Unleash the power of plain language on your readers

Judy Knighton | February 26, 2019

Pied piper attracts children with his music.

What is easy to hear is easy to like. Image by wikimedia.org / Wikimedia Commons

You’ve set the policies. You’ve taken the actions. You’ve collected the data. Now it’s time to tell the world about your practices and what you’ve achieved.

Make sure your intended audience can easily understand the story you have to tell. Use the power of plain language. That is, plan and write your report so it presents information in a straightforward, logical way using words that are familiar to your reader.

Plain language makes you sound more reliable

When reports are hard to understand, readers skim them, tuning out the bits they find most difficult. Worse than that, people use mental shortcuts to make decisions about what they read, and one of those is ease of reading. Again and again, research across a number of industries has shown that people are more inclined to distrust an organisation that uses unclear structures and complex words.

On the other hand, what is easy to read is easy to like. As Caitlin Whiteman of Elemental Communications says, ‘People will judge the document as more positive than it might truly be, because of their experience of easy reading.’ In her presentation at Clarity 2016, Caitlin summarised the cognitive research that shows we have a bias towards believing what we can easily understand.

Plain language is a perfect match for sustainability reporting

Sustainability reporting is a tool for organisations to make better management decisions, reduce waste, enhance their public reputation, and grow trust. We could tick all four of those as applying to plain language too. Reporting that is more easily understood allows better, faster decisions. It saves the time of all readers, both internal and external. And we’ve already talked about reputation and trust.

Follow simple plain language principles in your reporting

For your report to work for your organisation and your readers, use these tips.

1. Make sure the purpose is clear at the beginning

2. Use a clear structure that addresses the readers’ key questions in a logical order

3. Use informative headings

4. Write sentences that are mainly short and active

5. Choose words your readers will understand

6. Sound like a human

7. Make sure the layout helps the reader

Towards the end of last year, sustainability consultancy Proxima published Towards Transparency: Sustainability reporting practice in New Zealand 2018 — A guide for practitioners. Our CEO, Lynda Harris, has contributed a piece about a minimalist approach to sustainability reports — and how to unleash the power of plain language in them.

And join us on one of our Report Writing workshops to learn how you can apply plain language principles to your reports.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.