Plain English and the power of 'you'

6 January 2020

Despite the global trend towards plain English workplace communications, there is a common misconception that plain English is a process of ‘dumbing down’ that is violating the English language. Word choice is a critical component of plain English. But it’s not simply a case of replacing a long word with a short one – it’s so much more than that.

Technical versus everyday words

A good communicator will always write from the point of view of their reader. Rather than writing what they want to tell their reader, they write what the reader needs to know using language the reader will easily understand. Without this approach, communication is doomed.

For example, if you’re an IT professional writing an industry article aimed at other IT professionals, you can get away with technical terminology because your readers are likely to understand those terms. In fact, if you don’t use technical terminology for your IT professional readership, you would probably alienate your readers as they are likely to think you are ‘talking down’ to them.

At the other end of the spectrum, if you're writing about an IT issue for inexperienced or lay readers, you’ll need to replace some technical terms with everyday alternatives. Or, you may choose to educate your reader by explaining what the term means then continuing to use the technical term. Both these choices are valid as they are focusing on the readers’ needs.

If you’re writing for a general readership, such as the public, it can become more challenging as you will need to cater for an audience with a wide range of needs, knowledge and understanding. In this case, we recommend a clear, concise style using everyday words and a friendly yet professional tone.

Personalising your message

As well as using words the reader will easily understand, harnessing the power of the small but mighty word ‘you’ will connect you with your readers. Compare the following examples from an appliance user manual:

Before

After

The installation of a residual current device is recommended to provide additional safety protection whilst the device is in use. 

We recommend you have a safety switch installed as an extra precaution when using the device. 

The ‘before’ example reads more like an internal manufacturer’s report, not a message to a customer. Some of your readers may be electricians and understand the term ‘residual current device’. Most of your readers, however, are unlikely to understand this term. It’s therefore safer to find a more widely understood alternative such as ‘safety switch’.

In the ‘after’ example, the words ‘we’ and ‘you’ personalise the message. These are powerful words that are much under-used in communications from emails to procedure manuals. By using the word ‘you’, the reader feels as though you are speaking directly to them and that you, as the manufacturer, care about their safety.

Personalising messages using ‘we’ and ‘you’ is not only important for communicating with the public or your clients, it is also an effective way to motivate your colleagues. Consider the following examples:

Before

After

Lock screens are to be activated on computers on each occasion of leaving the work area.

Please activate your lock screen every time you leave your work area. 

Which of the above messages are you more likely to comply with?

Knowing when to call in the professionals

Writing in plain English is an art. It involves structuring the communication in an ordered and logical way. It involves crafting sentences that communicate your message clearly and concisely using the appropriate style and tone. When you are highly knowledgeable in your field, it can be difficult to encapsulate your knowledge into plain English for a public or a non-technical reader.

That’s where Concise Writing Consultancy’s professional plain English writing service can help. Not only are we expert in the craft of plain English writing, we can immediately identify areas that may be difficult for your reader to understand. We can then translate your knowledge into everyday language to get better results from your communication and enhance your authority in your area of expertise.

For help converting your communications into plain English, contact Concise Writing Consultancy on 92 9238 6638 today.

All before and after examples in this blog are fictitious.

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