Today, I felt compelled to write a piece about plain English. I go on about plain English quite a lot, but some of the reactions to the prime minister’s speech go to show just how important it can be in the case of public information. This isn’t a political piece or a rant to add to all the speculation going on. It’s about the importance of clarity, and the lessons we can all learn for our work and everyday communications.

What is plain English?

Before we dive in, let’s remind ourselves what plain English is about. Here are a few key things that define plain English for me:

  • Using words the readers or listeners will understand
  • Explaining any terms that aren’t commonly used by the readers or listeners
  • Cutting the waffle, so that every word counts towards the meaning
  • Using short sentences that include just one idea each

For more about plain English, take a look at the following pages:

Editwrite: plain English

Editwrite: How to avoid jargon and acronyms in your business writing

Plain English Campaign

Plain Language Commission

Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading: Why edit?

Why is using plain English so important in the case of public information? Here are three big reasons, along with tips on how to make your communications clear and effective.

1. If the message isn’t clear, people won’t do what you want them to do

When people read or listen to public information, they are (largely) thinking about themselves. What does it mean for me? What do I need to do? If your message isn’t clear, people might not do what you want them to do. Or worse still, they might do something else instead.

This might not always be a life-and-death matter, but it’s still an important thing we can keep in mind when we’re communicating in work and everyday life.

Here are a few simple things you can do to keep your public information clear:

  • Put yourself in your audience’s shoes before planning your message. Who are they? What do you need them to do or know? What do they know already?
  • Explain everything and assume nothing.
  • Keep ideas and instructions short. Don’t go off on tangents.
  • Use diagrams to summarise your message.
  • Use words that can be interpreted in only one way.

2. If people don’t understand things, they panic

People need to feel safe and assured by information they read or hear. If there are words, concepts or instructions they don’t understand, they won’t feel that assurance, and in some cases, this can lead to panic. You need to look after your audience. You need to hold people’s hands and bring them along with you.

Let’s have a look at some scenarios where you might apply this to your work.

In a flyer about your new business:

  • Explain any technical terms.
  • Lay things out clearly.
  • Tell people the problems you can solve for them.
  • Say why you are the best person to do that.
  • Gently guide them towards an action, for example ‘Call today for a free quote’.

In an information leaflet or set of instructions:

  • Keep instructions short.
  • Explain any technical terms.
  • Use ‘active’ and ‘direct’ language so there’s no doubt about what people need to do or not do. (These bullet points are good examples: ‘Keep …’, ‘Explain …’, ‘Use …’)
  • Use bullet points and headings for clarity.
  • Explain the reasons or evidence behind any information, facts or claims.

In an email to your team about forthcoming changes:

  • Keep things simple and stick to the facts.
  • Explain the reasons or evidence behind any decisions.
  • Use headings to break sections up, so people can scroll through to find out what they need to know.
  • Tell them what it will mean for them. What do they need to know? What do they need to do?
  • Tell them when and how they will find out more.

3. If details are missed out, people fill in the gaps themselves

If you are giving people information or instructions, don’t leave things out. If there are gaps in what you tell people, they will begin to fill them in themselves. Social media is a breeding ground for speculation, opinion and comment. This can of course be helpful and supportive between friends, but all too often it can lead to false information being shared, whether intentionally or not. An opinion might get mistaken for a fact somewhere along the grapevine.

When you’re giving information to the general public, this is difficult to avoid. So many people are looking at your information from so many different perspectives and it’s not easy to predict all their needs and questions. But there are things you can do to at least reduce those gaps.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Anticipate people’s questions as best you can. Testing your information out on a sample audience could help you with this.
  • Answer those questions directly.
  • Tell people what you don’t know yet, as well as what you do know.
  • Tell people when and how they will find out more.
  • Be realistic and don’t overpromise. If there are things you can’t say or do, explain why.
  • Invite people to ask questions. Tell them when and how you will answer them if you can, and make sure you go back and do that.

To sum up

Keep it simple and look after your audience.

And in the midst of all this, please look after yourselves, too. Take care 😉