How plain English helps your customers and your company

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Ireland is set to join countries around the world that recognise the benefits of using plain English.

According to the new Programme for Government: ‘We will: Introduce a plain language requirement for all public service communication, so that people can understand information the first time they read or hear it. Using plain language saves time and money and reduces mistakes and complaints.’

But it’s not just the public sector that should use plain language.

Top two reasons your organisation should write in plain English

  1. It’s about your customers – so they don’t feel frustrated

Plain English means writing so that your intended readers can understand the first time they read it. This saves readers some time. But it also saves us frustration.

Think about how you feel if you have to struggle to understand a form, letter or website. When I don’t get the message the first time I read something, I start by feeling a bit stupid – ‘Why don’t I understand? What’s wrong with me?’. But I quickly start to feel frustrated and annoyed.

After all, if the company wants me to fill in this form correctly, why haven’t they clearly explained what information they want? If an insurance firm is trying to sell me a policy, why isn’t it easy for me to understand the terms and conditions? And why is my pension update full of financial jargon that makes no sense to me?

Making readers feel stupid, irritated or excluded is clearly not good for business. Companies that don’t use plain English could be annoying their customers without realising it. And annoyed customers might not stick around.

2. It’s about you – so your company saves time and money

Research shows that customers are more likely to read information that’s written and displayed in plain English. That’s probably because they find it faster and easier to understand.

When customers understand what they’re reading, they can make better informed decisions, make fewer mistakes and follow instructions more easily. For example, if they understand the details of what’s involved, it’s less likely that they’ll fill in a form incorrectly or choose an insurance policy that’s not suitable.

This saves organisations time and money because you’ll receive fewer calls or emails to your helpline, have to deal with fewer incorrect forms, get a better response to letters and so on.

This isn’t just speculation. Here are two examples of how using plain English saves resources – and improves outcomes.

The UK government saved about £9 million by rewriting forms into plain English

  • In a Customs and Excise form, the error rate was reduced from 55% to 3% – saving £33,000 a year in staff time
  • A Department of the Environment form had an error rate of 60% – but the plain English version had an error rate of under 5%

Rewriting a software manual saved up to $375,000 a year, per customer
In the US, the General Electric Company estimated that businesses using a revised manual made 125 fewer calls to its helpline per month – saving it up to $375,000 a year, per business customer

Examples are taken from Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please – The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government and Law by Joseph Kimble (Carolina Academic Press)