Why plain language is in the best interests of your organisation

With the fallout from financial organisation failures still very much in the news, we’ve been pleased to see the Financial Markets Authority (FMA) speaking out about plain language.

We were among 62 individual and corporate submitters on the FMA’s draft guidelines for disclosure documents. These guidelines proposed plain language as a way of ensuring that investment statements meet the needs of investors. We agree. Plain language helps readers:

Image, Stacks of coins.

Investors need to understand exactly what’s happening with their money. Image by Austin Kirk / CC BY

Most submitters agree with plain language

The submissions on the FMA website mostly support plain language, but we did find a couple arguing that plain language would make a document less clear. One submitter raised the strange objection that legal language is more precise, and less likely to be misinterpreted, than plain language writing.

Plain language has no case law because there have been no cases

It is true that a lot of case law has gathered around the interpretation of particular terms. This just shows how ambiguous the original writing was. The goal of plain language is to ensure that documents are certain in meaning and can be easily understood. To our knowledge, there has never been a court case hinging on the interpretation of a term in a plain language document.

In Plain Language for Lawyers, Michele Asprey says:

None of these [interpretation] rules says ‘words will be construed according to what they meant the last time they were used’ or ‘traditional and technical words are to be preferred over new or simple words’. On the contrary, all the rules are designed to operate only if what the parties have written is confused, contradictory, unclear, or does not reflect what they must have intended to write. If what is written is clear, the rules and maxims of interpretation simply do not apply.

— Asprey, M. Plain Language for Lawyers 2nd ed. (1996) The Federation Press Pty Ltd, Sydney.

Complex ideas and concepts can be explained in plain language

The other objection was that plain language couldn’t deal with complexity. It is an odd but persistent rumour that language that is easy to read can’t deal with complex ideas. The submitter who raised this objection went on to propose that financial advisers should explain the concepts (presumably in plain language, or what would be the point). So clearly they do think plain language works.

Is ‘simple’ the opposite of ‘complex’? Some plain language advocates shy away from the term ‘simple’. Not me. I embrace the concept of a document that is simple to read. The ideas and concepts may be complex. The document itself will probably be very sophisticated. But all of that sits on the writing and production side of the communication. To the reader, the document is simple. It takes cleverness to be simple.

Plain language is in the best commercial interests of the organisation

I’m not surprised so many organisations supported plain language. It’s in their best interests. Plain language isn’t just about making the structure, language, layout, and content of the document work together to ensure the reader gets the information they need. It’s not just about saving money in document drafting, question answering, and error fixing. It is, of course, about all of that. But it’s also about making friends for the organisation (or at least about not making enemies).

In Repositioning clear communication in the minds of decision-makers, Christopher Balmford has this to say about how written documents affect the relationship between an organisation and its customers:

…each time someone reads an organization’s document they connect with the organization’s brand. Too often, that moment of truth is sour: the document is formal, impersonal, and awkward. It fails to live up to the values that are the foundation of the organization’s brand.

Organizations spend fortunes on logos, visual identities, and advertising. They do so with the aim of creating or refining their brand in an attempt to woo and retain customers. Yet the very same organizations pay little attention to the voice of the brand. Even though it is the voice of the brand that the audience has to deal with—often when the audience is busy at work, or weary at the end of the day, and would rather be doing something else.

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