We recently had the opportunity to run a webinar with Deborah Bosley. Deborah is the owner and principal of The Plain Language Group, a consulting and strategy firm based out of the Southeastern United States. For more than 20 years, Deborah has worked with some of the largest companies in the world, helping them figure out how to make plain language part of their content strategies. The Q&A that follows is adapted from her presentation.
Acrolinx Team: Deborah, you do a lot of work around communication. What in your view is the key to good communication?
Deborah Bosley: A few things come to mind. For example, I always encourage my clients to “communicate unto others as they would communicate unto themselves.” What I mean is that when you’re describing something to your target audience, you should always do so in the same way that you would imagine them describing it to their friends. That often means not talking to them like they’re subject matter experts, but rather using language that’s plain, direct, and succinct.
Beyond that, I think it’s always a good idea to make sure that you’re using your communications to answer your customers’ questions. It’s also important to make sure that you get to the point quickly (which goes back to being succinct). In my view the best way to make sure that happens is by communicating the information that your audience actually needs to know, rather than everything on top of that that you think they do.
AT: You mentioned plain language. What do you mean by that?
DB: Plain language is the use of proven writing and design strategies that make it easy for your intended audience to find, understand, and use information. You’ll notice that I mentioned the word design in my definition. That’s because plain language is about more than just the words that you use. It’s also about how easy your content is to navigate visually. Another way to think about plain language is finding ways to communicate information so that it’s clear, concise, and credible.
AT: So why is plain language important to content strategy?
DB: There are lots of reasons. For example, depending on the industry that you’re working in, being able to meet compliance requirements is significant and you need plain language to do that effectively. It’s also a way to emphasize your branding, to make your company’s values clear, and to better manage risk by ensuring that people understand you. Plus, I’d add that using plain language can help you increase customer satisfaction and that it can help you improve your overall bottom line.
AT: What tips can you offer to help people ensure that they’re using plain language effectively?
DB: There are lots of tips, but here are six of the most important:
- Always keep your sentences short so that people can easily understand them. That means using no more than 25 words in a sentence, though it’s even better when your sentences contain just 15-18 words each.
- Likewise, make sure that your paragraphs are also nice and short. In most cases, paragraphs should consist of no more than three to five (short) sentences.
- Use three to five headings per page to help make your content easier to scan and navigate. Headings will help your customers find the specific information they’re after faster.
- Whenever possible, lay your content out into columns because it’s easier for people to read text that way.
- Aim to write at an eighth grade level to ensure that everyone understands you.
- Last but not least, remember that design is every bit as important as language.
AT: What impact can using plain language strategies have on a business?
DB: Let me give you a real-life example. I recently worked with the financial services provider TIAA-CREF. They had sent out a letter to their clients that was just hard to understand. As a result, 10,000 of their customers called them over the following week looking for clarification. So we subsequently reworked the letter with plain language in mind and got a much better result. In fact, feedback about the revised letter was 95 percent positive and it ultimately resulted in millions of dollars flowing into the company.
AT: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today, Deborah.