We need to use plain English. Plain English gets our message across quickly and easily. People understand it the first time they read it. Plain English is efficient. It uses short sentences. Is that plain enough for you?
The challenge we face is balancing plain English with getting across our brand personality and our key messages. We need to be welcoming and approachable. We also need to express our expertise. So we don’t want our English to be plain yet dull and cold. We want it to be warm, engaging and compelling. All this applies whether we are writing for print, the website or email communications.
Academia tends to have a strained relationship with plain English. I had a brief conversation recently with a colleague who has a pretty high level of academic qualification. They admitted that the further up the educational tree/mountain/ladder you climb, the more complicated the language you are encouraged to use.
In other words, Professors are told to talk fancy.
The reason behind all the jargon, complicated sentence structure, academic language and even Latin is to give an impression of high intellect, of expertise. Half the battle, surely? However, if the great idea is hidden behind too many long, complicated words, the meaning will be lost to too many people. It comes across as cleverness for the sake of cleverness.
Here is an interesting point from Gerry McGovern. In the past, when someone read a sentence they didn’t understand, they saw it as their fault: “I must be stupid.” Now, they see it as the fault of the organisation: “They must be stupid.”
So our audience knows that it is our job to make sure they understand the message. And they are right. We want people to understand what we are doing. We want everyone to understand that we are experts in our fields.
Clarity and brevity
And the trick is that other experts in these fields would much prefer us to use simple language. Another colleague shared this little treat with me.
In 2012, research by Christopher Trudeau at the Thomas M Cooley Law School in Michigan into the use of language found that the more educated the person, the more specialist their knowledge, the greater their preference for plain English. They may understand complicated language but they want clarity and brevity. They simply don’t have time for all those long words.
Professor Trudeau also found that the more complex the idea, the greater the need for plain English. This is a big challenge for us. But it is one we need to overcome. It means that all our producers of content need to understand the idea before they can express it in plain (but engaging) language.
And I haven’t even talked about accessibility yet. I’m going to do that now. Our aim is to be the most accessible university in the UK – both physically and online.
Making our content accessible means using language that everyone understands. And everyone includes the potential student, researcher, business partner, business partner’s granny. They could be 15 years old, they could be 83. They could have a PhD in biochemistry or they could have no qualifications at all.
Beyond our stated aim, we also have a legal requirement to make our website content accessible. There are standards we must meet. Many of these are technical. In terms of the language we use, the standard is simple:
- Make text content readable and understandable
Ideally, text should be written to be easily readable by all levels of ability. If we do feel the need to use technically advanced text, we should provide easy-read alternatives to explain what we mean.
So call a spade a spade. Don’t call it a long-handled slab of sharpened forged steel.
There are a couple of tools you can use to test your language. These tools will judge you on your sentence length and structure, use of passive voice and word choice.
Within Word, you can access readability statistics through File/Options/Proofing. Tick Use readability statistics and OK that. Then use the grammar check (F7). You will have to go through the checks but you will then get a list of statistics. These include Flesch reading ease. You should be aiming for a score between 60 and 70. By complete accident, this blog scores 65.
You can also use Hemingway Editor, which will give you a readability score. This relates to the education level (US grades) required to understand your text. The app judges this blog to be readable by sixth-graders. They are 11 to 12 years old.
For anyone across the University who is producing content for the website, we do offer Writing for the Web training. This gives you an idea of the type of language you should be using. Contact email@example.com.
And the general Style Guide for Writing is available on the Marketing and Student Recruitment page on staff ID Intranet @ Derby (under Professional Services).
There is also a useful piece from the Government Digital Service’s senior writers with ten tips for writing for blog posts, opinion pieces or presentations.