Transparency seems to be everywhere these days. In fact, nearly 90% of people believe that transparency in business is more important than ever. From B-Corps to privacy policies and more, consumers are pushing for clarity in business.
This focus is for good reason: People deserve to know what’s behind the curtain when they engage with an organization. Plus, it brings a host of benefits to companies, such as improved employee happiness, bigger profits, and better customer relationships. And 94% of people will be loyal to a completely transparent brand.
If any of these benefits sound desirable, then removing opaqueness from business is crucial. But are your messages holding back your transparency?
Even if your organization operates like an open book and publicly shares salary details, crisis responses, and more, you still hurt your brand if your language isn’t clear. You may be thinking, Huh? But we share openly about our company! Isn’t that enough?
Actually, no. Just because you communicate something doesn’t mean that people understand. And when supporting transparency, how you write matters just as much as what you’re sharing.
Here are three ways that your language may be holding you back:
1. You don’t write to your audience’s reading level.
As a foundational tenet of plain language, writing for your audience’s literacy skills is crucial when aiming for transparency. The average American reads at an 8th grade level. So, any content that is more complex — say, at a 12th-grade level — will immediately create roadblocks to understanding for general audiences. When your words and sentences make your content unclear, you’ve lost transparency — no matter what message you were trying to share.
Take time to know your audiences’ reading levels — and write messages that support their literacy. Use the Flesch-Kincaid readability tool in Microsoft Word’s Spellcheck to help you analyze the grade level of content you create. While it’s not the holy grail of readability scoring, this tool can give you a benchmark to work from. Using it is as easy as running a Spellcheck on your document.
2. You rely on passive voice.
Active and passive voice constructions are more than just grammar rules your English teacher barked about. They directly affect transparency — for better or worse — through syntax. The trouble with passive voice is that the construction allows you to completely remove the person or thing doing the action in your sentence. By dropping the main subject, you can avoid attaching who’s responsible. And many companies will use this technique to dodge blame when sharing news they know their audiences won’t like.
Passive voice looks like this:
Revenue goals were not met this quarter.
Active voice looks like this:
We did not meet our revenue goals this quarter.
Whenever possible, use active voice. You’ll not only create stronger, shorter sentences — you’ll also ensure you share important details — like who performs each action. When audiences know the main subject of your sentence, they can better understand and connect the dots of information you’re sharing.
3. You use ambiguous phrasing.
Ambiguity is a plague to clear business writing, because you leave people trying to guess what you mean with multiple interpretations. A single word can be ambiguous, such as “shall” (Is it can, must, could, or should?). Complete statements can also create this confusion, such as “The advisor gave the manager her annual report” (Is it the advisor or manager’s report?).
When people try to translate ambiguity, their brains release chemicals that promote fear, stress, and anxiety — since they perceive the vagueness as a threat. Further, if they’ve incorrectly interpreted your meaning or were unable to land on what you mean, they’ll lead with these reactions and fill in the gaps themselves.
Remove ambiguity from your writing whenever possible — and don’t leave room for audience assumptions (After all, you know what they say about assumptions.). Choose clear words and statements that have one meaning. Avoid dangling modifiers. And make sure readers know who/what you’re talking about when you use pronouns.
The push for transparency is not a fad but an awakening: Clarity is here to stay. You can stay ahead of the momentum by communicating clearly and with care. Using plain language principles will help you meet your communication goals while fostering the transparency your audiences crave — a boon for everyone.