Save your butt with our Plain English checklist
It’s a Sunday, and I’m supposed to be enjoying the Autumn sun in my backyard here in Sydney, Australia. Yet I made the mistake of turning on my work laptop — so my suffering is self-inflicted. Today I drafted a couple of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).
I use the Hemingway app for most of my communications work.
As an Organisational Change Manager, I play a part in writing FAQs. I use quiet time also to draft a wide range of organisational change communications. Especially on a Sunday when there are no meetings or distractions.
I emailed a few of my FAQs to my team. The Hemingway app told me my work's readability was at Grade 4 level. So my writing was clear enough for a 9-year-old to understand. Good. A response from my team came through: could I rewrite — with a little more attention to Plain English?
Flashbacks of getting dinged by well-meaning but blunt bosses and academics. Their high expectations and my inability to deliver on these expectations. So Plain English wasn’t only about readability — as a standalone metric. Had I considered my audience? Did I string together some simple concepts… and missed the mark? In reading my work a few hours later, I think so.
So how do I ensure my writing is Plain English? What essential things can I share with you about Plain English? And is there a Plain English checklist we can use to help ensure a high level of Plain English in our writing?
Our copywriting checklist for Organisational Change Managers
Organisational Change Managers (OCM) have a degree of mastery over many topics. I liken good organisational change management to an athlete who needs to master around ten “events”—a decathlete — of sorts. Changies understand the psychology of why people resist change. Decent Change Managers are about the gentle art of human connection. We facilitate change by making our audience feel engaged rather than alienated.
Yet, in smashing out email after email, one’s thoughtfulness diminishes. In trying to get through as many FAQs as possible, drafting words can feel transactional. A checklist to ensure the requisite degree of empathy and attention to detail will help in these instances. Like on a Sunday, I want to enjoy myself but aim to buy myself peace of mind by getting on top of my work.
Why do Organisational Change Managers need to use Plain English?
Plain English helps you avoid misunderstandings because it is easy to read and understand.
When you write in Plain English, you can help more people interpret your message. This aids the exchange of information between people and organisations. It can also save time and money by reducing the need for translation into other languages.
As an Organisational Change Manager, using Plain English is a business imperative. It helps your organisation meet its legal obligations and makes good business sense. It ensures that everyone has access to your organisation’s information, including:
- People with a disability
- Those who speak another language or are learning English as a second language (ESL)
What is Plain English?
Plain English is the language of your reader. It’s simple, straightforward, direct, inclusive and respectful. It’s conversational: it reads how you speak (but uses correct spelling and grammar). And it’s active rather than passive.
Why Plain English?
Your readers are busy. They want simple information so they can get on with their work. Plain English helps them find what they need, understand it, and use it. If they can’t do that, you've lost them if they have to read sentences twice or scratch their head over jargon. And if you lose them, your message won’t get through to them. Your organisational change message does not hit the mark. You’ve lost an opportunity to raise awareness. Or a chance to engender a call to action.
10 Plain English rules of thumb you can use to check your copy
Despite creating this handy model, do I use it? Usually. But not today, on my Sunday afternoon. So the value of any model is in using it. Models are imperfect yet help us make sense of the world. Or, in our case — provide a “cookie-cutter” approach to landing a higher-quality message. We still need to empathise with our readers. We also need to take a breath and see if we’re writing for us… or our readers.
Using Plain English will keep your readers engaged and actively involved in the change process.
Imagine sitting in a boardroom, awaiting a Project Control Group. You have been staring at each page in your change plan. You’ve been working on this project for a little while now. You feel optimistic about your change planning. The problem is, does your strategy or communications read like gibberish? Is your work so full of complicated jargon that it feels like an alien language to someone else? Would the average team member involved in your change understand what you are trying to tell them?
Rewind a couple of hours — or even the night before — your message is ready for submission. Take a moment.
Most people reading your message may be in a transactional state of mind. They are busy — and don’t have the patience to decipher your words. You might be busy — and impatient. But stop yourself for that crucial moment.
To wield Plain English like a pro, keep the following in mind:
- Your main point: Do you know what you want to say?
- Imagine — and empathise. Understand who will read your message. Please take a moment to put yourself in their shoes. Draft a quick “user story” to help you. Think: “As a… I need to… so I can…”
- Remove filler words and use jargon with care.
- Are you operating within your organisation’s branding guidelines? Does your writing adopt the same tone as the content published throughout your organisation?
- Active tense: Clarify what people need to stop, start and keep doing. Active tense uses little mental effort to interpret. Passive tense is much harder work in contrast. Structure sentences with this priority: Subjects -> Verbs -> Objects.
- Team: I should have flicked my FAQ entries to a team member with a decent eye for detail. Do you have an excellent editing mind but hate starting the first draft? Find someone like me. Or you’re like me — hate editing? Don’t make my mistake; leverage your allies.
- Upfront: Start with a strong headline and opening sentence. Emails, FAQs, longer documents? How do you start strong in each one? Headline analysers are your friend. Grammarly.com is too. And I mentioned Hemingway app?
- Rewrite: So I am a maestro with words… not. Rarely do I get my first draft right. Don’t be lazy or careless with drafts. Come back to your first draft with a fresh pair of eyes. Each draft is an investment in your credibility.
- English: Plain English guidelines abound. Use them. My most significant strides came from drafting my work in the Hemingway app. My allergies to red and gold-shaded content kept my words brief. Check: what words in your draft would you NOT use in a normal conversation? “Prioritise” or “utilise” are words that come to mind for me. If you wouldn’t use these words in a normal conversation, don’t write them either.
- Short: Aim for 20 words or less per sentence. Hemingway makes a “game” of writing. I hope the MINIATURES model helps make a game out of your writing. This article is currently at the Grade 6 level. Can I keep it so?
Avoid negative language (“not”, “never”, “no one”). Do you need to express something in negative terms? When writing organisational change communications, handle negative words with special care.
Try putting the “negative” another way, so you don’t have to use negatives. For example, instead of saying “you must not do this”, say “you must do that instead”).
If you are still not sure whether your draft is in Plain English, ask yourself some of these questions about your document:
- Does my document meet the needs of my readers? Do I say who can do something or how someone can do something?
- Does each sentence contain only one main idea? Are there long sentences that try to cover too many ideas?
- Are there words or phrases that are complicated or used for legal reasons? These choices may go against Plain English principles. Be careful, and use glossaries to explain these words or phrases.
So after receiving feedback today, I will re-draft my small handful of FAQs. Each time I fall short, I have the opportunity to learn. In my case, I’m learning to take that extra moment to check my draft against the MINIATURES model. I hope this model serves as a quality checklist for you.
Plain English isn’t an oxymoron; it has power. As change professionals, we are in the game of “selling with words”. How well do your words “sell” your organisational change?
P.S. I finished this article at a Grade 5 level, according to the Hemingway app. But it’s not about me. Nor is it about a single metric. You are my audience; did I keep you engaged throughout the article? Was my word choice clear and helpful? Does this article conform to the principles of Plain English?