Short and Sweet: How to Connect Through Plain Language

Would you rather read a fact sheet that gives every detail about an issue or an infographic that bottom-lines it for you? What about a paragraph full of context and adjectives or bulleted copy that gets to the point quickly?

If you picked the latter options, you prefer plain language (and so does Vanguard, the federal government and the health care industry)!

Plain language is all about writing for the reader, not for yourself. In an online workshop hosted by The Communications Board with Casey Mank of Bold Type, she explained: It helps readers find what they need, understand what they find and use what they find to meet their needs.

Putting plain language into practice requires getting into a reader-centered mindset. As you begin drafting, ask yourself:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What should they think, feel, know or do after reading?
  • What tone will make your audience respond the way you want?

Using plain language in your writing

It may be difficult at first to get out of that English paper-writing mindset, where perhaps you got extra points for more words. This is not the case in business writing, and in PR — where our job is to educate and persuade — keeping it simple is the key.

To make your communications (even emails!) user-friendly and easy to navigate:

  • Break up long sentences into shorter sentences.
  • Get to the point quickly. Action items come first!
    • Put easy to understand information at the beginning and more complex information at the end.
  • Leave out words you don’t need (e.g., “carry out a review” vs. “review” or “engage in distribution of” vs. “distribute”).
  • Use everyday words, not words that people will have to look up.
  • Use the active voice (e.g., “I wrote the article” vs. “The article was written by me”).
  • Speak to the reader (use “you”).

Then, evaluate your content:

  • Is the writing easy to understand?
  • Does it feel credible and sincere?
  • Does it feel respectful?
  • Does it avoid jargon?


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Using plain language in design

It’s just as important to apply best practices of plain language in visual communications, such as infographics, charts and other content that blends words and graphics. As you do this, think about what will catch readers’ eyes.

  • Organize the content strategically. Use:
    • Bulleted lists;
    • Bolded text headers; and
    • Short paragraphs.
  • Include data and numbers as they give the eye a “break” from looking at letters/words.
  • Use white space (aka, absence of content)! It’s easier to find important takeaways when there is less to sift through.

The goal of plain language is simple: Readers never have to read it twice. Seeing, reading and understanding are not the same things, so be sure you’re delivering what your audience needs in every communication.