We all know the feeling. Buying a new car or claiming from insurance – convoluted language is often used as a trump card – a “thanks for playing, but you should’ve read the fine print”. So why do we put up with it?

The need for plain language has sparked a global movement. Worldwide, especially as a revolt against “legalese”, plain language has gone beyond a preference – it is seen as a basic human right.

In business, plain language is turning countless brands into household names. Today’s most successful brands are transparent, accessible and engage with their customers directly.

Our emotions drive our responses. When we perceive a company’s communications to be insincere and impersonal, we tend to disconnect with the brand – which can be toxic to its survival.

To use a double negative, brands can no longer afford not to embrace plain language. Here are seven ways to rethink the way your business communicates:

  1. Identify your voice

This is the hard part. Scrutinising every angle of your business – what it looks, feels and sounds like – can take time and a bit of help from the experts. But once you have found your voice, everything else becomes much easier.

Start by taking a journalistic approach. Ask yourself who, what, where, when and why – and answer these questions as simply as possible – as though explaining them to a child. Then, build this identity into your business culture.

  1. Simplify

Turning the complex into something simple is a skill. Many purists would look at the simplification of language as its undoing – dumbing it down for the masses. But the fact is, skillful simplification does no such thing.

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Each industry has its language, used only by its practitioners. But by simplifying language, one makes it accessible – expanding the world to which it belongs – and making it accessible to a wider audience.

  1. Strike a balance

Modern-day communication walks a tightrope between the rational and the emotional. Businesses like rational – it follows orders, it is structured and most importantly – it can be measured.

Emotional communication, on the other hand, taps into our baser desires. It is unpredictable and infectious, but unmistakably powerful – and it can topple even the mightiest of household brands. A single slip-up can initiate a wave of emotion to wash over the public’s consciousness. Consider the BP oil spill in 2010, where their stock fell by 52% in less than two months after the incident.

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The balance lies somewhere between rationality and emotion. Too much emotion makes your business look weak. Too little makes it seem indifferent – out of touch with customer needs. Similarly, when your communication is too rational, it comes across as cold, even robotic – and when you do not offer enough facts, you cannot be trusted to deliver on your brand promise.

  1. Personalise

The trick is to communicate with a large number of people in a way that feels personal to the individual reader.

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No one has time for endless promises and marketing jargon – not while Facebook is just a click away. Your communication must be relevant, on a rational and emotional level, to escape the dreaded “send to trash”.

  1. Enhance your tech

In a recent marketing email for our signature Customer Journey Mapping Workshop, Experience by Design, 35% of nlighten’s clients opened the email on a tablet or smartphone. Any communication’s ability to be accessed from multiple devices (particularly mobile) is the result of responsive design – something without which no modern-day company can communicate effectively. The more responsive a particular communication, the more likely people are to read it.

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As with all information, the user experience is key. Push your reader beyond the first screen – that prime piece of digital real estate from which readers are so reluctant to scroll down.

  1. De-clutter

It is often tempting to recount one’s entire journey in reaching an important milestone. But unless you have climbed Everest or discovered Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, your journey holds little interest for anyone other than fledgling writers and immediate peers who relate directly to your situation.

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People more readily digest information from the outside in. From a reader’s perspective, when you give him/her the bigger picture first, the details that follow pack more punch. You want to inspire your reader to action.

  1. Visualise

Considering that people only remember 20% of what they read and that 83% of learning occurs visually, it goes without saying that “show don’t tell” should become your mantra.

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The key, of course, is not merely to come up with content that grabs your reader’s attention, but that will also be memorable. Metaphors and similes, for instance, stimulate the imagination – eliciting an emotional response similar to that of an image. Used together, striking pictures and visually infused words make powerful companions.

The purpose of any communication is to spark action – whether merely to evoke a response, or to drive someone to do something that will benefit you or your business. If what you want is not clear, no action will come of it.


Susan Adams, 13 January 2013, 19 November 2013, www.forbes.com

Christopher Balmford, (no date available), www.plainlanguage.gov

Jeremy Galbraith, (no date available), www.wpp.com

Anita Jenkins, 22 August 2009, www.nzherald.co.nz

Brian Scott, 23 June 2013, www.business2community.com

7 Ways to Clean Up Your Business Language

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