Plain language is smart, not dumb

chalkboard telephone drawingHave you ever tried persuading managers that using simple, active language is their best chance at communicating a message, and gotten a response like this?

“I don’t want to dumb it down.”

This response always flabbergasts me. They might as well say, “I don’t care if people understand me.”

Making language clear and understandable doesn’t mean you’re writing like the author of a “Dick and Jane” reader.

It means:

  • Keeping most sentences to 25 words or fewer.
  • Avoiding jargon, even when you’re writing for ‘your’ audience. Don’t assume that since most of the people on your annual report mailing list know about you, they’ll be as familiar with your jargon as you are.
  • Making sure quotations sound as if someone really said them. (Hint: Read the quotation out loud.)
  • Using words your readers use. People say, “Get your gas at Speedway stations and support AAA Foundation.” They don’t say, “Get your gasoline at Speedway stations.”
  • Being direct, not passive. Rather than, “We had a discussion about the issue,” say, “We discussed the issue.”
  • Letting active verbs make your copy come alive.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, companies that have been pushing out their messages regardless of how readers will react to it are going to find themselves ignored, if they aren’t already. 

Find help at:

PlainLanguage.gov: Improving Communication from the Federal Government to the Public

Ten Commandments of Simplification (Center for Plain Language)

Plain language for communicating health information

The Jargon Finder

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4 thoughts on “Plain language is smart, not dumb

  1. Cindy – Great article! I recently heard the term “beta-max.” I had to ask someone what they thought it meant. The answer was outdated. So why didn’t the consultant just use the term “outdated”?

    • Beta-max? How ridiculous. You have to wonder what people think they’re achieving sometimes. Thanks for sharing that one!

  2. Thanks for this post and the links. Keeping my sentences short and simple is something I still struggle with a lot, so posts like this are very helpful to me.

    Oh, and “beta-max” must be one of the silliest jargon-terms I’ve ever heard of.

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