Five ways to make plain language work for your organisation

Megan Bennett | November 13, 2023

I love it, but they’ll never let me use it

You’ve just been to a plain language workshop, you’ve picked up some tips and tricks, and you’re keen to try them at work. But you feel your manager, peer reviewer, or organisation won’t accept ‘this kind of writing’. In our Business Writing workshops, participants sometimes say things like, ‘I think this would work well, but I won’t be allowed to use it.’

Here are five ways to reverse this situation and make sure your plain language skills work for you, your organisation, and your readers.

1. Challenge your assumption that your organisation won’t like plain language

Are you sure your organisation doesn’t want you to write using plain language? After all, it’s just sent you on a plain language writing workshop! Remember that you’re basing your opinion on what’s happened before — think about what your organisation wants to happen from now on.

To check, ask those who organised the training:

If you find out these answers, you’ll understand how you can contribute to a consistent writing approach in your organisation instead of assuming you can’t. Your organisation will get its return on investment from the workshop — reader-friendly documents, efficient processes, and better productivity.

Your management might also realise that it hasn’t yet communicated how it wants the rest of the team to write — something it can easily fix.

A male hand is holding a glass ball up to the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. The bridge is reflected upside down in the glass ball.

Are you sure you’re seeing things the way your organisation does when it comes to using plain language? Image by Brendan Church / Unsplash licence

2. Check if your organisation’s style guide encourages you to use plain language

Look at your organisation’s writing style guide to see how it wants you to write. Many style guides champion plain language and include examples and help. A style guide supports you (objectively) to write in the style your organisation wants.

Often, writers don’t know their organisation is trying to achieve a consistent, reader-friendly style — they write according to what they see others around them doing or ‘how it’s always been done’. A style guide also means you don’t have to guess or write a certain way just because your manager or peer reviewer likes that style.

If your organisation doesn’t have a style guide, focus on the answers you get from asking why it organised the plain language workshops. It might become obvious that a style guide would help your organisation to continue the momentum gained from a writing workshop. It would also work towards achieving a consistent writing approach with plain language at its core.

3. Talk to your manager or peer reviewer so that they know what to expect from your writing

Does your manager or peer reviewer know to expect clear, reader-friendly documents from you now? If not, they might baulk at a document that hits their desk with a different writing style than what they’re used to. So talk to them. Let them know what to expect.

Discuss the workshop you’ve just done, what concepts will work for the documents you write, and what you’ll be doing from now on. Show them what plain language looks like and how it works for everyone.

It’s also good to explain the ‘why’. When people know why you’re doing something, they tend to be more accepting. For example, you might explain that you’re going to start structuring your audit reports with the main finding first. This will mean readers won’t have to trawl your document and find it buried in paragraph six.

You know that readers want the most important info — the stuff that matters to them — up front. That way they’re more likely to act on the finding and do what you want them to do. Your manager or peer reviewer should be impressed!

A man looking at a laptop. He’s surprised — his mouth is open, eyes are wide open, and he’s holding his glasses in front of his eyes a few centimetres (as if he can’t believe what he’s reading).

Avoid surprising your manager or peer reviewer — let them know to expect reader-friendly documents from you. Image by Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels licence

4. Use the Write Plain Language Standard to support what makes a reader-friendly document

The Write Plain Language Standard provides a set of 10 statements to assess whether a document is reader-friendly and easy to understand.

Use the Standard to explain the concepts you learned in your workshop to your manager or peer reviewer. For example, statement 3 — The structure of the document is clear and logical to the reader — would support your reason to restructure the audit reports we mentioned earlier.

Like a style guide, the Standard provides objective support for why you’re using plain language concepts. You can use it to point out the features of a clear, reader-friendly document without it sounding like your personal opinion.

The Standard will also complement a style guide that promotes plain language.

5. Remind your organisation that the Plain Language Act 2022 is now in force

The recent Plain Language Act 2022 is a compelling reason for your organisation to use and continue developing the skills that you learned in your workshop. The Act requires plain language in government documents and websites written for the general public.

The writing must be:

When New Zealanders can quickly and easily find, understand, and use information:

Not a government agency? The private sector can also use the momentum and spirit of the Act to achieve this same trust, efficiency, and willingness from its clients. Whether you need to comply with an Act or not, your plain language skills are key to creating a world where clear communication helps everyone.

Putting solutions into practice

You’ve now got five ways to make sure your plain language skills work for your organisation. Use them to spark those ‘aha’ moments, transform thinking from doubt to certainty, and take your organisation to ‘we love it — and we use it!’

Want more back-up?

Check out what’s in a style guide and why it’s good to have one

Download a copy of The Write Plain Language Standard

Find out more about the Plain Language Act 2022

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.