VisibleThread – Language Analysis Platform

We Need to Talk About Complex Words

Let’s take an example. Our 2019 research showed that 86.6% of Medicare insurers surveyed were not communicating effectively with those 65 or older. That’s Medicare’s entire target audience, by the way. On top of that, 80% of the insurers we surveyed were using complex words that their audience wouldn’t understand.
4 min read

Evelyn Wolf

How much time do we spend thinking about the words we use? Or the impact they have on readability? When we speak to our partner versus a colleague, we naturally change our language. But we often fail to adapt when we communicate with our customers.

Let’s take an example. Our 2019 research showed that 86.6% of Medicare insurers surveyed were not communicating effectively with those 65 or older. That’s Medicare’s entire target audience, by the way. On top of that, 80% of the insurers we surveyed were using complex words that their audience wouldn’t understand.

If you, or a loved one, has ever had a health problem, you’ll remember just how vulnerable you felt at that time. Imagine that an important letter from your health insurance provider hits your doormat. And you can’t work out what it all means. You don’t understand the jargon used, and the text is difficult to process. It’s a surefire path to stress and confusion. Not to mention a series of panicked calls to your provider that you could avoid.

And yet, we often hear the same defense of complex words. It’s time to examine these long-held beliefs, and start improving the readability of our content.

Myth 1: Using simple language is “dumbing it down”

We’ve all heard this one before. The belief that you must stuff your content full of long words to appear credible. Or that your highly educated customers demand it. In fact, the opposite is true.

Cognitive load theory says that our brains have limited working memory to process information. Adding complex words to your content affects the readability and makes it harder to digest. And the busier your target audience, the less time they have to decode your messages. So, if you’re pitching at an educated C suite, simple language is the best way to cut through the noise. The US Government’s Plain Language website says:

“Simple words help you express your message clearly. Too many complex words are like hurdles in a race, barriers to understanding which slows readers down. Replacing complex words with simpler words whenever possible lets your readers concentrate on your ideas and information.”

Myth 2: Complex words make you sound clever

An extension of this myth is the belief that using complex words makes people, or your organization, seem smart. In fact, crowding your content with complex words sounds more like you’ve got something to hide. The reader feels like they’re being duped, like there is a hidden meaning they’re not able to work out. Take this example ‘repairing covenant’ from a lease that ended up in court:

“[The tenant shall] when where and so often as occasion requires well and sufficiently … repair renew rebuild uphold support sustain maintain pave purge scour cleanse glaze empty amend and keep the premises and every part thereof… and all floors walls columns roofs canopies lifts and escalators … shafts stairways fences pavements forecourts drains sewers ducts flues conduits wires cables gutters soil and other pipes tanks cisterns pumps and other water and sanitary apparatus thereon with all needful and necessary amendments whatsoever …”

The lease states that tenants must look after the property. But it takes an 81-word sentence with little grammar to say so. The writer should split this extremely long sentence into multiple sentences or bullet points. And look for alternatives for some of the words and phrases. This would improve the readability making it easier to understand the first time. Even the name of the document – “repairing covenant” – causes confusion. How about “Agreement for repairs” instead? We’ve added some other suggestions below:

When where and so often as occasion requiresWhen needed
Keep the premises and every part thereofKeep the whole apartment
With all needful and necessary amendments whatsoeverWith all changes needed

Myth 3: Readability and compliance don’t mix

We hear this defense of complex language a lot in certain industries. Finance. Healthcare. Legal. And specifically, around certain pieces of content. Privacy policies. Terms and conditions. Non-disclosure agreements. Financial Instruments. The argument is that these industries are subject to heavy compliance rules, and so always require complex language. It’s simply untrue.

It is possible to express legal or other complex concepts in plain language. Take the example of Airbnb, who have the following sentence in their Privacy Policy:

“This information is necessary for the adequate performance of the contract between you and us and to allow us to comply with our legal obligations.”

The sentence is basically saying:

“We need this information to be able to follow our legal duties.”

It’s not only possible to simplify your language, it’s essential. Your customers must understand your messages, especially if the content relates to a legal or financial matter. If you can’t figure out your bank’s legal terms and conditions, you’re in trouble. And the bank might be in even more trouble.

There are plenty of legalese lawsuits to take examples from. In our 2019 webinar, Professor Christopher R. Trudeau spoke about the Wells settlement. A Medicaid customer who won a lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Health. The department had failed to clearly explain the decision to deny her Medicaid. The state agreed “to do a better job of providing specific information about the reasons for the service denials”. And that future notices would be written more clearly.

Complexity breeds mistrust

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that trust is declining across many industries. Insurance and financial services are examples of this trend. At the same time, customer expectations have also never been higher. In the Age of the Consumer, your customer won’t think twice about jumping ship if readability isn’t front of mind. So use clear, jargon-free copy in your content. It sounds so simple, and it is. It’s no silver bullet, but it will help to ensure your customers stay loyal and engaged. What a difference a word makes.