Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply enough, you don’t understand it.” It’s the same with our writing.
Clear communications can help us to:
- Increase conversions
- Increase audience engagement
- Improve readers’ understanding of our message
The best way to convert prospects to customers is through plain, simple and direct communications. People will only buy from you if they understand you. If your message is garbled, then they will be confused by your brand and your product.
The core principles of clear communication come from following plain language guidelines. Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Most business sectors now use plain language in their writing. Even the government has a special website for plain language. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires the federal government to write all new publications, forms, and publicly distributed documents in a “clear, concise, well-organized” manner.
These principles and more are also part of an online course on plain language put out by NIH (National Institutes of Health). Joining and participating in this course is free. The Center for Plain Language also has workshops on plain language.
#1. Identify your goal and purpose at the beginning
Begin by identifying in your own mind what your goal is: What do I want my reader to do or understand after they finish reading? What action do I want them to take? Do I want them to buy this product or enroll in that program? Any copy that doesn’t support the realization of this goal can be cut. If you don’t have a clear cut goal, then the other tips in this post will not work.
After we identify our goal, we need to let our readers know the main benefits of this goal at the beginning, preferably with the headline and lead text.
#2. Write exactly as you would speak
Imagine that you are talking to your target customer. What would you say to him to convince him of the benefits of your product? Write as you would speak with that same informal tone. Imagine that you are directly talking to these customers and their reaction to your discussion. How can you speak so that your message comes out to them loud and clear.
#3. Write clearly and concisely: Fire words that are redundant
Wordiness endangers your meaning – precise words convey it. Keep your sentences short. And avoid redundant expressions. Get rid of every word that isn’t doing anything special or useful. Those are unhelpful, and a drain.
Extra words don’t just take up space. They suck the power from your writing. Compare these two sentences:
In the event of a fire, you will need to communicate with us and indicate to us that in view of the fact that you have lost your material, you cannot come.
So many extra words. Let’s try again…..
If there’s a fire, inform us that you have lost your material and cannot come. Much more understandable.
In consideration of the fact that
in view of the fact that
given the fact that
due to the fact that
on the grounds that
in as much as
Because is a better substitute for these words.
#4. Cut out big words – Use short words and short sentences
Don’t use a $10 word when a 5 cent word will do.
Derek Halpern just put out a blog (video) post talking about how using big, pompous words may make you sound stupid. He talks about a recent University of Princeton research study with 3 experiments. In one experiment, they tested different essays going from simple to very complex. The simplest essay was given the best rating. In another experiment, they asked people to rate translations of a text. The translations ranged from simple to very complex. Again, the simplest translation got the highest rating.
#5. Use the active voice
Try to write as far as possible in the active voice.
She was loved by her family (passive)
Her family loved her (active).
#6. Use bullets, subheads and white space to help readers quickly scan the main points
Help your readers to quickly scan your content. When you break up your content with subheads and bullet points you organize and separate each point. This helps a reader quickly grasp the important points.
#7. Avoid jargon
I came across this piece of jargon:
My organization believes in three-dimensional third-generation projections.
The consultants recommend remote transitional flexibility. Huh? Whazzat???
Jargon and acronyms confuse the reader. If you must have an acronym, then be sure to spell it out as well.
#8. Use pronouns
“You” is the most important word in marketing. Use it often. This will automatically make you think from your customers point of view. Use of the pronoun “we” eliminates confusion. Customers know that you are referring to you or your business and not some third party.
#9. Use parallel construction
Parallel structure means using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. Bulleted lists need to be parallel.
Dr. McAfee lectured, was shouting, and waved his arms.
Here is the same information in parallel construction:
Dr. McAfee lectured, shouted, and waved his arms.
#10. Write to an eight grade reading level
Writing to a lower grade level doesn’t mean you are dumbing down, contrary to what many people believe. It’s smart business to do so.
How do you find out what grade level your writing is? Use the Flesch-Kincaid index. The index is a tool available in MS Word 10 (and above)
If your document is easy to read, you get a higher readability score (which is a score from 1-100). Shoot for a score between 60-100. You can also see the grade level of your document.
It’s easy to use the index. After you write and edit your document, simply go into Review – Spelling and Grammar. Word will proofread your document and at the end will give you a score that looks like this:
Microsoft Word shows you how readable your document is and it also shows you the grade level your content is optimized for
What are you doing to make sure your writing is crystal clear? Do you have other tips to share? I’d love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks.
Ryan Biddulph says
Gazalla, nailing down your purpose creates clarity through your work. I keep my intent in mind before I even bother writing. Clarity speaks through when you know why you’re writing, and why you want to reach your audience. Power tips!
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Gazalla Gaya says
Thanks for your feedback, Ryan. I agree. Plain language courses stress the importance of purpose and writing your purpose at the beginning also eliminates confusion.
Adi Gaskell says
Some pertinent tips here Gazalla. A big part of my blog is covering some of the latest academic research in my field, and the language used is anything but crystal clear. That probably explains why such a small amount of academic work finds its way into professional practice. They could do worse than take a leaf out of your book with this post.
Gazalla Gaya says
You’re right, Adi. Academia, healthcare and financial services are the sectors that need plain language the most. Thanks for your feedback.
Adrian Jock says
“Keep your sentences short.” I have to put it somewhere close to my laptop. That’s one of the mistakes I made frequently in the past. And I’m still making from time to time. But only when I’m tired. Now I’m not 🙂 Good tips!
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Adrian Jock says
Oops. Something is missing from my previous comment. NOT keeping the sentences short is the mistake I’m talking about LOL Sorry.
BTW, see my tweets sent to you. There’s something wrong with your comments subscription management area. I posted there a screen capture.
Gazalla Gaya says
Thanks for your feedback, Adrian. I know there’s so much to remember. short sentences, short words, short paras….That’s why I created this post – almost a cheat sheet of points to remember.
Mark-John Clifford says
I really enjoyed this post especially when you wrote write as you speak. I have been doing that for a while now and I still get criticized for writing like that from others.
I have heard I don’t write eloquent enough to have a blog or for guest posting on some blogs. I can’t change my form and refuse to change it as it works for me. I don’t believe in blowing smoke as they say in sales. I want to get to the nitty gritty of a story.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of taking a topic and writing it for two different groups. Give the group that wants to read something short and sweet a 300 word post but add a link to the full post which goes into more detail.
Not sure it will work, but I have nothing to lose. Some posts I write do go longer and I know I lose readers. So I’ll give them an option.
Anyway thank you for a great post and some great ideas. I will be using them.
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Gazalla Gaya says
Thanks for your feedback, Mark. I’m glad to hear that your style of writing works for you. But you are right. In copywriting, we often come across clients who want you to stick to their style of writing or write in their brand voice. But I think that today most companies realize that they need to have an informal tone to engage their customers.
All the best with the short and long posts. I like to stick to one length as far as posts go.
Happy to hear you’ll be using these ideas.
Frederic Gonzalo says
Some very solid tips in here, Gazalla. I totally agree with writing as we speak. I don’t always do this, but everytime I think of doing it, it seems to resonate more with people and I see more reaction, comments and so on. Sure, corporate blogs may not have the same level of latitude, but they should nevertheless strive to humanize their brand.
As for keeping it short, amen! I also struggle with this, tending to add unnecessary words and fluff. Ideally, I read over a post before publishing and then cut through the parts that I can do without. I must be more rigorous, though. Thanks again for the handy tips 🙂
Gazalla Gaya says
Thanks, Frederic. Yes, writing as we speak helps as we imagine our customer is physically right by us and that helps I think to make it more personal. Otherwise, sometimes it almost feels like we are writing in isolation, to a sea of unknown people. That can sometimes create ambiguous content. Imagining that our target audience is present and that we are talking and discussing with them, helps also to keep a conversational tone. I often do this when I’m writing copy for a business. I will create a target personna (sometimes even a real person if I think that they are interested in the product) and imagine the most important points I’ll need to tell them to convince them to buy.
It’s good that you read and edit before publishing The first draft is always just our thoughts and once we edit and narrow down our copy is always so much more clear and concise. Even the best writers in the world need to do this. Thanks for sharing.
For the most part I think I do pretty good considering that I’m a writer. Okay, a trained one or should I say I never took any courses on writing.
When I wrote more articles I would start my first paragraph off letting them know what they were going to learn because that’s how it was suggested to me. To catch their attention in the beginning but I don’t do that with my posts. I wanted them to be more relaxing and enjoyable and for the most part I think I’ve accomplished that.
Your points though are very good although I probably don’t follow them all. Thank goodness I don’t have a corporate blog right! I might not have an audience at all. LOL!!!
Thanks for the tips Gazalla and hope you’re having a great week.
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Gazalla Gaya says
Thanks for your feedback, Adrienne.
I’ve read your posts many times and I notice that you always put the benefit in the headline or somewhere up top and that’s exactly what I’m referring to, with my first tip. Your posts are always written in a friendly, conversational style (write exactly as you speak tip) – I always feel like you are talking to me, not at me. You tend to use you in your blog so the reader feels that you are personally talking to them. I also notice that you use subheads and bulleted lists, so that your reader can scan and understand your content easily. So you are doing everything on this list, girl. And you’re rocking at it too. Continue weaving the same magic and we’ll continue to read.
Gert Skriver says
There is much truth in your article, Gazalla, and I will surely apply many of your fine points in my work. I would like to add some nuances, though. Language is not only about conveying messages. The Roman teacher of Rhetoric, Quintilian (1. century), compared public speaking with dancing, and what he meant was that the meaning of both lies in the performance. The speaker does a lot more than deliver a message when speaking. He creates a self-image, he moves his audience, and which words must be deemed redundant in those cases? Words can be subtle and suggestive with a purpose (in this sentence I could have used the word ‘nuance’, but in writing I prefer not to repeat myself, because it makes me seem unimaginative). Write as you speak, you say. I guess I must speak clearly in the first place then? Which not everyone does. Astonishing, really, how difficult it is to be clear, almost as difficult as being brief. If clarity is the only desirable quality, then we would be well off with a newspeak-language as depicted by George Orwell in his novel ‘1984’. Clarity must be combined with eloquence. They don’t exclude one another.
Gazalla Gaya says
Thanks for liking this article. I completely agree with you. Clarity must be combined with eloquence. I think that this statement resonates with me because I’m also a poet. I think that there’s a place for eloquence in writing and it also depends upon your audience. On the whole, when you are writing for marketing (my target audience mainly consists of marketers and writers who write marketing materials), we need to write to a very broad audience. In many cases, we’re writing for complex sectors such as health care and financial services. In such instances, peoples lives and money may be at stake if they do not understand our message. I agree with you, though. I’m all for subtle speech and eloquent writing. Thanks for your well thought out and well written feedback. I appreciate it.
Amazing Post. I liked your writing tips. I was also looking for these types of tips But i couldn’t get it. Now, I got it here with plenty of natural ways you can write some good content for your blog. You are written very well points here. It’s really helping us or new bloggers too.
Thanks for share this good info with us 🙂
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Surya Tejaswini says
Gazalla tanx a ton dear!!!. You made it quite simple and awesome. I loved and truly enjoyed reading each and every tip of your’s. As you said it is always nice to write as if we are talking to the person directly. It will make the person stay and read. He./she will feel as if we are guiding them in person. Ya going with pretty simple words and avoiding jargon is the best idea. People are interested in simple things than that of the complex ones. Adding a few questions here and there will also make the discussion still more interesting i guess. Anyways awesome work………. 🙂
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There’s a lot of great advice in this article! My favourite tip is, fire words that are redundant! You’re not helping anyone by being overly verbose. Also glad to see this article is crystal clear!
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Gazalla Gaya says
Thanks, Casandra:) I agree – you may also confuse the reader by being overly verbose. Glad you found this article crystal clear – plain language really helps!