You encounter it every day: small print in a contract or bill, ‘legalese’ from a law firm, medical jargon from your doctor, … The list goes on and on! All too often, texts – whether written or spoken – are difficult to understand, even if you have above-average language skills.
Of course, we are all guilty of sometimes using the specialised language of our own ‘universe’, which can be unclear to outsiders. But this isn’t only unnecessary, it can even be dangerous. Just think about the patient who barely understands his doctor’s instructions and ends up taking medication incorrectly.
2400 years ago, Greek physician Hippocrates had already concluded, “The most important virtue that language can have is clarity. And nothing harms it so much as the use of unknown words. ”
Does this mean that, like a certain American politician, we have to use the language of the average nine-year-old? Short sentences, one-syllable words, plenty of repetition? Not really: in our professional communication, we certainly don’t have to push it that far. But what should we do?
Use clear and neutral language
It is not that difficult to write clearly. The rules we learned in school still apply; for example:
- Make your text inviting, and structure it using paragraphs and headings.
- Keep paragraphs short, and no more than one topic for each.
- Separate main issues from secondary issues.
- Speak directly to the reader. Use ‘you’ and ‘I’ or ‘we’.
- Use concrete terms. A word is concrete when it evokes an image that is shared by most people. So, say ‘car’ instead of ‘transport’.
- Minimise jargon and difficult words. If there is no alternative, explain in simple language what the term means.
- Avoid passive voice.
- Avoid very long sentences, and switch between short and longer sentences.
- Avoid formal and old-fashioned words (‘theretofore’, ‘aeroport’, ‘endeavour’, ‘moreover’, etc.) and more complex expressions (e.g. say ‘with’ instead of ‘using’).
- Finally, use graphic material to visually support your message.
Write spoken-style language
You may believe that by using a very formal style of writing, you will be taken seriously. But make sure you don’t lose your audience’s attention! Our brains focus more on spoken language than written language – including on-line. When you visit a website that uses spoken-style language, you get the impression that someone is conversing with you. And you feel you should be able to add something to the conversation from time to time. So the spoken-style language keeps you attentive.
And don’t worry about your reputation. Using spoken-style language automatically creates a natural, easy-to-read text. That makes your reader’s – i.e. your customer’s – life easier, and helps them to quickly and smoothly perform tasks, for example on your website.