Plain language — what is it and why is it important?

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Using written language that is easily understood might seem like a basic action and something that should come naturally. However, this is not always the case, and a big part of our job as copywriters is making sure texts are written in plain language.

According to the International Plain Language Federation, the definition of plain language is this:

‘A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.’

Imagine being on a website and looking for information. It can be regarding anything, but for argument’s sake, let’s say you have a question about natural language processing. The website does not have an FAQ page, but offers you a chatbot in its replacement. You type in ‘What exactly is NLP’ and receive this answer in return:

How much of this do you actually understand? Did you get the answer you were after or could it have been clearer in any way? That’s where plain language comes in. The answer above could and should look something like this instead:

The answer given above should obviously have been written with plain language regardless of it being in a chat or on an FAQ page, but seeing as yours truly works at a company specialising in making chatbots, that’s where our focus will be.

In a chat, you are only ‘allowed’ a certain amount of sentences for it to fit within the chat window. So it’s very important that whatever information you are giving is written as plainly as possible. That way, the end user can find what they need, understand it and use the information. It’s also crucial that it won’t take infinite scrolling to read the paragraph. Using plain language is good customer service and makes life easier for the public.

Plain language is also an important factor in making the answers easier to read. Leave out unnecessary details, keep the sentences short and add some ‘air’.

Who is it for?

Although using plain language is important, we must remember that it does not mean to simplify the language at whatever cost. Working towards plain language should not result in dull and monotonous language. Not all texts can be simple or free of all special language or terminology. The most important aspect of plain language is that it’s adjusted to the recipient. (Språkrådet, link in Norwegian)

Working with plain language in chatbots means figuring out who the end user will be. Is the chatbot meant to be for millennials who has grown up with the lingo of the internet, or is it a chatbot meant to instruct an older generation? The combination of UX design and plain language should, if possible, mirror the users of the chatbot.

Applying plain language in a chat will hopefully also have an effect on the language the end user chooses to use. Because chatbots, to this day, lack the ability to understand long paragraphs of text, it is imperative for the end user to write as plainly as possible to get the answers they are looking for. I have written more about how to talk to chatbots in this article.

Not necessarily a shorter answer in total, but the one on the right is easier to read due to using shorter sentences, more space and bullet points.

Plain language is important, not only in chatbots, but in public writing in general. Using plain language will save you money and time. It will save you time because if your customer or reader understands the information right away, you don’t have to spend time explaining it on the phone afterwards. You also don’t need to waste time translating wordy and difficult documents. You spending less time doing unnecessary tasks will save your company money.

So even though it might be tempting to add extravagant and flamboyant language to your text, keeping it simple and straightforward is most likely the easiest way to success.

Note: The pictures in this text are taken from our (Convertelligence) own chatbot, which needed a bit of plain language TLC.

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