Last month, we joined language experts and enthusiasts from across the globe in Montreal to attend Clarity 2018: Plain Language in Modern Times. Hosted by Clarity International, the conference theme explored the possibilities of plain legal language (and beyond). Needless to say, we were with our people!
Readable, approachable content is important for everyone. And when reading legal documents like contracts and policies, plain language helps people decipher crucial information that directly impacts their lives.
Think about it — more than 30 million adults in the United States read at the lowest three reading levels.1 When you consider how many people rely on content written in legalese, the need for clear, direct language resonates even louder.
Clarity 2018 offered many takeaways for how the legal industry can do more to support clarity. Here are some key takeaways to help you turn your legalese into clear, actionable content:
1. People Prefer Plain Language Over Legalese
Content written with plain language standards doesn’t have to lose its legality. In fact, clarity greatly improves the chance that audiences thoroughly read and understand your legal info.
Plain language researcher Christopher Trudeau presented the results of an international study on legal language, “The Public Speaks, Again: an International Study of Legal Communication.” The research analyzed the relationship between readers and legalese across five of the world’s major English-speaking countries:
- New Zealand
- United Kingdom
- United States
The takeaway? Worldwide, people prefer legal information written in plain language.
Trudeau’s research provided raw data that proves an overwhelming number of people interact with language they would rather avoid. Here are the numbers:
- 86% of responders prefer plain language over traditional legal content.
- 91% of people who hold PhDs or Masters degrees prefer legal content written in plain language.
- 78% of people who interact with legal info abandon the content before they finish reading.
Regardless of who you are or your level of education, dense legalese will slow down your work output.
Trudeau’s study doesn’t just show preference. His data supports the reality: Your readers will tune out and miss the message if your writing is not clear and actionable.2
2. Writers Need to Understand Their Topics
Training employees to write in plain language is a critical step toward clear communications. But, writers need to know more than clear writing skills. To make a difference, they also need training in the topics they’re writing about — because clear thinking supports clear writing.
Swedish plain language practitioners Gabriella Sandstrom and Ingrid Olsson presented this finding, as studied by Swedish researcher Andreas Nord. He found that people write in plain language more effectively when they also received training to become experts in the topics they write about.
Why? To clearly explain a topic, you need a solid grasp on its ins-and-outs. Otherwise, your lack of clarity will pass on that confusion to your readers — and create an inefficient writing process.
When you train writers in your workplace, give them the additional tools to become topic experts. This extra step will help ensure your content teams produce actionable content by writing efficiently and clearly.3
3. Gender Neutral Pronouns Are Inclusive
Although the debate over the use of the singular-they seems new, its history in the English language goes back to the 1700s. Since then, English has actually had 250 genderless pronouns. PLAIN Interim President Joanna Richardson helped set a historical and global context for the singular-they in her presentation: “Gender-Neutral Language Around the World.”
Writers have used gender neutral pronouns like the singular-they for years to avoid using “he” or “she” if the gender is unknown. The pronoun keeps language simple and clear by avoiding clunky or sexist constructions (like “him/her” or just “him”).
Beyond clarity, the singular-they plays an important role in inclusive writing and gender-identity — a new, evolving use of the pronoun. With this style, singular-they addresses how some nonbinary people self-identify and supports their messaging needs.
Don’t be afraid to use the singular-they in your content. When appropriate, gender-neutral language will reach more people and keep your content current, clear, and empathetic.4
Clarity Keeps Us Motivated
The goal of plain language is to create content that people can find, understand, and use within their first read. So, if you want your readers to act, you need to ensure that you’re reaching them.
As trends in language and reading comprehension continue to evolve, we encourage you to look back at your own content to ensure its simple, informed, and inclusive. These tips from Clarity 2018 can help you recalibrate your legalese and other communications for deeper reader engagement — and modern appeal.
2Christopher Trudeau – The Public Speaks, Again: an International Study of Legal Communication.
4Clément Camion, Ingrid Olsson and Joanna Richardson – Gender Neutral Language Around the World: Overview and Discussion.