Make it Plain

Many of us in academia tend to overwrite. We pad our sentences with complex words and phrases to add gravitas and convey prestige. To be fair, it’s not just academics who do it. Who hasn’t used “at the present time,” “a multitude of,” or “in the event of” in place of “now,” “many” and “if?”

Unfortunately, dense writing on a website can cause visitors to feel confused, wary and impatient. When that happens, users are less likely to engage with your offerings, understand your information or follow steps and processes.

“We tend to believe things that our brains can process. We feel unsure when we find ourselves trying to sort through a long sentence or paragraph to find the words or ideas that matter most,” writes David Dylan Thomas, in his book Design for Cognitive Bias. “By contrast, straightforward, concise sentences build trust.”

What is Plain Language?

Plain language allows your target audience to easily read, understand and take action. This doesn’t mean “dumbing down” your content. It simply means writing with the goal of being easily understood, using familiar words and presenting information in a logical order. Concise sentences and a sincere, direct tone help users process your information quickly. Even experts arrive at a website expecting to be able to skim and digest information in a single reading.

Audience and Purpose

Analytics tell us that most visitors to haven’t visited the site before. These newcomers, many of them prospective students (our primary audience), are arriving with different levels of understanding about medical school, medical research, public health, residency and other topics. Some speak multiple languages. As part of an inclusive communications strategy, plain language not only helps make content accessible and understandable to all, but it also creates positive feelings (“I understand, this sounds good to me, I can see myself here.”) When we like what we read, we keep reading.

Knowing your audience is key to your content strategy and your approach to plain language. When considering your users, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do they already know?
  • What do they want to know? (Why are they reading this?)
  • What do you need them to know? (What outcome are you hoping for?)

Put yourself in their shoes as you write. Be straightforward and address your reader as “you” whenever possible. Put your most important information first. Use clear, simple sentences with an active voice (“Do this’”). Don’t repeat yourself – say it once, well. Read your content aloud to see whether you’ve hit the mark.

Things to Avoid

  • Using an academic tone out of habit
  • Using text that was designed for other purposes, such as proposals, research papers or journal articles
  • Redundancies like “absolutely essential” or “brief summary”
  • Requiring readers to decipher complex sentences, branded terms or jargon
  • Using “it is” “there is” or “there are” to begin sentences
  • Choosing unusual or obscure words like “utilize” instead of “use”

These are a few examples of words and word strings that make us sound stuffy, rather than succinct:

  • As a means of (“to”)
  • Accompany (“go with”)
  • At the present time (“now”)
  • Close proximity (“near”)
  • Consequently (“so”)
  • Facilitate (“ease,” or “help”)
  • In order to (“to”)
  • Pertaining to (“about, of”)

Here’s an example of a dense sentence that could be simpler:

Our program was designed with the intention to provide a multitude of options for students as they seek to accrue employment experience.

Using plain language, the sentence could read: Our program provides many options for students seeking work experience.

Balance and Keywords

A welcoming tone is part of plain language, but there’s a fine line between welcoming and too casual. To reflect the school’s values and uphold its brand, keep the tone friendly, but not colloquial. You wouldn’t say, for example: Our program provides a slew of options (or a ton of options). When in doubt, ask yourself whether you’d be likely to use the word or phrase in a presentation to stakeholders. If not, then it’s probably not right for your sentence.

Finally, using plain language can help you with search engine optimization. Consider the words visitors might use to search for your content and reflect those in your copy, so that search engines can find your site easily.

Plain language promotes understanding, builds trust and inspires action.