Your Plain-Language Program

Getting the Most from Your Documents

You are no doubt committed to improving the services and products you offer to the public. Your commitment, however, comes at a time of budget restraint and escalating costs. You can reduce your costs and improve your effectiveness by starting a plain-language program.

Consumers of your products and services increasingly judge your organization by the quality of its documents. They are learning to not sign anything they do not understand. If your documents are too difficult for them, they simply stop reading and start asking questions. This costs them time and costs you money.

If your organization is not using plain language, you are wasting money. You are paying costs like these:

  • Support calls resulting from documents too difficult to read.
  • Forms and applications that are left incorrect or incomplete.
  • Memos and business letters that require endless clarification.
  • Legal notices and procedures that no one can read.
  • Newsletters that reach only a fraction of the targeted audience.
  • Web sites that fail to inform and inspire confidence.

Poor writing also raises the costs of producing documents up to 50%. If a $60,000-per-year writer could produce documents in half the time, it would save $10,000 a year. Poor writing also increases your liability and risk of suits.

As much as 40% of the total costs of managing all business transactions are spent on problems caused by poor communications. Managers, however, often consider poor writing a necessary cost of doing business. They do not realize that good writing is the result of training, method, and a commitment to excellence in communications.

Sample Savings

The savings that plain language brings are often substantial:

  • In Britain, 50,000 travelers every year fill out a Customs and Excise form to claim lost baggage. The form had an error rate of 55%. Redesigning the form brought down the error rate to 3%, saving staff 3,700 hours in processing. It cost the department $3,500 to rewrite the form, but saved about $45,000 a year in processing costs.
  • The Ontario Human Rights Commission used to give copies of the Ontario Human Rights Code to those making a complaint. Now they use plain-language documents with basic information about the law and directions on how to make a complaint. They estimate a yearly savings of $15,000 in printing costs alone.
  • The U.S. Federal Communications Commission rewrote the regulations for Citizen Band radios. They were able to reassign five staff members no longer required for support. In the twenty years since, litigation involving the regulations was zero.
  • The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs tested newly written plain-language form letters and found that they reduced support calls from 1.5 per letter to 0.27 calls per letter. Changes in one letter alone saved the Department more than an estimated $40,000 per year.
  • A new plain-language software manual issued by General Electric reduced support calls from each customer by 125 a month and saved G.E. between $22,000 and $375,000 for each customer.
  • A study by the U.S. Navy concluded that business memos written in plain language could save between $27 and $37 million of their officers' time each year.
  • Ground-operation manuals revised in plain language saved Federal Express an estimated $400,000 in the very first year.

Smaller organizations also benefit from plain language in improved internal processes, lowered support costs, and greater customer satisfaction.

What is Plain Language?

Plain language is language that the audience can easily read and understand. It pays special attention to the reader or the person filling out a form. It considers what the reader wants to know as well as what the writer wants to say. It avoids jargon and unnecessary technical terms. Here are some examples:

A thorough inspection of your forest home or summer cottage and the surrounding property for obvious fire hazards is the first step in fire protection.
You can protect your forest home or summer cottage by inspecting your land and building for fire hazards.
Prior to completing the application, the applicants should determine if the proposed corporate name is available.
Before completing the application, find out if another company is using the name you have chosen.

In short, plain language is clear, effective, and direct. It does not speak down to the audience or omit required technical or legal information. It relies on the principles of clarity, coherence, organization, and graphic design. It uses layout, pictures, tables, and charts so that the text is inviting as well as easy to follow. It uses a tone that speaks directly to the reader without being officious or bureaucratic.

How Do You Run a Plain-Language Program?

A plain-language program involves some up-front planning:
  1. Get the support of the highest level of management. Without their ongoing involvement, the efforts of even dedicated individuals will be lost over time.
  2. Measure the costs of what you are currently spending on the creation and support of documents.
  3. Bring in consultants like Impact Information to conduct regular staff workshops on plain language. They can also help revise existing documents and help create document guidelines.
  4. Set up the procedures for enforcing plain-language guidelines over time and throughout the organization.
  5. Measure the benefits and savings of your plain-language program.

In short, a plain-language program is the best investment you can make. It will provide many years of increased efficiency and satisfaction.

Plain Language in the News

Deloitte's Bullfighter program removes jargon.

Tax-form complexity causes tax overpayment.

Plain English and success in selling.

Neurologists get training in health literacy.

University of Kentucky health literacy project.

Weather Service lingo can be confusing.