Making the case for clear language

With the launch of an international standard for plain language, we look at how it benefits everyone.

Communication makes the world go around. 

Yet in our everyday lives, so much of it is complex and unclear. Letters filled with jargon. Documents full of technical terms. Signs that make no sense. Emails with sentences so long we forget what we’re reading. 

Hopefully this is set to change. 

A standard for plain language

After years of work, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has launched its first plain language standard

The ISO has been creating international standards since the 1940s. You may not have heard of them, but they influence many things in our daily lives. For example, date and time formats, shoe sizes, and road signs. 

Developed by a group of 50 plain language experts, the new standard includes a universal plain language guide that everyone can use. One that can be localised to reflect differences in languages and cultures. 

Between them, the experts come from 25 countries, speak 19 languages and work in a range of roles and organisations.

The benefits of clear language

There’s a reason the government of New Zealand made plain language a legal requirement for public services in 2022.

Clear language is better for everyone. This includes people who:

  • are dyslexic,
  • have learning difficulties
  • are neurodivergent,
  • have difficulty reading or paying attention,
  • are not familiar with the topic,
  • are anxious, stressed or in a hurry,
  • have a different first language.

And it benefits your business or organisation too. Being clear in your communications can: 

  • save time and money on customer support,
  • increase trust with your users or customers,
  • build your reputation as a company that cares.

Take a look at this case study from service design agency, Civilla. 

They worked with residents and government staff to transform the longest benefits application in the United States. It was 40 pages long, over 1,000 questions and more than 18,000 words. 

Redesigning this meant:

  • 90% of people were able to apply in less than 20 minutes,
  • 75% less staff time spent on correcting errors,
  • 96% drop in staff processing time from end-to-end.

Clear or plain?

Plain English, plain language, clear language. You might have come across all of these terms if you work in content in the UK. 

Content and forms specialist Caroline Jarrett explains

  • plain English is about techniques,
  • plain language is about the user.

Many practitioners use the word ‘plain’ because it has historical context - it’s familiar because it’s been adopted widely by many industries around the world. 

But over the past few years, some in the content community have moved to using ‘clear language’. This is because the term ‘plain’ can be more difficult to endorse and fight for. 

The word ‘plain’ comes with negative connotations for some people. For example, having worked hard on developing branding for their organisation, some might feel that ‘writing plainly’ opposes their unique voice and style.

We tend to use the term ‘clear language’ here at Content Design London, because we feel that ‘plain’ is often seen as the same as ‘boring’. However, not many people will argue with the idea of ‘clear’ by saying they want something to be unclear. 

We’re excited that the plain language ISO will help raise awareness of clearer communications, and want to see more robust criteria for the standard in future. 

And we’re looking forward to hearing from Gael Spivak who was involved in creating the standard at the next Crocstar event

Doing the work for the reader

When we put effort into making sure that our communications are simple and clear, we take the burden off the reader. 

Using clear language is something you can start doing today. Show colleagues by being the example.   

You can:

  • choose simple, everyday words,
  • avoid technical terms and jargon — or explaining them when they must be included,
  • keep sentences short and less than 15 words,
  • use ‘you’ and ‘we’ to make sentences more direct and concise,
  • use plenty of paragraphs to break up blocks of text,
  • put the most important information first,
  • use descriptive headings, subheadings, and subject lines.

See the difference for yourself

Grab a stopwatch and time how long it takes you to read this paragraph:

Procure a heat-resistant receptacle and initiate the boiling process. Utilize a suitable quantity of potable water, commensurate with the desired volume of the final beverage. Once the aqueous medium attains its boiling point, pour the liquid over a predetermined quantity of dried leaves or finely ground particulates derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. The steeping duration, contingent on the specific type and variety of tea selected, ought to be meticulously timed. The resultant liquid extract may then be deposited into a heat-resistant vessel. The tea may be consumed either in its undiluted form or with the inclusion of additional edibles such as sweeteners, milk, or citrus fruits.

Now time how long this takes you:

  1. Fill a kettle with enough water for your cup.
  2. Boil the water.
  3. Put the tea bag in the cup.
  4. Pour the hot water into the cup with the tea bag.
  5. Leave the tea bag in the cup for a few minutes then remove it.
  6. You can add sugar, honey, milk, or whatever you like to make it taste just how you want.

Learn more about clear language: 

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