Plain English & Plain Langauge, Writing & business

Reasons to use Plain English – two different perspectives

Two different reasons to use plain English

Every Monday on my Facebook page, I post stories or information about plain English to try to keep ‘spreading the word’ about the need for plain English and to remind everyone that plain English is a ‘thing’, plain English does solve a real communication problem, and that plain English needs to be in the forefront of our thoughts when writing.

Normally I don’t post about these articles, but last week, I found two articles written about the need for plain English in the world of pensions, and whilst these articles both asked for plain English in communicating with clients, the articles highlighted two different reasons why plain English is not used. I’ll briefly summarize the main points from each article before reaching the main conclusion.

The habitual use of jargon – think of the client

The first article from talked about the use of jargon in comms with clients. The article makes the point that although other professionals in the industry would understand, clients would not,  “[e]ven after what I thought were my clear instructions, [my client] still struggled.” The author went on to say that it is unfair to use that language directly with clients, “It was while I was explaining the different words and acronyms to him that I realised how unfair it was to send such forms directly to clients.”

The author suggested that the use of industry jargon was habitual, and that there are plain English alternatives which clients would be able to understand, “[h]owever with paraplanners being techies, they habitually use the term [“crystallisation”]. […] Why not say: “When you take your pension benefits”?”

The article promotes a common-sense approach to writing to clients, “keep it simple, keep it easy to understand and do not complicate matters.”

Earning profits based on jargon?

The second article from talks about the need for plain English to be forced through legislation. “The government should also require schemes to communicate with their customers in plain English, and be transparent about all costs and charges.” The article argues that the background for needing legislation to force plain English is the suspicion that the industry as a whole does not treat pension holders appropriately, “[e]ven for those already paying into a pension, are the government, regulators and providers looking after consumers properly? I do not believe so.” The article goes so far as to argue that the needs of the industry are placed above the care given to clients, “[t]he needs of consumers too often play second fiddle to the interests of the industry.”

The article argues that plain English communications, enforced by legislation would create uniformity and allow people to understand what is happening, “[a]nnual statements are not standardised and often impenetrable.” Further, plain English guidance should be given to people taking out pensions to avoid making the wrong choices or from being exploited, “[t]he days of high charges for poor service, and exploiting customers for misunderstanding their pensions, should be behind us.”

A typical misconception of language

These two articles highlight two problems in pensions that are reflected in many other areas of business:

  1. a lack of care from people working in an industry communicating to their consumers and as a result, consumer need to pay for expensive advice to understand, and
  2. industries as a whole who hide behind language potentially to prevent consumers from making the correct choice and earning profit as a result.

Behind both of the above is the common misconception that using legalese or other industry specific language actually increases revenues. In this way, the area of business is financially secure as people end up paying twice i.e. firstly to get advice, and secondly to get that advice explained to them so that they understand.

However, the reality is that the opposite is true and has been shown, most notably in Kimble’s book ‘Writing for Dollars, Writing to please’ (you can download a short article based on the book here) and other studies, that by improving communications and using plain English it: decreases business costs, increases consumer spending, increases consumer satisfaction, and improves your company’s reputation.

Ultimately, the decision to use plain English, although helped by legislation, should be made by businesses themselves and the decision should be made on a business case basis. The question a business should ask itself is ‘do you want to improve your bottom line by tricking your clients out of money, or to communicate to them clearly and build a great relationship and build your customer base that way?’

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