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Do Plain Language

Why Fancy Talk and Shop Talk are Big Don’ts

3/21/2019 11:46:59 AM

A girl reading a digital tablet and writing in a notebook.

By: Anne Sittner-Anderson, Communications Coordinator for the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind & Hard of Hearing

“At our company, we believe that all new products should bring specific and measurable improvements to a patient's overall quality of life and access to health. We ask patients and practitioners what features and improvements they want in their medical products — then we get to work. In recent years, we have answered patient demands for better quality in all environments, simpler and faster controls and adjustments, and products that are more discreet and attractive. In the process, we've set new standards for the industry.” – Anonymous Company Website

Consider the previous paragraph. What is this company trying to say? As a customer, are you confused? Could the company’s message be simplified and summed up into one sentence?

Perhaps a simple, “We listen to patient and provider feedback, then use their recommendations to create the new high-quality products they want,” would suffice. It gets to the point a lot quicker and you don’t have to pause and decode the message.

Skip the Fancy Talk

In fact, there is a high probability that most of this company’s customers skip over this content.

According to the Nielson Norman Group, the average amount of time that a user stays on a webpage is less than a minute. In fact, users usually leave the page within 10-15 seconds, and they tend to take in only the title and the single, most visible message. This means you have mere seconds to make your point. Don’t confuse your reader by using too many or complicated words. Leave the fancy talk off your website if you want your users to remember your information.

So using the example above, imagine you are holding the paragraph in one hand, and the sentence in the other hand. Which hand feels heavier and which one is lighter? Most, if not all, would say, “I remember the point of the simple sentence the best.”

Shop Talk is for the Shop, Not Online

“specific and measurable improvements”

“overall quality of life and access to health”

“simpler and faster controls and adjustments”

These word choices are fine in conversations between medical professionals but do real-life patients usually talk like this?

Do you think the audience could repeat the information back to their friends or family?

No and no.

If the audience members can read what’s on the website and are able to repeat the same information to themselves, this would be a BIG win for communication effectiveness.

Plain Language Principles for the State of Minnesota

In 2014, then-Governor Mark Dayton signed Executive Order 14-07, which required the Office of the Governor and all state agencies to communicate with the public using plain language principles. This was a wise move as it obligated our state employees to produce content that can be more easily understood.

Plain Language is communicating so people can understand content the first time they read or hear it. Minnesotans benefit with clarity, saved time, and improved satisfaction. To achieve this, do following steps:

  • Use everyday language;
  • Write in short and complete sentences;
  • Present information in a format that is easy-to-find and easy-to-understand; and
  • Clearly state directions and deadlines to the audience.

So How Do You Write for the Web?

Luckily, there are tons of resources for writing in plain language for the web. Here are a few.

  • PlainLanguage.Gov is an official website of the United States Government. This site includes information on federal law and requirements, plain language guidelines, examples of plain language, training, and resources.
  • The University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education offers a “Writing for the Web” course, which includes information on plain language. As part of the course, you will get a book on the topic, which serves as an excellent resource. This course emphasizes what matters the most in web writing and teaches you how to be concise and precise. This will entice your audience and guarantees that your website’s content will be intuitive. There are likely other colleges that provide similar classes, so be sure to check your local college.
  • The Minnesota Department of Revenue produced a video on plain language, “Introduction to Plain Language: Say it Simply.”

Special thanks to Dave Andrews and Emory David Dively for their contributions to this article.

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