Tell it to me straight: 3 steps to becoming a plain-language champion

24 August 2021

“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” Those are the very wise (fifty-cent) words of Mark Twain, not just a celebrated writer but also an entrepreneur and investor. His investments didn’t fare too well, but he did fully master the economy of writing. 

What Mark meant was that if you have the choice between an uncommon term like “sesquipedalian” and an everyday word or combination of words such as “long-winded”, which means the same thing, you should always choose the everyday word. The goal is to focus on clear, concise communication. And in prose as in business, the tactic will create a valuable connection with your audience that no amount of sesquipedalian words will. 

In business, people often try to persuade someone else to do something or buy something. The best way to do this is to use the words in which your customers think. Plain language works on multiple levels to improve the customer experience. It helps them to better understand your message, saves time on needless back-and-forth communications, and helps forge strong business relationships. In short, it makes good business sense!

Take my industry, which is trade credit insurance  and debt collection . It is essential that we help our customers understand complex financial information so that they are empowered to take appropriate action. And I know that my clients are not thinking in terms like arrears, non-recourse facilities, and protracted defaults.

A common misconception is that plain language is about dumbing down the message. That’s just not true. There’s no way around imparting complex information in the trade credit industry that I work in. Instead, we use language to present our message as simply and clearly as possible. 

My interest in plain language is largely thanks to  Tomasz Piekot, PhD , a University of Wroclaw linguistics professor who champions the use of short and simple sentences in communication. After I attended a recent seminar led by Tomasz, I suggested my organisation undertake a pilot project to implement plain language in our communications. Through the process, we learned that under-complicating our terminology helped us to write in a friendly and equally effective way—even when discussing topics such as debt. 

Writing in plain language is easier than you think. Here are the key steps to get started: 

Ask yourself, “Who are we writing to? What reaction are we trying to evoke?” Putting yourself in your audience’s shoes will help you see what information they need, and find a simple way to put that forward. For example, when sending an email to a business owner about their indemnity claim, we focus on fifty-cent words like “refund” and “payment” over their fancier cousins, “restitution” and “remittance”.
Select the most relevant information and place that at the top. Use a warm but direct tone with strong verbs, and personal pronouns such as “you” and “we”. Don’t forget to keep sentences as short as possible.
In the age of digital communications, people expect even printed documents to be short and easy to read and make sense of. Adopt the web standards your customers know and love by using vibrant colours and small blocks of text. Frequent use of sub-titles also helps to keep texts interesting.

Simplifying your language is, well, pretty simple. Whether you’re writing a short email or a 100-page white paper, it’s all about creating closeness rather than distance. 

At Euler Hermes, we have seen the benefits of simplifying the language we use with our customers around the world. For the last few years, we have reviewed the wording of all our policies, risk notifications and other communication to make them easier to understand.

For Euler Hermes Poland , our new communication style has been very well received – not only by our customers but also by our team. People were happy to learn new ways of communicating and the results came very quickly, in terms of appreciation from customers and fewer misunderstandings or delays due to unnecessary correspondence. If you use words that your customers are familiar with and instantly recognise, everybody wins! 

Izabela Kosicka

True Customer Centricity Manager, CX Champion, Euler Hermes Poland