Can clear language help institutions win back trust?

Claire Hewitt | April 2, 2020

The 20th Annual Edelman Trust Barometer is out — this international survey measures trust and credibility across institutions, sectors, and geographies. Its results show that ‘trust inequality’ has set a new record. For all types of institutions, trust from the general population is much lower than trust from the ‘informed public’. The ‘informed public’ are those with more money, education, and information from media.

Download the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report (PDF, 4.5MB)

Can plain language make a difference? We think so. Here are a few plain language principles that build trust, especially in areas where the report shows it’s missing. They just might help save the day.

Look after people

Be fair by talking to everyone equally. The Barometer shows that most people see institutions as serving the interests of only a few. You can communicate with everyone equally and fairly by using the plain language principle of serving your reader. In other words, put the needs of your ‘stakeholder’ front and centre.

Unnecessary jargon and complexity create a barrier that can stop readers from understanding. If you’re an institution trying to build trust, write for everyone — not just those with time and qualifications to slog through lots of complex language.

Image, graph of organisations and who they are perceived to look after

People see institutions as serving the needs of only a few people. Source: 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report

Leaders, take a stand

Get personal. Of those surveyed, 92% believe their CEO should speak out on issues such as diversity, climate change, and income inequality. Using personal pronouns like ‘I’ and ‘we’ shows leadership and accountability. No hiding behind faceless institutions or complicated grammar, please.

Know where you’re going

Be clear about your purpose. The Barometer shows that people think institutions lack purpose and vision. In documents, an effective purpose statement is concise, specific, and clear. Also, you can up the odds of being understood by keeping your purpose up front. Why would it be different for institutions?

Read our blog on writing with purpose

Image, two people ice climbing

Start by sharing your purpose in a clear, concise way so everyone knows and trusts where you’re heading. Image by Gibfelstrum69 / Pixabay licence

Be honest

Integrity has the biggest influence on trust in companies. We notice it has similar ingredients to good plain writing — openness, clarity, and consistency. Ethics are three times more important than competence for building company trust.

The Barometer measured these ethics and their influence levels.

If you think big expert words are going to help you win people over, stop. Plain language is a powerful ally in building trust.

Image, graph of predictable variants in trust.

People see institutions as serving the needs of only a few people. Source: 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report

We have training and resources to help you build trust

Check out our other blog posts — or have a look at our calendar of open training workshops. We share skills to build credibility and make your reader the highest priority in your writing.

Open Workshops — professional development for individuals
Why you need to be trustworthy when writing plainly
What smart writing sounds like
Writing with purpose: How to get read

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.