Short sentences, few words and no repetitive ideas is just the beginning. But it is worth the effort to work on your content. After all, simplicity is the language of the future!
In this post, you will learn:
- What is plain language
- How plain language differs from other writing styles
- The textual layers to consider when simplifying any content
- The principles for the substantial content, structure, and grammar
- How to build relationships through text
Imagine you present a memo to your boss, and in return you get a note: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” What would you do? As legend has it, this is what one civil servant working for Winston Churchill experienced. The famous Briton was not shy to express his distaste for “officialese” or bureaucratic jargon, and for strictly adhering to formal rules (here: never end a sentence with a preposition).
His legacy lives on in the trend to popularize plain language as the foundation of effective communication, which is needed more than ever. According to Microsoft, the average human attention span has fallen from 12 to just 8 seconds since 2000. Thus, marketers need all the help they can get to eliminate whatever impedes understanding of marketing content, especially in business-to-business contexts. See how to apply plain language principles in B2B marketing and benefit enormously from its power.
What is plain language?
Plan language is a tool for efficient communication, but above all, it’s a language of clear thoughts, sincere intentions, and simple form. Behind plain language lies a standard that assumes that we, marketers, should write content in a way that the reader:
- Reads it quickly
- Understands the message
- Can apply it in practice
Plain language: from public service to business
The concept of plain language has its roots in various cultures and historical periods, but it gained significant traction in the 20th century, particularly in the realm of politics and law. One notable figure who championed the use of plain language was Winston Churchill. As the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during a tumultuous period, Churchill understood the power of clear and straightforward communication. He was known for his concise speeches and memos, which were often devoid of jargon and convoluted sentences. Churchill believed that clear language was not just a stylistic choice but a democratic necessity, especially when conveying critical information to a diverse audience.
His advocacy for plain language has had a lasting impact, influencing modern guidelines for clear communication in various sectors, including business-to-business marketing. Today, we distinguish several types of language in communication:
- Easy language – for audiences with intellectual disabilities
- Plain language – “read and know,” 15 seconds is enough to understand the content
- Standard language – in daily communication, often complicated in terms of grammar, which impedes understanding
- Professional language – reserved for doctoral theses or literary magazine columns, or any other content addressed to a specific type of audience
One text, four layers
We must consider four layers to simplify a text. layers. The first is the content layer, where we often deal with an asymmetry of knowledge between the writer and the intended audience. Here, abbreviations, ambiguities, and complicated industry jargon may appear, which need to be adapted to the target audience.
The second layer, visible at first glance, is the text structure. In standard language, it’s very poor – the text looks like a wall without even distinguishing the main paragraphs, which makes it difficult to understand. At this level, our task is to divide the text into “digestible fragments”, mark them with subheadings and where needed, add bullet points or highlight key areas.
The third is the grammatical layer. Here the matter is quite clear – we start by changing the passive voice constructions to active, and gerunds into verbs. Then we look at the structure of the sentence. First, we identify needlessly wordy sentences and make sure their logic is correct. Then we eliminate unnecessary words.
The fourth layer is the relational layer, where we often deal with an asymmetry of power. The goal of plain language is to build a relationship with the reader. Change third person forms into pronouns and eliminate “bureaucratese” to make your text more approachable.
How to simplify any text?
Plain language principles for subject matter
- Simplify important subject matter only after first consulting a domain expert!
- Add supporting content. Sometimes explanations of complicated content are needed, sourced from reputable online sources or added after consulting an expert.
- Use common and understandable words.
- Translate acronyms. There are no exceptions to this rule!
- Avoid using abstract names that can’t be visualized. For example, instead of “furniture,” write “sofa and table.”
- Constantly maintain the reader’s attention. This is especially important in times when our ability to concentrate is diminishing from generation to generation.
Plain language principles for structure
- Create a structure that shows what information is most important.
- Use informative headings, bullet points, and highlights. These are navigation methods in the text that help the reader understand where they are and where the information they are looking for is.
- Use headings that show what it’s about.
- Apply the rule “1 thought = 1 sentence.”
Plain language principles for grammar
- Use the active voice as often as possible.
- Avoid gerunds that “swallow” the verb, e.g., “doing,” “receiving,” “filling.”
- Avoid impersonal forms like “should,” “must,” “worth.”
- Avoid participles. They are suitable for diversifying style in literary texts but are not used in plain English.
- Use natural grammar (such as: never end a sentence with a preposition).
Plain language principles for relationships
- Put the human at the center of your text.
- Address benefits for each of your audiences.
- Give more than you have to.
- Redirect to where they can learn more.
Last but not least, remember the last relational rule that Ann Handley received at the beginning of her journalist work: “Assume that the reader knows nothing about the subject. But never assume that they are stupid!.”
Why plain language is a game-changer in B2B marketing
In the fast-paced world of B2B marketing, the power of plain language cannot be overstated. Clarity and simplicity are more than democratic imperatives. With the ever-decreasing attention span, plain language helps keep your communication simple, clear, and human. By applying it, you will find that the language of simplicity is, indeed, the language of success.
Gallup's Strategic Maximizer and professional optimist. She is responsible for sales and customer service. Marta develops creative processes and procedures, specializing in creating teamwork flow. Previously, a freelance writer and Account Manager in PR agencies.