Plain language is writing that is clear and understandable for the people reading it.
Organizations who communicate best with their customers understand what their buyers are looking for. Now, not all buyers are at the same point on their purchasing journey. Some may be looking for information. Others may be comparing products and services to meet their needs. And some may be ready to buy.
The best tone of voice any organization can use is one that imposes very little cognitive overhead on the intended audience. Communication should not be too complex and should use plain language. Using plain language means avoiding:
- Overly long sentences
- Too much passive voice
- Industry jargon and acronym overload
- Institutional or inward facing language
But if you work in any large government or enterprise organization, it’s not so easy to get right.
You’re dealing with a wide variety of teams and people creating content. It’s not only Marketing and Communications teams who produce written communications in these organizations. Legal, Operations, Product, Support, HR and Sales teams also write and publish content for both internal audiences and customers too.
How do you make sure everyone is speaking with the same tone of voice in this scenario?
The fallacy of the sophisticated customer
In sectors such as financial services and healthcare, many people assume that their audience wants a higher level of complexity. The argument goes like this;
- We have a highly educated audience
- If we use clear, transparent language we will come across as less sophisticated or professional.
People wrongly assume that speaking to our customers using complex language shows us in a better light. We couldn’t be more wrong. Even sophisticated customers want clarity and accessible content. They do not have the time to spend deciphering complex, run on sentences. Writing in plain language achieves this.
Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Why measuring your tone of voice matters
Not everyone your organization communicates with is educated to the same level, or comes from the same background. For example, consider people with disabilities, the elderly, people without English as a first language.
In the US, various studies have found that the average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level. The UK is similar with an average reading age of a 9 year old.
If you’re not communicating in a tone of voice that your customer understands, you’re wasting your time and money. And, worse, you could be losing your customer’s trust.
Your customers’ level of education is not the only factor to consider when communicating in written form.
Think of how busy we all are! We are bombarded with content from all channels. Do any of us want to spend time trying to figure out what an organization is trying to tell us? Or do we want to receive the information quickly and with maximum clarity? And with minimum cognitive overhead.
In a recent VisibleThread webinar, the Canadian Human Rights Commission made exactly this point. Imagine a person standing in line looking at your website on their cell phone. That’s your customer. Clear communication that delivers the information they’re looking for quickly will always win the day.
An internet minute is crazy busy in 2019
It’s also key to consider the H.U.G.E. amount of activity that takes place in an internet minute in 2019.
Even in the space of one year from 2018 to 2019, the amount of content published has increased massively.
Your customers have so much content competing for their attention. They’ll simply click onto another website if your content isn’t giving them the information they need quickly and simply.
How to manage content creators
It’s important to think about your customers’ education levels and about the other content competing for your customers’ attention. And it’s also important to look at the content creation cycles within enterprise organizations.
And as mentioned earlier, it’s more than just Marketing producing written communications. It’s operations producing compliance notices, communications issuing clarifications around positioning, HR writing job specs. In fact, if you think of the variety of content, there’s a large amount going out across off line channels too. All needs to be easy to understand and accessible.
So, it’s critical to ensure that every person writing in your organization is writing with the same tone of voice across all channels. Your customers will see any communication that comes from you as your brand. Since your brand is the promise you make to your customers, poor communications from any part of your organization will harm the relationship between you and your customers.
Organizations who have built strong brands understand the importance of consistency, and deliver consistent communications across all channels. Think of Apple.
Apple has placed a relentless focus on simplicity. Look at how these two adverts from the past speak to their customers.
So how do you ensure that multiple content creators are using the same tone of voice for your organization?
Implementing organization-wide measurement across content
Commercial enterprises are beginning to realise how important it is to use plain language principles. And now with the help of AI and modern technology it has become feasible to score written content.
Look at your content and see how it scores for the following:
- Grade level – the number of years of education required to easily understand your copy. Many organizations have set goals of between grade 6 and 8. But at minimum, aim for 10 or below if starting out.
- Jargon – how much institutional, inward facing terminology are you using?
- Passive voice density – what percentage of your content takes the passive voice? Recommended level is no higher than 5%.
- Long sentences – are you adding to your customer’s cognitive load by using too many long sentences?
Your organization’s tone of voice ensures consumers can engage with your product and services. Make it easy for them to understand. Make it simple, make it clear, make it consistent. Because words matter.