Master Plain Language to Engage Your Ideal Audience

Master Plain Language to Engage Your Ideal Audience

Your audience is smart and savvy, but it’s possible that they aren’t down with all the high-level techno-speak.

When I worked on government contracts, we were encouraged to use plain language in our communications with the general public. The work that we did was highly technical, which meant that the scientists wanted to geek out (who wouldn’t!) and talk about their nano-particles, electron microscopes, and other lab equipment, catalysts, byproducts, etc. like they would with their comrades every time they wrote.

Because the last thing that someone who wasn’t in the energy industry or a scientist wanted to read was a page full of jargon, my job was to cut through all the big words and make the articles and web material palatable by the general public. Our audience was the American tax payer, who was funding the research, and I had to write so they could understand that their money was being shuttled toward projects that would protect the environment and keep energy costs low.

The same goes for your own business. Unless someone is another expert or deeply interested in what you are doing, avoid jargon or find a conversational way of defining it.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does my audience have the expertise needed to understand technical terms in my profession? (If you are writing for a trade journal or peer-reviewed publication, then the answer might be “yes.”)
  • Is it necessary for me to use a trade-specific term throughout the text for ease of explanation? (You can easily define the term early on to use it throughout.)
  • Is the purpose of my article to explain trade terms to novices? (That’s an easy solve! Jargon away with clear, concise explanations, as long as you don’t overwhelm them!)
  • Is the audience one that likely doesn’t care or doesn’t need to know the trade-specific terms? (Award or grant applications or pieces written to inform the general public about your business may not need to include any jargon to provide a good explanation.)

On the flip side of jargon, avoid using long phrases that could be stated with one word or adding “very” in front of a term when there is a word that means “very whatever.” I frequently see phrasing like “We were so super happy to attend the event.” You mean “excited,” so just say it. More words don’t equal higher quality, so embrace your thesaurus! A great one, as well as a dictionary and endless source of awesome articles about words, can be found at http://www.merriam-webster.com/.

Be cautious that you don’t explain things that your readers would already know. Consider your audience’s level of knowledge in your subject, and write accordingly. Also, there are certain words that have transcended the category of jargon and become common words in our language. Words like “x-ray,” “GPS,” or “browser” are used often enough that you wouldn’t need to define them or try to write around them.

Brevity is another important aspect of plain language. Avoid using long explanations that aren’t relevant to your purpose. Your time is valuable, and so is your readers’! Keep your focus, and only deliver the information that they are looking for. You can always provide a link or contact info for those who desire more.

Ask yourself:

  • Did I maintain my focus?
  • Is there a shorter way to say this?
  • Do I use “there are,” “is going to,” “I think” or other construction that is weak or superfluous?
  • Do I repeat points?
  • Do I say “in order to” instead of just “to,” “to be able to” instead of just “to,” or “whether or not” instead of just “whether” (etc.)?

In keeping your work clean, tight, and clear, avoid using too many bullet points or too many acronyms. Though these two things may initially seem like they will keep your work concise and easy to navigate, too much can actually serve to distract or confuse the reader.

Only use bullet points for main lists that you want your reader to focus on. Bulleted lists draw the eye, and peppering your page with them or making a list too long can have the opposite effect and distract from your ideas.

Overuse of acronyms is an unfortunate convention of government writing, so I always found myself in sticky situations. If you are working with several acronyms in your written piece, determine—

  • Which ones are important to the work
  • If the acronym appears more than once

Step one can help you weed out some of the excess acronyms, and step two can help further narrow your list. If the acronym only appears once in your work, simply write it out (called the “literal”), and don’t include the acronym afterward. For the remaining acronyms, write the literal first, and follow them by the acronyms in brackets.

*Extra tip: not all literals need to be capitalized! Capitalize the trade name of a product and the name of a business, university, or other proper noun. Otherwise, use lowercase. Examples: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL)

For longer works (such as a book or a yearly report) that contain a lot of acronyms, I recommend defining the acronym at the beginning of each chapter. Some of your readers may only look at certain sections or chapters of the work, and this will help alleviate any confusion. A long document with lots of acronyms would also benefit from having an acronym list either at the beginning or end.

This blog combined with my previous four are some of my best tips for how to start writing anything for your business, whether you are a small business owner, a member of a company’s communications team, or a creative writer launching your own books (yep, you now have a business, writers!).

And if you would like to read back through those blogs, here they are:

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