What Is Plain Language And Why Is It Used?

Philip Cleave
November 29, 2022
Individual holding up sign to promote simple language

When it comes to using plain language, think about your own experiences, especially when you’re meeting someone for the first time and don’t know their background. It’s likely that you’ll keep your communications simple, so you can easily get your point across and be understood.

That language becomes even more important when it comes to your business communications, whether that’s to improve your service or increase your sales. Whatever you’re trying to do, it will be difficult to achieve if your audience can’t understand what you’re saying.

The same thing can be said for surveys, whether you’re reaching out to customers or your employees. Unless you’re surveying a specific audience or a niche group such as academics, who might expect you to address them with specific terminology that they feel more comfortable with, it’s best to communicate in simple, plain language.

But what do we mean by that exactly?

Definition of plain language

When we refer to plain language, we’re essentially referring to writing that is clear, concise and well-organized. It’s straightforward language, stripped of jargon and confusing terms, which follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.

Generally, the aims of clear and concise language are to help your audience…

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find the first time they read or hear it
  • Use what they find to meet their needs

Tips to help make your writing clearer to your audience include:

  • Remembering that you’re writing for your reader, not for yourself
  • Keeping your sentences short
  • Trying to write in the active voice with active verbs
  • Keeping paragraphs short and trying to cover just a single idea in each paragraph
  • Using headings, sub-headings, lists, bullets and tables to make reading easier where appropriate
  • Only using words that are appropriate to your readers

Benefits of using plain language

Taking your time to check the language of all your communications, ensuring it’s simple and easy to understand before you issue anything is certainly worth it.

Here are some compelling reasons why:

Plain language is more efficient

Today’s customers have short attention spans.  

In fact, marketers have measured that the average reader’s attention span has almost halved from 12 seconds just a decade ago.

Subsequently, a writer needs to capture the attention of the audience, as quickly as possible. Plain language is the best option, because it gets your message across in the most efficient way possible.

Plain language is clearer

In business, a message is only effective when it is understood.

Plain language is typically based on an eighth-grade reading level, as this ensures clarity and simplicity in communication. This is crucial, because if communications are to be inclusive and accessible, they need to be clear to the general audience.

Plain language is simpler to understand

Simple language is particularly important when you’re writing an instruction manual or guide, as it makes the content easier to follow and understand.

If you can do this, it should help reduce the volume of complaints, enquiries and confusion from customers previously struggling to follow more complicated directions.

Plain language is better for marketing

Clear and simple language is better for your marketing efforts too.

From your web pages and blog posts to your articles and wider marketing collateral. Digital content written in plain language tends to have a reduced bounce rate, while marketing collateral that’s simple and easy to understand can help drive revenue and build customer loyalty, as it appeals to a wider audience.

Plain language helps nurture a more positive image

Plain language can help you to build clearer and more transparent communications with your customers.

Promoting a more positive image, not only builds trust and confidence in your brand, but also helps build customer loyalty. And when everything you communicate is clear and concise, it helps your business to stand out from the crowd.

Why plain language is good for your surveys

It’s important to use plain language in your surveys too. 

It might sound obvious, but if people can’t understand your questions, they’ll either provide inaccurate answers or decide to abandon your survey altogether, which could be detrimental to your overall response rate as well as the validity of your results.

Instead, always use simple language and never assume prior knowledge; by providing the necessary information for the respondent to understand what is being asked of them. Also define any concepts or terms that the respondent needs to understand in order to answer your questions. If you can do this, it should not only benefit your response rate, but the quality of your responses and what you’re able to do with them.

How to make your surveys simpler and easier to understand

Along with using plainer language, there are number things you can do to make your surveys easier to understand and complete.

Speak your audience’s language

When it comes to creating your survey, a good way to start is to consider writing for your least-informed respondent.

It will be much easier for respondents to understand what you’re asking if you can use clear language throughout. Try to avoid technical jargon and acronyms, as these can unintentionally create survey bias, as only some people in your audience will know what you’re talking about, and you’ll risk alienating many others.

Keep your questions simple

Try to keep your survey questions short, simple and straight to the point. The more you increase the length of your questions, the more you decrease the chance of gaining a completed response.

Questions that are vague and fail to communicate what you’re trying to find out can limit the usefulness of your results.

Example of a vague question:

What do you choose to do with any spare money you might have at the end of each month?

Finding out that the respondent likes to spend their money on clothes at the end of the month, isn’t what the researcher wants to know, but this is the answer they might get with this question.

It’s unclear from this question that the researcher is more concerned with whether the respondent saves any spare money they have at the end of each month. A better way to ask this would be:

Do you choose to save any spare money you have at the end of each month?

More advice on survey questions and how they can be created to make your surveys simpler to understand and complete is available in our blog ‘Good Survey Questions: Tips and Examples’.

Look to ‘funnel’ your questions

The funnel technique is a method of presenting your survey questions in the best way to engage respondents and get them to complete your survey.

This works on the following structure:

  • Begin your survey with broad, general interest questions that are simple to answer. This should help ‘warm up’ respondents and get them involved in your survey
  • Place the harder, more specific questions that take more time to think about and answer in the middle
  • Finish with easy-to-answer or sensitive questions such as demographics

Consider using an accessible survey theme

Finally think about using an accessible survey template if your survey provider can provide you with one.

While the use of plain language can make your survey accessible to more people, you can further enhance this with a survey template that has accessibility at its core, one that incorporates design features that make it accessible for those with visual impairments.

According to the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), there are more than 2 million people in the UK who have a significant degree of sight loss, while those suffering from mild sight loss are even higher. Subsequently, whatever survey you’ve created there’s a high chance that someone trying to respond to it could have a visual impairment. So, you want to do everything you can to make it as accessible as possible.

It’s why we launched our first accessible survey theme in 2021. This WCAG compliant accessible theme, which is available free of charge on all our plans, helps ensure the compatibility of your surveys with assistive technologies, so those with visual impairments can complete your surveys.

Ensuring everyone that wants to respond to your survey can do so

Whether it’s in your everyday conversations, your business communications or the surveys you issue. Whoever you’re trying to reach out to, you’ll only get the best results if people can fully understand you, which is where the benefit of using plain language can pay real dividends.

For surveys, if you can combine this with careful survey design and your survey software can work with assistive technologies, you should also ensure full accessibility to your survey, so that everyone who wants to respond can do so.

Get feedback that you can take useful actions with

While using plain language in your surveys, should make a positive difference to your response rate, you’ll still need the right survey tools if you’re to generate the quality of insight you need to take useful actions with.

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