tips below: Simplify words in complex sentences first. Simplifying words in already short and simple sentences might not make your text easier to read, even if it makes the “grade level” better. Whenever possible, make improvements in complex sentences and paragraphs, where you are most likely to lose readers. Use the best-known word, not the shortest. Replacing 10 occurrences of “argument” with “spat” might boost your “readability”, but if “spat” confuses some readers, you’ve just made your text harder to read in 10 places. Clarity trumps readability every time. Your information must be clear to readers. Changing “difficult” or “challenging” to “hard” will improve your readability score, because “hard” is shorter. But if the multiple meanings of “hard” make the word unclear in your text, use “difficult” or “challenging”. Remember that it’s about the readers, not the algorithm.
Five Tips to Write your Materials in Plain Language
I think it’s already obvious that shorter words and shorter sentences make it easier to read. There is no reason to write “purchase” when you can write “buy”. There is no reason to ever (ever!) use the word “utilize” when you can use the word “use”. So here are five less obvious, but highly effective, plain language tips you should follow.
- Use a simple structure. We learn to read and write using the simple subject-verb-object structure. Dog bites man. Man Bites dog. Newspapers report the story. Many of the really complex texts I edit get bogged down in the passive voice. You will see that most of the sentences in this article follow this simple structure. Only a few do not.
- Keep each sentence to a single idea. Sentences get complicated when you try to stuff a second or third idea into them. I see so much of this in finance, government, academic and similar fields. If you see clauses beginning with “although” or “whereas”, chances are you really have two sentences masquerading as one much more complex sentence.
- If it’s a list, make it look like a list. Some of the most difficult sentences to read are actually lists. They have multiple commas or semi-colons. Just put a bullet in front of each item and make it look like a list. Not only is it easier to read, but it looks easier to read. So – guess what? – more people will actually read it.
- Verbs are for actions. Nouns are for things. There is no point in preparing for the implementation of a plan. Instead, prepare to implement a plan. “Implement” is an action, so use the verb form of the word.
- Write to the reader. Use the “second person”. Readers respond better when you tell them, “You can increase your earnings by following these tips.” They respond less to, “Investors can increase their earnings by following these tips.” What’s the difference? The first is all about their earnings. The second is all about somebody else’s earnings. Which would you care about?
Never mind readability scores. They give you a quick and dirty reading of how simple your text is to read. But there’s a better tool, a more effective tool: Grandma! Or an aunt or uncle. Ask somebody totally removed from the topic to read your text out loud. Listen to where they seem confused, trip or stumble, or have to work harder to read it. That’s where the text still needs work. Linda Ronstadt sang Simple Man, Simple Dream four decades ago. No matter what their education or their intelligence, your audience is made up of simple men and women. They have simple dreams. They are rushed and they are lazy. Yes, just like you and me. They won’t make a huge effort to read complicated financial information just for fun. The more complex your text, the more determined the reader has to be to get through it. Do you want to reach only the most determined readers? So, make everything you write, everything you send to clients and prospects, everything with your name on it…make them easy to read. Make them inviting to read, make them effective for your marketing and your client relationships.