How to engage readers with plain language

Gobbledygook. That’s one word to describe language that is hard to understand and unapproachable.

Yet that word sums up the result when marketers and other communicators use convoluted language.

Content presented in clear, plain language benefits your organization by helping you connect with clients directly and personally. If your content is easily readable and understandable, your communication is better. You have taken an important step to gain your audience’s trust as a knowledgeable source of information.

With plain language marketing, your content clarifies issues.

You tell your readers what they want to know, rather than leave them confused, forced to reread or search elsewhere for answers. By saying it right the first time, you save time and money.

Organizations of all sizes often deal with specialized information. Using simple words opens the door to a wider audience that appreciates your efforts and feels welcome. Plain language marketing keeps your audience coming back.

Let’s get started with two main ideas.

1. Steer clear of language that muddies your content.

Instead, simplify and strengthen your messages with these tips:

  • Resist the urge to sound formal.
  • Omit unnecessary detail.
  • Be concise. Keep the average sentence below 25 words.
  • Put only one main thought in most sentences.
  • Use active voice.
  • Avoid nominalizations – act, don’t take action; assume, don’t make assumptions; conclude, don’t draw conclusions.
  • Use headings and topic sentences to summarize the main ideas of paragraphs.
  • Use lists and bullet points.

Let’s look at an example of plain language. Which of these sentences is clearer?

  1. After a long-term study of the driving habits of people, it has been found that most drivers refrain from stopping completely at stop signs, only slowing slightly before making a left or right turn.
  2. Studies show that most drivers don’t stop completely at stop signs. At best, they slow slightly before turning.

Sentence #1 includes the unnecessary information of “long-term study of the driving habits of people” and “making a left or right turn.” It uses the more abstract “driving habits” instead of the more concrete “drivers” and the more formal and weak verb construction of “refrain from” rather than “don’t stop.”

Sentence #1 also uses the nominalization term of “slowing” rather than the stronger verb “slow” and prefers passive voice (“it has been found”) rather than active voice (“studies show”). All this information is shoved into one crowded sentence. Even after removing the clutter, two sentences are more effective.

Note that bullets organize the information far better than a paragraph form, and each starts with a verb (parallel form), as do the headings in this article.

2. Use tools and structures that give life to your text.

Professional writers learn to use every literary device possible to create lively, engaging text. Here are a few to consider:

  • Use “you” instead of the more formal “one.”
  • Use contractions.
  • Pick simple words instead of fancy ones.
  • Write information in a logical order.
  • Don’t repeat information.
  • Avoid strings of adjectives.
  • Play with analogies.

Let’s look at two examples:

  1. Due to the nonfunctioning HVAC, the miserably stark cold house was anyone’s worst nightmare. One can only imagine the freezing temperatures that the family was enduring since the furnace went on the blink more than three months prior.
  2. The family lived in a house without heat for three months because the furnace broke. You can only imagine how uncomfortable they were, living like refugees in their own home.

Sentence #1 uses language that makes this text hard to read. It use a “big” word (nonfunctioning) rather than a simple word (broke).  Jargon (HVAC) is unnecessary, as are the adjectives before “house.”

The text uses “one” instead of “you,” which is more informal and personal and the overused expression “went on the blink.”

To add interest, Sentence #2 contains an analogy to help the reader sense how the family must have felt (like refugees).

Now that you’ve learned ways to write better, you can create and shape content that speaks clearly, vividly and concisely to your readers. Your content will speak to them. They will absorb it, remember it and act on it.

To learn more about how plain language marketing can help your organization better communicate with your ideal clients, call us at 302.858.5055 or send us an email.