Plain Language

It can be difficult to communicate complex or industry-specific content to a non-expert audience, which may lead to you not getting the results you expect. Use plain language to improve the effectiveness of your communication tasks.

What is plain language?

Plain language, sometimes called “plain English,” is a set of guidelines that, when followed, allow an audience to more easily read, understand, and use a communication [1]. These guidelines consider language use and audience, as well as communication organization and design.

Why should I use plain language?

Many professional fields, such as government, law, and medicine commonly use plain language to make communications more understandable to their target audiences.

Like practitioners in these fields, engineers often confront complex and highly technical problems. Throughout the problem-solving process, you communicate your progress or results to a variety of audiences, from your boss to government agencies to the general public and more.

Regardless of the specific audience’s level of expertise in your field, the effectiveness of your communication depends on whether or not your audience understands the benefits of what you’re communicating to them. That means you will often need to simplify its presentation to increase comprehension and effectiveness. Plain language guidelines help you do that.

You may believe plain language guidelines require “dumbing down” complex content. But, as physicist and communication trainer Dr. Jean-luc Doumont puts it, “You’re not simplifying the science, you’re simplifying the expression of it” [2].

How do I use plain language guidelines?

Use your best judgment about when and how to use these guidelines. With sustained practice, they will become second nature.

Communicate with your audience

Your audience is the most important consideration for your communication. They can make the difference between its success and failure. Identify and analyze your audience in order to accommodate their needs (for more details, visit Audience).

Use simple, understandable language

Your audience will be most interested and able to comprehend your content when you use simple language. Follow these guidelines to achieve simple language use [1]:

  • Generally try to use active voice (“The engineer made a presentation”) instead of passive voice (“A presentation was made”). Use passive voice in instances in which the actor is not important or is unknown (“Initial research was conducted in 1972”).
  • Use personal pronouns (“You will use the software by…” ) instead of broad categories (“Consumers will use the software by…”) to refer to your audience.
  • Use common words (“part” instead of “component”; “include” instead of “comprise”).
  • Use technical terms if necessary, but substitute with common words if possible (“memory” instead of “RAM”). When you must use technical terms, define them.
  • Use only as many words as necessary (“later” instead of “at a later date”; “if” instead of “should it appear that”).
  • Keep paragraphs and sentences short (generally aim for 10 to 12 lines per paragraph and 20 words per sentence; include only one idea per paragraph).

Organize and design your communication

The organization and visual design of your communication also contributes to audience interest and comprehension. Use the following guidelines to organize and design your communication in a way your audience understands [3]:

  • Start your communication by stating its purpose or key message.
  • Include only the supporting details that are important to the audience.
  • Group related information together and use informative, succinct headings for each section.
  • Use lists where appropriate (use bullets for non-sequential items and numbers for sequential items).
  • Include figures near their reference in the text, and always include a label and explanatory caption.

Evaluate your communication with an audience representative

After you’ve completed a draft of your communication, ask representative members of your audience to review it. They can help you identify and fix problems that interfere with clear communication [4]:

  • Ask your audience representatives to review your communication section by section and summarize each section to you out loud.
  • Take notes of what the subjects say in their own words.
  • Don’t inject your own opinion into the subjects’ feedback.

 
Ask open-ended questions, such as “What do you think the writer was trying to do with this document?” and “What about the document works? What causes problems?”

Where can I find more information about using plain language?

The IEEE Professional Communication Society’s site provides a basic understanding of plain language. Explore other resources to gain more knowledge about this topic.

References

[1] “What is plain language?” Plain Language. [Online]. Available: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whatisPL/index.cfm

[2] J. Doumont, Communicating science to non-scientists. [Video]. Available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFu3jaLmse0 2012, April 12

[3] “Guidelines for creating plain language materials,” Center for Plain Language. [Online]. Available: http://centerforplainlanguage.org/about-plain-language/guidelines-for-creating-plain-language-materials/

[4] “Test” in Federal Plain Language Guidelines, 2011, pp. 100-103. [Online]. Available: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/FederalPLGuidelines/FederalPLGuidelines.pdf