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Why Plain Language Matters During a Crisis (and Most of the Time)

Madeline Killen

Because of COVID-19, epidemiological terms like “social distancing” have made their way into our everyday language — but are they really getting the message across?


In the few short months since it first arrived in the US, COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of Americans’ day-to-day lives, and our language is no exception. “Social distancing,” “quarantine,” and “self-isolation” — terms that few of us had ever heard of just three weeks ago — have now become part of our everyday lives. 

For the last few weeks, the government and the media have been using these terms to describe the actions we are taking to protect ourselves and others; thankfully, the basic message of “stay inside, and stay away from other people” appears to have gotten through. But confusion over what constitutes “self-isolation,” “quarantine,” or “social distancing,” or how they differ from one another, may have contributed to the public’s delayed reactions — with potentially devastating consequences. 

When vital public health information is cloaked in jargon, confusion is certain to take hold. In times of crisis, plain language is essential to creating behavioral change — but even when countless lives aren’t at stake, technical terminology is rarely an effective communication tool.

That’s the idea behind the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a group of federal employees dedicated to the idea that citizens need and deserve clear communications from the government. Their frequently-updated guide to plain language was created for government agencies, but its principles apply just as easily to business communications. Marketers and PR pros can take a page from PLAIN’s book, in times of crisis and in daily life, to clearly and effectively communicate ideas to their audience. 

Applying Plain Language Principles to Business Communication

The Federal Plain Language Guidelines instruct readers in the art and science of clear, concise written communications. While the guidelines are intended as a jumping-off point for government literature and regulations, their sound principles are also applicable to B2B communications.

To help businesses and fellow marketers, we created the following guide for B2B communications — adapted directly from the Federal Plain Language Guidelines.

1. Think about your audience.

Plain language doesn’t mean “dumbing down” complex topics; it just means using language that your audience understands. The “write for an eighth-grade class” rule of thumb only works if your audience is, in fact, an eighth-grade class. If your audience is made up of immigrants, PhD candidates, small business owners, or single parents, don’t write for eighth-graders. 

And yes, this does mean that you have to address separate audiences separately; trying to blend material intended for separate audiences into a single article, whitepaper, or document will result in a more confusing, less effective final product.

2. Clearly organize your writing.

Write like a journalist; lead with what’s most important for readers to know and fill in background information as you go. Keep in mind that when people visit a company’s blog or website, they’re looking for an answer — not a prose poem. 

This doesn’t mean you need to strip your writing of all personality, but it does mean that style should come second to information. Keep paragraphs short to help readers quickly and easily find the information they’re looking for, and use informative headings and subheadings to guide readers throughout your article.

3. Write with a focus on clarity and simplicity.

Whether you’re writing website copy, a blog article, a whitepaper, or a user manual, prioritize clarity. Speak directly to your readers in the second person; don’t address a group of people and refrain from using passive voice.

Use short, simple words that express your point clearly, and omit unnecessary or florid modifiers. And, of course, avoid legal, foreign, and technical jargon — instead, break down these concepts for a generalist audience.

4. Write for the web.

People visit your website for a reason, so ensure you understand what that reason is, and write content that speaks to your audience’s reasoning. If your website does not fit with user expectations, users will bounce. When developing your SEO strategy, target keywords that align with your company’s mission and goals, and write articles that engage directly with the keywords you target. 

In times of crisis, plain language use is imperative, but business professionals should remember that many plain language principles hold true for B2B communications. Connecting with customers, clients, and leads requires speaking to them clearly and directly, something many companies still struggle to do. Consider whether your content marketing efforts can be improved by adopting a “plain language” approach.

Madeline Killen

Senior Content Associate

Helps clients find their voice and share it with the world, online and in print. Best friends with her library card.

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