In Business, Plain Words Say it Best
By Adam Bello | March 31, 2003
If you want to increase sales, forget buzz words. Talking in plain language can be more persuasive in developing new business.
“Your goal is not to impress prospects with fancy words; it's to make clear what your company does and how you can help them,” says Yuhas. “If you have to explain it twice, you waste [everyone's] time with needless clarifications, and may miss out on sales and referrals.
While plain language communication has become important for government and industry to improve administrative processes and productivity, it is often overlooked in general business operations. Presenting information in everyday words can be more persuasive than trade jargon.
“People won't buy what they don't understand. Unless you're communicating to industry specialists, marketing materials full of non-essential technical jargon and acronyms can interfere with the audience's ability to grasp the importance of your message.”
Yuhas, a featured speaker at the recent Plain Language International Conference (PLAIN) in Toronto, says plain language is not considered bland, but effective. Plain language keeps your message simple, but not simplistic. It structures information logically, in common terms, to be understood the first time it is read.
What's your message?
Plain language communication requires planning and group participation. Begin the process by clearly defining your 'key' message, the single most important idea that you want to communicate to your audience.
“Ultimately, the message must bring value to the audience to achieve the desired results,” she says. “Readers should be able to quickly understand why it is important, and explain content to others.”
Yuhas offers these tips to help you develop effective communications materials.
- Identify your objectives, including:
- the purpose of the message (e.g. What do you want to achieve?);
- the audience, notably:
- who is reading your material? (i.e. general public? industry professionals? media?)
- what is their minimum (or realistic) level knowledge about your business?
- what is their background or industry expertise?
- what other information do they require to understand the messages presented?
- why would they read your material (i.e. what is their needs, interests);
- how will they benefit from reading it?
- how will they receive the message (i.e. direct mail, e-mail, web site, newspaper ad), and
- the action to be taken, such as:
- response (i.e. call, fax, e-mail, set up a meeting);
- referrals (the acid test - if they can tell others what you do).
Break it down
Breakdown complex concepts into manageable parts. Paragraphs should consist of three or four sentences. Use short sentences that each communicate one idea. This will keep ideas in context, avoiding confusion.
To present additional ideas or clarifications, use definition, help, or side-box resources ('sidebars') to complement the main text. These will provide necessary background information without interrupting the flow of your main message.
Make each word count.
Each word should speak to the reader. Remove words that do not improve the reader's understanding. Jargon, techno-babble, and unusual terms reduce the effectiveness of your message.
"Where possible, avoid exclusive language, as extraordinary words or terms are only understood by a minority of readers. Popular terms, such as 'proactive' or 'cutting edge,' are vague and open to interpretation. And because they are overused, these fail to differentiate your company."
Balance brevity and clarity
Keep messages brief by constructing shorter sentences. For example, 'The marketing team failed because they did not focus on the needs of the buyers' (15 words),' can be written: 'Marketing should focus on buyer needs' (6 words).
Using verbs instead of nouns also reduces wording. Instead of 'delivery of the package, say 'package delivery.'
In some instances, shorter is not always better. “Explaining complex ideas may take more words than the original industry jargon because it is professional shorthand,” Yuhas says. “Using examples or metaphors to explain the subject may be necessary.”
Spell it out!
Do not assume readers will be familiar with abbreviations for each term or organization mentioned.
“Reading material should not be an alphabet soup of acronyms,” Yuhas says. “Use the term in full the first time, followed by its abbreviation.”
...generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP)
...wide area network (WAN)
Make the most of media campaigns
Presenting newsworthy story ideas in plain language creates immediate benefits for reporters and publicists. When journalists understand your press release the first time it is read, you reduce:
- telephone discussions to clarify content,
- revision time (e.g. material can be used 'as is'), and
- the chances for misquotes and factual misinterpretations.
“Journalists appreciate receiving concise content about your company, and will [more likely] welcome your next story pitch,” she says. “Making their job easier will significantly improve your chances for further media coverage.”
Plain language approaches are equally valuable in public speaking, especially as ideas must be understood as spoken.
“Audiences don't have that opportunity to 'playback' your comments during a presentation, and are unlikely to ask you to repeat what you just said,” says speech writer Jane Naczynski, head of WordSource Corporate Communications in Toronto. “If the choice of words or format fails to help listeners understand your point at the beginning, the rest of the speech may be lost on them.”
Test your message
Prior to sending your marketing or publicity materials for printing or distribution, have others review them. “Have someone else read your documents for clarity, using their feedback to test the message's effectiveness and efficiency, and ask them to explain what they just read,” Yuhas says. “This will determine if your message is clear, and if you achieved your communication objectives.”
Naczynski agrees. “Rehearse your speech with one or two people who know little or nothing about the topic. Ask them to interrupt you when you use jargon or terms they don't understand. Clarify the jargon for them on the spot -- then write those clarifications into the final draft.
Plain Language Association International (PLAIN): ABC Canada Literacy Foundation 'The Elements of Style' by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White summarizes the rules and principles of composition, and the use of words and expressions. A web version is viewable at: http://www.bartleby.com/141/.
Plain language resources on the web:
Plain Language Association International (PLAIN):
ABC Canada Literacy Foundation
'The Elements of Style' by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White summarizes the rules and principles of composition, and the use of words and expressions. A web version is viewable at: http://www.bartleby.com/141/.