Why plain language still matters in a world of buzzwords, emojis and hashtags
Language is not static. It’s part of our culture. As our culture transforms, so does our language. This usually happens slowly. If you read a play written by Shakespeare as it was originally written, you’ll find some sentences that are similar to how we speak today.
However, the recent pace of technological change has had a huge impact on language.
This change hasn’t happened all at once. For example, as broadband was adopted by the developed world, high-speed internet became commonplace. People became more connected than before. Email, cell phone/mobile technology and social media all resulted in changes to established ways of communicating.
And now, new language and modes of expression have became commonplace:
- Seen any funny memes today?
- Have you googled what you wanted to know?
- This cat video made me LOL
- Check your weather forecast app this morning?
- Ur presentation was gr8 in the meeting
From email to social media
Email became mainstream around 1996. Free email services, e.g. Hotmail, launched at this time. Short, snappy electronic messages began to replace written letters.
Cell phones also became more popular around the same time. Now people could communicate via text messages. This was a new communication method. Character limits meant our messages had to be brief. More formal language started to take a back seat and a new, informal language emerged.
Social media entered the picture in the early 2000s. And smart phones in 2007.
Think of the effect social media and smartphones have had on communication. Gifs or emojis are now part of how we write to each other. Acronyms and buzzwords are commonplace. Messages have shortened even more.
Is this plain English?
The transformation of language is exciting to watch. And to be part of.
People often blame social media and smartphones for our shorter attention spans. But like every technological advance, there are good and bad effects. Social media has also become a new platform for raising funds for good causes. So, we believe that social media is neither good nor bad.
However, because language is shorter and often acronym-laden, doesn’t mean it is any clearer. Think of LOL. Some people think that means “laugh out loud”. Other people think it means “lots of love”. And some have no idea what it means.
At VisibleThread, we’re passionate advocates for plain language. We see unclear language not just in texts and social media, but in business too.
Most industries use complex language, and industry specific jargon that leaves their customers confused. The financial services industry is infamous for communicating poorly. Just think of your credit card terms and conditions. Our research also bears this out.
Plain language is the cornerstone of successful customer communications.
People want to find the information they’re looking for quickly. No one has time to scroll through waffle. And no one wants to.
You can earn your customers’ trust and goodwill by sharing your message in a concise way. The best way to communicate is to focus on readability, and speak clearly, in short, jargon-free sentences.
How can you measure and optimize for readability?
There are several objective formulae that measure readability.
One of the most common scores is Flesch Reading Ease.
It scores text as a number between 0 and 100. The closer to 100, the easier the text is to read. By way of example, Harry Potter scores 70 on the Flesch index, the Harvard Law review scores a little over 30. Flesch Reading ease considers two factors; average syllable count per word, and average sentence length.
The Flesch-Kincaid (F-K) formula for readability is a related formula. In this case, the score equates to the level of education required to easily understand the content. Grade 8 or less is often cited as the gold standard if looking to communicate to a wide audience. It was originally developed for the US Navy in the 1970s to measure the difficulty of it’s technical manuals.
This formula is now the most common measurement associated with plain language. For example, the state of Pennsylvania passed a law that required vehicle insurance documents to be written in English with a reading level of 9th grade.
Software solutions like MS Word or indeed our own also include these scores. And if you want to have the highest levels of readability in your content, it’s wise to check the grade level.
Now, there’s absolutely a place for emojis. But innovation shouldn’t come at the cost of clear communication. Keep long sentences to a minimum. Reduce jargon. Use very little passive voice.
Your customers will reward you with their loyalty.
- Language is not static, it’s constantly evolving. Technology advances have accelerated the change in how we communicate and the language we use.
- Social media and smart phones have shortened attention span, and use of emojis and acronyms now proliferate.
- These shorter ways to express ourselves do not obviate the need for clear language. We can measure language clarity using readability scores.
- There’s absolutely a place for emojis. But avoid the jargon, and write clearly.