“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” —Albert Einsten
Plain language may seem like a relatively new concept, but the communications niche has been around for decades. According to Plainlanguage.gov, the current plain language movement in the U.S. began in the 1970s, when the federal government encouraged regulation writers to be less bureaucratic.
But Richard Feynman, a Nobel prize–winning physicist, was a plain language trailblazer in the 1960s.
Feynman was famous not only for his brilliance but also for his ability to explain complex subjects in simple language that everyone could understand. He was a very popular physics professor, and his Cornell lectures are still available online. People enjoy how his plain words (and humor) clarify abstract ideas like the laws of gravity.
Once while at a conference on the Ethics of Equality in Education, Feynman was asked to read a paper by a participating eminent sociologist. He read it repeatedly but questioned his own abilities when he was not able to understand anything, stating: “I could not make head nor tail of it.” His solution was to dissect the content, saying, “I’m gonna stop and read ONE sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”
Here’s the sentence:
“The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.
And his translation:
This is classic Feynman. He had no patience for unnecessarily complicated explanations, pretension, and jargon. If he can explain The Quantum Mechanical View of Nature (Cornell Lesson 6) using clear language, I believe anyone and anything can — even corporate communications within your operations.
What does this mean for you?
When we use language and design that make information easy to find and understand on the first read, we save time and aggravation. Colleagues and customers appreciate a clear, well-constructed message that prevents the dreaded tangle of back-and-forth emails. With clarity first, you improve the bottom line when you decrease your costs of confusion and free up time and frustration for your employees and customers.
Even large companies known for long and confusing agreement language are coming around. This is the last sentence in an update to a Microsoft Agreement:
Throughout the Terms, we’ve made changes to improve clarity and address grammar, typos and similar issues.
Now, that’s clearly progress.