Simple, clear, and plain language has these characteristics:
- It puts the most important information first
- It uses shorter, more common words as much as possible instead of academic, specialized, and longer words
- It avoids extra words and sentences
- It clearly spells out instructions and requirements without causing uncertainty
- It’s evaluated by automated tools as 10th grade reading level
As a professional in your industry, it can be tempting to show off your knowledge by using jargon or otherwise complicated language. It’s a natural assumption that doing this would project a sense of competence and set people at ease.
The reality can be much different. Studies (Loranger) have shown that an author actually appears more competent when using simple, clear language.
Here are some more things to keep in mind about using simple, clear language across your website (including in-progress events like power outages in your service territory).
- It projects honesty. Extra words or long words can create a sense that you are obfuscating… I mean hiding… the truth. Simple language says “I have nothing to hide”. Simple is confident. Simple is credible.
- It’s refreshing. Many people are used to dealing with complicated and verbose messaging from the organizations they depend on. Using clear language is a great way to stand out as a nice contrast to business as usual.
- It avoids ambiguity. One of the worst mistakes in communication can be leaving room for interpretation. This can lead your readers to feel uncertain. This uncertainty can cause your customers to not feel confident in the self service information they are reading and instead contact your utility organization, defeating the point of providing self service information.
- As a utility, you serve all people in your service territory. This includes readers for whom complicated English may be difficult to understand. Using simple language helps you better serve these customers who have a lower level of education or whose first language is not English.
- Though it is somewhat unintuitive, plain language makes it easier for even highly educated readers to comprehend the content on your website. The differences in time spent on complicated language versus plain language can actually be even larger for highly educated readers.
- Not only does simple language make it easier for people to understand, it makes it easier for automated tools to translate your page content to another language. We provide an on-page Google Translate widget on every Powerful website. Other translation tools are available as well. For instance, Apple’s iOS 14 added translation in the Safari web browser. Simple language creates better results with all of these automatic translation tools.
- Concision is the friend of simplicity. In addition to using a simple vocabulary, cut unnecessary words and sentences. These edits have the same sorts of benefits, making your content easier to understand and provide more confidence to your readers.
- Put the most important information first. Let your readers get the most important information up front. Provide further information in following paragraphs or even link to a separate web page that to provide more information.
- Use simple headings to break up content. Use headings to break up content on a page into logical chunks. This makes it easier for readers to find and understand the information they need.
- Use short paragraphs. Consider that long paragraphs look even longer on mobile. Review your pages on a mobile device to confirm that your paragraphs are of comfortable length.
- Check the readability level of your web content by using evaluation tools. Tools include Readable and Datalyze’s Readbility Analyzer.
- Use an active voice and speak to your readers conversationally. Tell them what actions they need to take to accomplish their goals by using imperative verbs. Describe what your organization does and will do using a simple first person perspective.
Learn more about how to use plain language on your website by reading my sources for this article.
- Loranger, Hoa. “Plain Language Is for Everyone, Even Experts.” Nielsen Norman Group, 8 Oct. 2017, www.nngroup.com/articles/plain-language-experts/. Accessed 24 Oct. 2021.
- Nielsen, Jakob. “Inverted Pyramids in Cyberspace.” Nielsen Norman Group, 31 May 1995, www.nngroup.com/articles/inverted-pyramids-in-cyberspace/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2021.
- Redish, Janice. Letting Go of the Words. Amsterdam ; Boston, Morgan Kaufmann, 2012, pp. 197–226.