Clear Communication Essentials

Clear communication is essential, but how can you make sure your message is understood quickly and easily by your target audience? The answer is plain language.

Plain language, plain English, and plain writing are sometimes used interchangeably, and all refer to the same goal of writing for the reader. This means:

  • using familiar words
  • writing focused sentences
  • presenting information in an expected order
  • organizing your documents with headings and structure

No matter what you write, plain language will help your readers focus on the content rather than struggling to overcome distracting style choices. In this guide, we'll explore how to use plain language to meet this goal.


Benefits of Plain Language for Readers and Organizations

Plain language shows respect, increases comprehension, and reduces confusion and errors, which helps create loyalty and trust between a company and its stakeholders and improves the bottom line.

  • Organizations that use plain language spend less time and money on customer support inquiries and correcting non-compliant submissions. 
  • Readers get the information they need in a way that respects their time, their backgrounds, competing demands for their attention, and their emotional state when they encounter the information.

Using plain language in your professional writing can boost your organization's communication across every area of your business.


Plain language gives readers a map, not a puzzle.

Plain language guidelines come from the neuroscience of reading. When a reader comes across an unfamiliar word or structure, they must remember it and try to connect it with the parts they know. This can make understanding information feel like solving a puzzle with every word!

Compare plain language vs complex language:

  • Plain language is direct and follows standard sentence patterns, using familiar words.
  • Complex language involves unfamiliar words, long sentences with multiple ideas, and winding sentence structures. 

While using jargon may let you communicate efficiently with colleagues familiar with the context, it's best to avoid unnecessarily complicating the puzzle. Plain language isn't about “dumbing down” information or leaving important things out. It's about revising language to help readers understand it better.

Below are several examples of both plain and complex language in action.

Plain Language – Concise, Direct, and Easy to Understand

Here are some examples of plain writing:

  • I don't understand what you said.
  • I'm sorry, but I can't make it to your event.
  • The children preferred the chicken nuggets to the fish tacos.
  • I will look into the issue immediately.
  • Candidates must provide digital copies of their resumes.
  • This should take about two days to complete.
  • The doctor’s faulty methods led to poor outcomes.
Complex Language – Excessive Jargon Makes It Hard to Grasp the Core Idea

Here are some examples of complex writing:

  • Although it is true that overexposure to silica does present a health risk, it is equally true that many statutes already prohibited such overexposures.
  • There might be changes to our regular services, so please check their status when you arrive onboard.
  • Deliberating the confusing nature of your communication, I am compelled to decline the invitation you’ve extended to me.
  • The problem precisely necessitates a determination to be reached.
  • The change was also due to the fact that citizens found the original name difficult to pronounce.

Reader expectations are a key part of understanding, so choose a form of language that meets reader expectations and lets them easily build understanding.



Why Plain Language Matters

Using plain language is vital to creating a better, safer, and fairer world.

Though the plain language movement has its roots in government and law, its importance extends to all parts of life.

Plain language can bridge language barriers and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and included. It improves accessibility for people from different cultures or with disabilities, increases understanding of important information related to law, finance, and health, and improves public safety by helping people understand and act on warnings. It also increases access to government and community benefits such as education, healthcare, and welfare. It can even shape public opinion.

  • Plain language helps with four aspects of reader understanding: speed, ease, usefulness, and retention.
  • Business, legal, healthcare, and government writing usually has three elements that hinder understanding: wordiness, disorganization, and needless complexity.

Since most people rely on writers from these fields to interpret information and inform them of their rights and duties, unclear and careless communication can have dire consequences for the reader. So no matter how difficult the subject, the writing should be easy to understand and useeven when a reader is frustrated, distracted, or skimming.

Plain language can improve lives. Here are some examples:

Improved Access to Justice:

Plain language helps people engage with the justice system and make effective decisions, bridging the knowledge gap often associated with legal jargon.

Effective Health Communication:

Plain language helps health professionals effectively communicate about medical procedures and treatments so their patients can make good choices.

Efficiency in the Legal Sector:

Using plain language in legal documents decreases the time spent explaining complex legal language or arguing about irrelevant concepts, which helps all parties understand their rights and responsibilities.

Enhanced Higher Education:

Plain language opens doors to higher education for those less familiar with traditional academic language, which helps them further their education and gain professional skills.

Increased Financial Literacy:

Plain language provides simple terminology to describe complicated financial products and services so consumers can make better decisions.

Accessibility in Technology:

Plain language helps developers make technology more user-friendly and accessible to those with limited technical experience.

Better Communication in Government Entities:

Using plain language in government communications helps people better understand their rights and responsibilities and get promised government benefits.

Plain Language and Government

In 2010, Congress passed the Plain Writing Act, a law designed to make sure people can easily understand the communications they receive from federal agencies. This is an important step in making government communication more accessible. 

It’s now the responsibility of all federal agencies to ensure their written materials are clear, concise, and free of jargon. With this act, people should no longer face confusing language when trying to engage with the government. 

Professional writing that is clear and informative is the goal. Any material that doesn’t meet these standards cannot be used by federal agencies. The Plain Writing Act sets a high standard for communications from federal agencies, and it lets people participate in democracy with greater ease and confidence.



The Cost & Consequences of Poor Communication

Effective communication is essential for any successful organization. Poor communication can have serious consequences for businesses, organizations, and individuals. Confusing writing can cause a significant drain on time and resources, resulting in lost opportunities, legal risks, and a negative reputation. It can also cause emotional strain, so readers stop trying to find and interpret necessary information.


X Wasted Time

Poor communication can lead to wasted effort and resources. When employees can’t relay information quickly and accurately, it can lead to miscommunication, which can cause projects to stall or fail. Failed projects lead to employee frustration, which causes more delay, attrition, and disarray. External sources of waste matter too. When other organizations waste your employees’ time with confusing communication and protocols, then they miss work, lose focus, and are less healthy.

X Unnecessary Expenses

Ineffective communication can lead to unnecessary expenses and wasteful corporate spending. Without clear communication between individuals and teams, teams may duplicate purchases, misallocate resources, and apply inconsistent cost containment protocols because they cannot compare pricing, track decisions, or align goals.

X Legal Risks

Unclear communication can introduce legal risks, causing expensive and avoidable problems. Poorly worded contacts can lead to misunderstandings about goals, obligations, deadlines, or penalties. Confusing guidelines in an employee handbook can cause compliance failures or behavioral lapses and reduce productivity. Ambiguous rules for stakeholder communication can lead to overlooked inquires and sloppy reporting. Confusing communication with customers can lead to disputes that cause financial and reputational harm.

X Poor Healthcare

Complicated, incomplete, or overwhelming communication in healthcare can lead to misdiagnoses, delayed treatments, and medical errors. Inadequate communication keeps healthcare providers from making informed decisions about the best care for their patients, potentially leading to unnecessary interventions or incomplete care. And when patients do not understand healthcare information, they cannot make informed decisions or be the best advocates for themselves.

X Poor Customer Service

Lack of plain language communication is a leading cause of poor customer service. From a customer perspective, poor communication is frustrating because the customer can't follow protocols to get refunds, process returns, or seek repairs, and they can't understand why. From the business perspective, communication breakdowns can lead to a lack of trust in a company, as customers may suspect they’re not being given accurate information or their needs are not being taken seriously. When customers feel like they aren’t being heard, they are frustrated and dissatisfied.

X Missed Opportunities

Poor communication can lead to missed opportunities and cause a significant loss of potential value. When parties fail to communicate effectively, they may not agree on important decisions or understand the needs of their stakeholders. Miscommunication can lead to misunderstandings that can harm relationships and lose business.

X Negative Reputation

When employees fail to communicate clearly, it can lead to incorrect assumptions and misinterpretations that can damage an organization's reputation. For example, misinformation about a company can be quickly spread on social media, resulting in a public relations nightmare. Failing to respond quickly to customer issues or complaints can also give an organization a negative reputation. 

X Avoiding Foreseeable Consequences

Poorly written and confusing documents created without legal editing software can lead to critical miscommunication that may lead to litigation, which could threaten a business. Even without litigation, these communication mistakes can result in unforeseen costs, unstated expectations, soiled reputations, and unnecessary risk. 


Best Practices for Creating Plain Language Content

How to Create Plain Language Content

Consider these guidelines when writing:

  • Use simple words: Choose language your readers can understand.
  • Break up long sentences: Avoid long, complicated sentences. Make sure your writing is clear and concise.
  • Avoid jargon: Keep your writing easy to read and don’t use overly technical terms.
  • Test readability: Use readability formulas like the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Score to measure the length and complexity of your sentences, then have someone read your work to make sure it’s understandable for your target audience.
  • Consider the length of your content: Large blocks of text can be hard to consume all at once, so break it up into sections and use visuals if possible.
  • Include helpful formatting: Use headers and bullet points to help break up the text and add visual cues like bolded text and italicized titles.
  • Track your results: Track reader feedback and check performance metrics like page views and engagement to analyze how well your content connects with readers.

Key Elements of Plain Language

Clear and concise language

Plain language is direct and easy to understand, with sentences that use few words. It focuses on efficiently conveying a message.

Use of active voice and plain vocabulary

Plain language should avoid unnecessarily complex words and verbs. Instead, it should use clear, active verbs. Words should be simple and direct, avoiding terms that may confuse the reader.

Avoidance of jargon and complex terms

Plain language avoids the use of jargon specific to a particular field or area. It also aims to avoid complex technical language, relying instead on simpler terms that make an idea easier to understand for a non-expert audience.

Use of simple and straightforward sentence structures

Plain language includes short sentences using simple structures. When sentences are shorter, they will also be more direct and have fewer ideas, which will make them easier to understand. 

Importance of audience awareness

Plain language is always tailored to its intended audience. Different audiences may require different levels of complexity, so tailoring writing to the expected audience is key to effective communication.


Learn from the Experts

Plain language is a complex topic, and it covers a huge range of ideas. From using familiar words and short sentences to creating usable formats and diagrams, plain language requires planning and intentional design. To create a library of resources on plain language and offer effective strategies to implement it, WordRake has interviewed plain language experts with a variety of backgrounds. They share their insights in the articles below.


WordRake Supports Plain Language Innovation

WordRake and PLAIN: the Cheryl Stephens Innovation Award

In Spring of 2023 WordRake began sponsoring Plain Language Association International (PLAIN)’s Cheryl Stephens Innovation Award. PLAIN is a non-profit devoted to promoting plain language usage around the world. Co-founded by Cheryl Stephens in 1993, PLAIN’s membership includes professionals from over 30 countries, representing 15 languages.

PLAIN debuted the Cheryl Stephens Innovation Award in 2019 to recognize individuals and organizations in plain language. Honoring the Association’s founder, the award is given every second year for advancements in plain language in technology, advocacy, research, and professional development. Cheryl says the award addresses the fact that “[l]anguage evolves and so must plain language. With this award, we honor those who have the wit and courage to try something new.”

“Innovation is not only about technology; technological and scientific advances have made amazing things possible that we could not have dreamed of when I started in plain language 34 years ago,” Cheryl shared. “For example, at that time I took a workshop on writing from Gary Kinder that was very useful, and so when he launched WordRake as a software for editing, I had to get it. And I’ve been using it ever since, and I use it regularly. So I’m also appreciative that they are continually upgrading and improving, innovating. And I really appreciate that they have sponsored this year’s plain language award.” Having collaborated with WordRake in the past as a guest expert on plain language, Cheryl recommended the partnership herself.

At their conference in September 2023 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, PLAIN awarded IRIS Lab of Ceará, Brazil the Cheryl Stephens Innovation Award for their outstanding work using simplified Portuguese to make public communication more accessible. Among their successes is the creation of a chatbot during the pandemic to deliver clear, up-to-date Covid-19 information in all Portuguese dialects.

Watch the 2023 video from WordRake congratulating IRIS Lab on their win:




Resources for Creating Plain Language Content

Plain Language Content Resources

Creating content that’s easy to understand can be challenging, but having the right resources and guidance can help you create effective and clear plain language content effortlessly. Here are some resources to help: 



Implement Effective Plain Language Communication with WordRake

Plain language is essential for effective communication. By simplifying how we communicate, we can make sure everyone understands complex information quickly and easily. We must try to use plain language in our writing for greater efficiency and clarity.

With WordRake, anyone can turn bureaucratic jargon into clear, professional communication. 


See How Professionals Like You Use WordRake 

I searched for a comparable editing program, but I couldn’t find anything like it. WordRake should become a staple in any government agency.
Nancy Locke
Past Director of Purchasing and Contracting Services, City of Seattle
WordRake is a great program that helps writers streamline their content. It is easier to use than similar editors.
Abdur Harper
Supply Chain Management, U.S. Government
I am a physician and I create educational material for my patients. WordRake helps me clean up my writing and I learn from its use so I have fewer corrections. It allows me to decide which edits are good. I consider this one of my most valuable add-ons.
Dr. Michael Opsahl
Doctor, Poma Fertility