Using plain language in your communication materials ensures people will understand your message, and can help you reach a wider audience. Plain language doesn't mean "dumbing down" your message, it's about eliminating jargon and communicating in terms that are easily understood by your audience.
Consider the following questions and concepts before you begin putting together your next article or presentation. While the topics you write about may be technical by necessity, you can still use the principles of plain language to be more effective in your communication efforts.
- Who is your audience?
- What level of knowledge do they have about your topic?
- What is the purpose of your communication?
- What is the goal of your communication? How will you know you’re successful?
- What am are you writing about?
- What is the purpose of your writing? (provide information/instruction, report findings, making a request, etc.)
- How will the person get this? (email, letter, web) Are there format considerations as a result?
- What is your key message?
- What does your reader need to know now?
- What specific actions do you want my reader to take?
- What questions will your reader ask?
- What does your reader need from me to accomplish these actions?
Try to Avoid
Acronyms and abbreviations
We operate in an acronym-heavy environment, and sometimes they’re hard to avoid, but to the extent you can minimize their usage, do.
“totally” awesome, “absolutely” critical
“rules and regulations” – choose one!
Explain technical terms as clearly as possible. Include examples that explain the meaning of unfamiliar terms
Formatting your document for readability helps your reader find and understand your key information.
- Short sentences: Aim for an average of no more than 15-20 words in each sentence.
- Short paragraphs: Your paragraphs should be no longer than seven lines.
- Small lists: If you have long lists of information, group them into smaller, related lists to keep your reader engaged.
- White space: Open space is as important as words. Documents that are too busy are distracting and hard to read. White space helps direct your reader to your content. This also makes copying and scanning easier, useful if you are creating a Fact Sheet or other tool for larger audiences.
- Headings: This is a great way to break up your content into easily identifiable sections.
- Tables: Are there particular pieces of information you can pull out into tables or charts? This is a handy visual communication tool.
- Illustrations: What graphics or pictures can help you tell your story? Remember the old adage, “A picture’s worth a thousand words.”