The Business Benefits of Plain Language
By Cheryl Stephens
What Is Plain Language?
Clearer, simpler writing -- stripped of complexity but not of style - is only one aspect of the process of plain language writing. Two other features of the plain language process are also important to improving the quality of your customer relations:
Plain language process involves targeting your information and vocabulary to your desired customer. It includes presenting logical, coherent information in an integrated, well-structured, suitably-designed and inviting format.
Plain language process includes using tried and true marketing research and product evaluation methods to test your documents on your present and potential customers and your administrative and sales staff.
Clear communications are part of long-term business strategies. Improved communications link into conventional business process improvements.
The Benefits of Plain Language
Clearly written documents effectively express your intentions and provide the certainty customers desire. Business documents that are incomprehensible can turn out to have no legal effect. Poorly written documents contribute to management problems, higher administrative costs, and bad public relations.
Poorly written documents contribute to inefficiencies:
You can gain a competitive edge over others by providing customers with clear, meaningful information. Customers can make better-informed decisions, more quickly, and with greater trust. Your documents themselves become marketing tools.
Plain language inspires confidence. How? The prerequisite to producing plain language is doing clear thinking. Garbled thinking = garbled language. If your documents display your sloppy thinking, customers will not be impressed. If you cannot understand your business and legal documents, your customers won't either.
Customers want to understand the documents that you ask them to sign. And they expect to understand documents that are supposed to give them information or direction. Unintelligible documents undermine customers confidence in you and your products.
A B.C. survey by the Plain Language Institute showed that the more experience a person has with business or legal documents the more likely that person is frustrated and angered by incomprehensible language.
A report on the benefits of plain language prepared for Australia's life insurance industry contains this remark from a customer's letter:
"I find the attitude and tone of the terms and conditions pompous and overbearing. You have come up with a document that is not only offensive to logic but to your customers' intelligence. Whoever conceived this little gem of illogic and pomposity should be counselled in public relations."
Using plain language for your customers' benefit reduces their frustration and increases their confidence and rapport with you. It sets up a friendly relationship based on openness and trust.
Plain language can make your business more cost efficient which your customers will appreciate. There have been numerous reports of these cost savings in business and government.
The main advantage comes in reducing the follow-up necessary to deal with customers' questions, mistakes, and complaints. Documents that communicate clearly from the outset save everyone time.
Staff training will be easier. Because staff are better able to understand and process clearer documents, plain language increases accuracy and consistency. This gives your staff more confidence in their work and the company. Such confidence can produce greater stability and lower turn-over.
Having a plain language policy and writing practices, lets you prepare now for legal requirements like the B.C. regulation on plain language auto leases or the Alberta Financial Consumers' Act. Courts are less likely to find your sales contracts invalid if they are clear and comprehensible. There will be fewer disputes and less litigation.
A judge in New Zealand required a company to pay its own court costs in a lawsuit that it won, because its poorly written document gave rise to the dispute. By using clear documents, you can avoid problems with consumers, regulators, and the courts.
A New Customer Service
The Australian law firm Philips Fox has a plain language department to provide business clients with a new legal service. They write clear legal documents -- like loan agreements, insurance policies and joint venture agreements.
Plain Language Department Head Christopher Balmford says his clients value plain language because it increases efficiency, effectiveness, and sales, and also improves business image and customer relations.
For business, plain language has value because it:
Garth Thornton, legislative counsel in New Zealand, discussed the demand for plain language in statute law at a past Commonwealth Law Conference. He said statutes in plain language won't eliminate the need for legal advice:
"A major factor inhibiting easy understanding of the effect of a statute is that no law stands alone. A statute is a strand in a complex web. Every statute reaches out and interacts with other statutes and also the common law. A comprehensive understanding will depend on interpretation legislation, criminal practice, the law of evidence, concepts such as natural justice and remedies such as certiorari."
However plainly a statute or legal document is written, a person needs a lawyer to explain the effect of that document in their particular circumstances. Your income is not at risk from using plain language. But the quality of your service may be.
Tim Perrin, B.C. lawyer and author of Better Writing for Lawyers writes:
"A reason to write well which should satisfy your senior partner is this: You'll be more convincing and win more cases in court. Your drafting will be tighter (and shorter) and actually more litigation proof. You'll make your clients happier, do a better job and -- as a side benefit -- make more money."
Clear communications gives your business a positive image as efficient, responsive, and friendly. Isn't that how you want your customers to see you?
Â© 2000 Cheryl Stephens. All rights reserved.