Looking for a way to improve the effectiveness of your communications products? Using plain language is a great way to keep an audience’s attention and ensure they understand your message.
The first step to writing any communications product using plain language—whether a news release, fact sheet, social media post, or technical report—is understanding your purpose and target audience. Knowing what you want to achieve and the knowledge level, values, and interests of your readers allows you to “write for your audience” using language they are comfortable with. If your audience doesn’t have to work hard to understand what you’re saying, they’re more likely to keep reading and connect with your message.
Using plain language does NOT mean your writing will be plain. In fact, clear and straightforward writing can make your communications products much more engaging—helping you connect with your audience and avoid confusion and ambiguity. So how do you make sure you’re using plain language in your written communications? We have you covered. BCS’ Communications team compiled five top tips for using plain language:
Don’t bury the lead
Begin with your most important point—think about what you want your audience to know, or what action you want your audience to take. If you start with secondary details, you risk losing your audience’s attention before they get to your main message.
Omit unnecessary words that add no meaning to your sentence, and don’t write a phrase when one word will do. For example, instead of saying “The lab has researched novel new processes for the production of fuels,” just say “The lab researched new processes for producing fuels” or “The lab researched new fuel production processes.”
Use active voice
In active-voice sentences, the subject of the sentence is doing the action (e.g., “The agency published a report on national security”), whereas in passive-voice sentences, the subject of the sentence is being acted upon (e.g., “A report on national security was published by the agency”). Using passive voice can make your sentences wordy and can confuse your readers by obscuring who or what is performing an action. Use active voice to avoid ambiguity and cut extraneous words from your sentences.
Use acronyms/abbreviations sparingly, and clearly define them
“Alphabet soup” (an overabundance of abbreviations and acronyms) is difficult for readers to understand, especially when you’re writing for non-technical audiences. Only use acronyms for frequently used words or phrases—and only when the acronyms promote clarity and conciseness. When you do use acronyms or abbreviations, make sure you clearly define them the first time they’re used. What might seem obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to your readers. For longer documents, it is also helpful to include a table of acronyms and abbreviations for readers.
Use lists, graphs, tables, and headings to simplify complex material
Writing isn’t just about the words you use—it’s also important to think about visual space on the page. Bullet points and tables can help readers visually break up large amounts of information into smaller segments that are easier to digest. If you have a lengthy document, consider using headings to break up information into clear subsections—this will help your audience follow your organization. Visual aids, like graphs and charts, can drive home the significance of your data and leave a lasting impression on readers.
Using plain language is a communications best practice for a reason—because your audience needs to understand your message before they can engage with it. Still not sure if you’re using plain language in your communications? Check out the Plain Language Action and Information Network’s helpful checklist!