Writing In Plain Language Will Improve Customer Relationships
A few years ago, I met a business owner on a construction site who was willing to give me feedback on tax documents. Yes, it sounds boring. Taxes usually are. But stick with me.
Let’s call him Shane. I wore heels and gray pants. Shane walked over with a tool belt buckled around his waist and a hammer in hand. He was paying business taxes. And I was the person who rewrote tax notices and letters into layman’s terms so that people like him – who usually didn’t know the tax world – would know what to pay, how to pay, and why. It was my job to demystify the business tax world.
I pulled out a multi-paged document about taxes. It was the ‘before’ version of a document I wanted to improve. I set it in front of him, then asked him questions like, “if you got this in the mail, what would you need to do?” and “what is this document about?” and “what is your next step?”
He thumbed through the first few pages. Mumbled a bit, and sat deep in thought. Finally, he looked up to me and said, “You know, I have a master’s degree and I don’t understand this.”
Shane’s response is typical.
Using Plain Language Helps Your Customers
Let me tell you what I know about writing plainly: customers want you to write for them, not for you. They need it. They crave it. Without it, they won’t actually do what you want them to do.
It’s a movement that started decades ago in government work. Most people know it as the plain language movement. Basically, people got together and said, “We should make these documents easy to understand for the common public because they need them to live their lives. Oh, and let’s lay out some basic plain language writing principles.”
States even went as far as passing laws that said public documents should be easy to understand. Some industries caught on. Others didn’t. Luckily, I worked as the plain language writer for a government agency that did and I trained more than 600 people nationwide on why this matters for your customers.
Here’s what I’ve learned about how most people approach their business writing: they need some help. So, here are the basics:
1. Who is your audience?
If you can’t give them a name (lawyers, school teachers, single people over 40, unmotivated college students, tired stay-at-home parents, etc.) then you can’t nail down the top characteristics of who they are and how they will respond to your message. If your business builds and sells car seats, for example, then consider writing the instruction manual with tired parents in mind. Did you add photos? Did you make it short in case the parent has to understand the instructions while also listening to a screaming child? Did you use words that they already know? Did you drone on about your company’s vision or did you get to the point? Name your audience before you even start writing, and then think about what they need from you in your communication.
2. What do they need to know or do?
Most businesses want to spout off a typical public relations message about how great the business is before getting to what the customer wants. But if you were the customer, what would you want to know first? Are you visiting that website to buy an item? Do you need to figure out how to pay a bill through your phone? Or maybe you only want to know how long a business takes to ship an item to your house? With that in mind, a good business owner will organize and present information in a quick, easy-to-find manner.
3. Use personal pronouns
When you use personal pronouns, you direct the customer with clarity. Plus, it sounds more conversational. Instead of saying, “A form needs to be dropped off by the end of the month,” you could say, “We need you to drop off this form off by the end of the month.” You’ve given the audience a job and you’ve made it clear. When the reader feels more responsibility, they’ll respond more often with action.
4. Avoid business jargon
Ask yourself if your grandmother would recognize your business acronym or jargon. Some of us just work too closely to our business language to recognize when a phrase alienates customers instead of helps them. I once came across a work document with the phrase “Road Map” capitalized. I took it to mean a literal road map. It wasn’t. Road Map meant a new online checklist for the customers that only the employees called the Road Map. People who didn’t work there would have no idea what that phrase meant―but the audience recognized the word “checklist” once they clicked on the Road Map link. If it’s jargon, explain it up front or ask yourself if you even need a fancy name.
5. Use active voice in your sentences
Yep, we’re going back to your high school English class here. And before your eyes glaze over, let me say that people are more likely to finish reading something if you have 10 percent or less of passive voice in your copy. If your goal is to keep people engaged, then you need to put this writing rule at the top of your list. Passive voice strains the reader. If I wrote that last sentence in passive voice, it would read, “The reader is strained by passive voice.” Sounds more stuffy, right? As a bonus, the more you write with personal pronouns, the more likely your information will come out in active voice.
Shane and I talked that day about glaring communication problems: the document’s title, confusing headings, and better placement for the items he cared about. At one point, he said, “All I want to know is how much I owe and when it’s due.” Pretty simple stuff, right?
Businesses need to write clearly because their audience has the right to understand. Regardless of the business world, you come from, the language that transcends cultures, businesses and worldviews is the common, conversational language you can find in plain language principles. If you’re lucky, your customers won’t even notice when you use it. They will, however, notice when you don’t.
Brittny Goodsell spent more than four years as a Plain Language expert and trained more than 600 people – including stubborn tax lawyers – on how to write clearly. She’s currently the main writer and speechwriter on Gov. Jay Inslee’s communications team in Washington. Brittny also teaches a technical writing class and editing/design class at the University of Washington.