The Big Question: What’s the biggest benefit of plain language for organisations?

Kathryn Reeves | May 27, 2020

Image, seedlings growing out of stacks of coins

Write consultants answer a big question. Image by nattanan23 / Pixabay licence


This month, we asked our consultants to answer a new ‘big question’.

See last month’s post for answers to the question: If people changed just one thing about how they write at work, what change would you recommend?

We asked our consultants:

What’s the single biggest benefit for organisations when they adopt plain language?

Thirteen of them replied — here’s what they said.

Melissa Mebus: Everyone is just plain happier

Image, head shot of Melissa Mebus

Melissa Mebus, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

What is so often the basis of poor relationships? Why do couples seek counselling, or businesses go through mediation? Time and again, the reason behind so many unhappy relationships is poor communication.

By adopting plain language, an organisation is promising to communicate with its clients and stakeholders as clearly as possible. In a sense it’s saying, ‘I respect you and I respect our relationship. I want you to understand me and want you to feel comfortable communicating with me.’

When an organisation creates this kind of relationship, everyone involved is likely to be happier. I believe that’s the single biggest benefit of an organisation adopting plain language.

Paul Le Cheminant: Improve your chance of success

Image, head shot of Paul le Cheminant

Paul Le Cheminant, Relationship Manager / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Communicating clearly helps an organisation or team fulfil its purpose and improve efficiency. Information is easily accessible for readers and there’s a lot less rework needed. Engagement improves both internally and externally. Every document has a purpose — or there’s no point in writing it.

If people know exactly what you’re writing about, they’ll know exactly what’s expected of them and you’ll be more influential.

The time you spend writing is an investment and has a cost. A quality document improves your chances of success, whether it’s a proposal or bid for funding, a newsletter, changes to a process or policy, or recommendations to decision-makers.

Reducing ambiguity and improving clarity will save you time and you’ll be more successful.

Jayne Dalmer: The robots are gone

Image, person lying on the floor working on a laptop with a dog beside them

Jayne Dalmer, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Humans write to humans about human things. Organisations are no longer abstract and inanimate — the robots are gone! And humans tend to trust, forgive, and be loyal to others who show their humanity. And the people who work for those organisations can breathe a sigh of relief that they don’t have to become something else when they write or talk to other people. Humans win!

Meredith Thatcher: Break down those virtual walls

image, head shot of Meredith Thatcher

Meredith Thatcher, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Barriers to communication fall away when an organisation places plain language at the core of its dealings with its consumers, other organisations, and its own people.

‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.’ This opening line is from ‘Mending Wall’, one of my favourite poems by Robert Frost.

Unfortunately, concrete and virtual walls surround many organisations. These walls propel them to seek connections with the outside world to survive and thrive. Plain language breaks down these walls. It helps defeat misunderstanding. It helps organisations treat everyone with equal respect. It helps organisations connect. Such positive outcomes are a worthwhile return on investing in plain language.

Kathryn Reeves: Clear writing demands clear thinking

Image, head shot of Kathryn Reeves

Kathryn Reeves, Innovation Manager and Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

It’s much faster to fill the page if you just open a document and start typing. It takes more time — more thinking, more discussion, more research, more planning — to create a document that’s truly meaningful.

To write an informative heading, you have to identify exactly what you want people to know — not a general topic, but your main message. To write a clear purpose statement, you need to push beyond ‘This report updates you on the project’ to something more meaningful — why this document is important, for this reader, at this time, in this context. To create a structure that makes it easy for your readers to navigate your document, you have to understand what they’ll look for. And to write an effective short sentence, you can only use the words that convey meaning, and have to work hard to discard words that don’t.

Plain language exposes unclear thinking, and makes clear thinking come to light.

Penny de Borst: Get more stuff done!

Image, head shot of Penny de Borst

Penny de Borst, Business Development Manager / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Using plain language in all your communication means everyone understands what you need from them. You’ll cut down on all the back-and-forth clarifying actions, asking for more information, or getting a project back on track when someone doesn’t quite get what you wanted from them. And ultimately, that means you’ll get more of the mahi done.

Corinna Lines: Clean up under the fridge

Image, head shot of Corinna Lines

Corinna Lines, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

The biggest benefit is huge: trust.

Using plain language says you have nothing to hide. It drags concepts and reasoning out of the cobwebby shadows and says, ‘This is what we mean, and we want you to understand it.’

We all struggle at times with dusting the cobwebs off things that we think can’t be changed. Ask questions in your organisation if people are justifying formal language by saying, ‘We’ve always done it like that’ or ‘It’s part of the legal requirements’. We all have to clean under the fridge at some point — your motivation is that increased trust is better for every business.

Anne-Marie Chisnall: Send your ratings through the roof

image, head shot of Anne-Marie Chisnall

Anne-Marie Chisnall, Deputy Chief Executive and Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Like Corinna, I pick trust as the biggest benefit. We’ve seen some tremendous examples of clear, consistent communication coming from those leading New Zealand’s response to the global pandemic. The results are plain to see: ratings through the roof and massive engagement from our ‘team of 5 million’. Whether you’re a government agency or a private corporation, you’ll secure your customers’ loyalty and trust by communicating clearly.

Read our blog about the Edelman Trust Barometer

Jonathan Tan: Shine a lens on your industry’s jargon

Image, head shot of Jonny Tan

Jonathan Tan, Practice Manager / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Plain language makes you realise how much jargon your industry uses. You want people to understand what you’re saying, not have to phone a friend for the answer. If you cut out the gobbledegook, you can save time and money for both you and your clients.

One of my fondest memories is from when I used to work in the banking industry. A customer on Twitter asked me to explain how credit card interest is calculated — not an easy thing to do in 140 characters! But it made me realise how indecipherable the terms and conditions were.

Spoiler alert: It took a few tweets and one DM but we got there in the end!

Claire Hewitt: Build trust and show you’re genuine

Image, head shot of Claire Hewitt

Claire Hewitt, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

To me, it’s all about trust. Plain language is a powerful way to help build trust and show you’re genuine.

Clear, precise language shows an organisation is ready to say what they mean and do what they say. It gives you confidence.

On the other hand, self-indulgent words seem to distract from what matters. When an organisation uses vague language, it can feel like they’re writing in some ‘wiggle room’. Even worse, it can suggest they’re trying to hide behind complexity. And who’s going to trust that?

Josh Wilson: Language is power — use it wisely

image, man in short sleeves holding a wineglass

Josh Wilson, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

Language is the key to all knowledge, and knowledge is power. By extension, language itself is power.

Power can be used for good, and it can be used for bad. An easy way to use your power for good is to write in a way that the most people can understand — that’s plain language. So, by adopting plain language, not only will you be doing good, but your product or service will reach the widest possible audience. This means you should pick up new customers on the way.

You have a second kind of power as a writer — the power to treat people how they want to be treated. That means treating them with respect and (big surprise) that’s where plain language comes in again! Is there anything it can’t do?

Simon Carter: Get back an hour a day

Headshot of Simon Carter

Simon Carter, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

When people write in plain language, they stop wasting time gussying up their writing.

I’ve met dozens of people who tell me they first write what they need to write in a straightforward way. Then they rewrite it to make it more formal. Because that’s what they feel they’re required to do — churn out overly formal language that ties readers in knots.

Once they realise it’s OK to write it in plain language, they can get back an hour a day.

Sam Williams: T R U S T

Image, black cat on a white and grey brocade sheet

Sam Williams, Consultant / CC BY-NC-ND

If people can’t understand you, they won’t trust you. If they don’t trust you, they won’t want to do business with you. Plain language shows your audience that you care enough about them to talk to them in a way that’s easy to understand. If your language is needlessly complex, people might think you’re out of touch, or have something to hide.

Rewrite: Stories from 15 organisations on how plain language benefits them

Clear writing is fundamental to an organisation’s success, and saves time and money. Our CE Lynda Harris has written a book called Rewrite: How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit. The book gives practical advice on how to harness the value of your words.

Managers from 15 corporate, government, and professional organisations tell why they took a strategic approach to improving writing quality — and describe the significant return on their investment.

Find out more about Rewrite and how to get the book

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.