Monday, 21 June 2021

Plain English: Do You Speak It?

plain-english

We spend a lot of time encouraging our clients to write in plain English. To drop the obfuscating buzzwords and infuriatingly complex businessese that plagues their landing pages in favour of simpler, cleaner language that's easy to read and understand.

Why do we push so hard for plain English? The simple answer is that it makes for better reading. People hate having to sit and unpick complicated sentences, look up unfamiliar phrases or search for the tangible benefit in a paragraph full of unnecessary waffle. 

People are busy, spending 15 seconds or less deciding on whether to engage with a page so you need to get to the point quickly or you’ll find them for the back button before they’ve scrolled below the fold.

Not convinced that you should be chasing such fair-weather customers? That’s fine. We totally get it. But there’s another big reason that we’ve always championed plain English – convoluted language also interferes with your customer journeys and your conversion rate. 

People - even highly-engaged people who are invested in digesting your content - need clear and simple text to help them navigate websites, understand what you’re asking of them and work their way through your marketing team’s beautifully-wrought conversion funnels.

Unnecessarily Complex Language Costs You Money

Fill your site full of copy that makes people stop and think about what you’re trying to say and you’ll notice people dropping off your page like flies. Or worse, missing the all-important clickable elements that are designed to move them onto the next stage of the user journey. 

They’ll sit there scratching their heads instead of clicking the CTA you’ve hidden under three inches of pure jargon – or sit there with a glazed expression, trying to decode phrases like "in person and digital capability building programmes" instead of reaching for the learn more button at the bottom of the page.

And if you’re sat here thinking: “No, I’m sure that my audience appreciates the fact that I don’t talk to them like children. I bet they actually love that I use industry-specific buzzwords and assume a certain level of knowledge” 

Then we’d ask you to be very brave and put that assumption to the test, because 9 times out of 10, plain English copy produces markedly better results.

We’re talking tangible improvements like:

  • Significantly improved time on page
  • Lower bounce rates
  • Improved conversion rates

Research from US-based communications firm Labrador also shows that readers are approximately 40% more likely to understand text that’s written in plain English -- and 34% more likely to say that your copy is well-written or organised. 

plain-english-workshop

What (Exactly) Do We Mean By Plain English?

A lot of people hear the phrase ‘plain English’ and assume that we mean ‘dumb English’.

Things like ‘the cat sat on the mat’ or ‘we make houses’ instead of ‘we’re modern architects that specialise in designing domestic spaces’

But plain English isn’t about oversimplifying your message. It’s about avoiding language that trips people up and dilutes your message. The Oxford Guide to Plain English offers a particularly pithy definition, stating that:

“Plain English is the art of writing clearly, concisely, and in a way that precisely communicates your message to your intended audience.”

But it might be better to give some tangible examples of Plain English at work. The US Government’s Principles of Plain Language Exercise Packet says that you should take sentences like: 

“The operation of a motor vehicle on oversand routes is subject to all applicable provisions of this chapter, including part 4 as well as the specific provisions of this section.”

And replace them with something like:

“You must follow all applicable provisions of this chapter, including part 4 and all of the provisions in this section.”

Or take clunky, obscure sentences like:

“An oversand route is closed at any time when tides, nesting birds or surface configuration prevent vehicle travel within the corridor."

And switch it out for something like:

"You must not drive on an oversand route when tides, nesting birds or uneven surfaces prevent vehicle travel within the designated corridor." 

To improve clarity without altering your core message. 

ux-writing-plain-english

Plain English And UX Copywriting: What’s The Link?

These examples are obviously taken from government legislation but the principles can be applied to any copy -- including the content on your website.

It’s also worth noting writing in plain English automatically ticks a lot of the boxes in the UX copywriter’s playbook. This is because one of the core principles of good UX copywriting is simplicity. Using straightforward language to take the guesswork out of digital experiences and allow a wider range of visitors to 

Not sure what we mean by UX copywriting? That’s fine. It’s a relatively new discipline and a lot of people are unfamiliar with the phrase. 

UX Copywriting is primarily concerned with writing microcopy for buttons, menu text, page headers, pop-up banners or 404 messages. The little bits of text that make or break a user journey and most UX writers take great care to make sure they’re always writing in plain English that’s clean and easy to understand. 

How To Write In Plain English: A Guide For Recovering C-Suite Executives

Taking these findings to your marketing team is a good first step, but it’s hard to get into the habit of writing in plain English. Especially if you’ve spent the last 5-10 years writing copy that’s full of puffery, unnecessary adjectives and round-about sentences that are designed to make you sound smart without offering anything of real substance. 

I should know. I’m guilty of the very same thing but there is some hope for florid writers: The Plain English campaign say that you can quickly clean up your copy by thinking about things like:

  • Keeping your sentences short and to the point (15-20 words is ideal)
  • Prioritising active verbs
  • Getting personal (using you and we as often as possible)
  • Avoiding nominalisations like completion or provision
  • Using lists wherever possible (case in point!)
  • Avoiding words that you’d have to explain to someone who’s new to your industry

The Plain English Campaign also publishes a slew of incredibly useful guides that’ll help you kick your writing into shape, including:

And if that’s not enough, our marketing team is standing by to jump in and help you improve your messaging. We’re lucky enough to count Julie - a chartered marketer - among our ranks, and she’s incredibly adept at cutting through waffle and refining messaging. 

David and Caron are also fantastic writers with a real knack for writing captivating copy that drives tangible results, and Alex is a conversion optimisation specialist who's adept at fine-tuning messaging to make sure it drives tangible results. 

We’re Easy To Reach

Think you’d like our help? Just reach out via the contact form on our site or book a 30 minute chat with David here




More in this category: Website Content, Content Marketing, Lead Generation, Websites, CRO

Sign up for our Free Digital Marketing Webinars Learn More