Simply Said: Plain Language For The Web
by Debra Torres
There’s a word that my Cuban mother-in-law uses in conversation that tells me when she’s ready to listen. And although I’ve tried and failed to learn Spanish many times, I do know that when this one rolls off her tongue, it means she’s all ears.
The word is “dime.” It sounds like “dee-may.” And it simply means: “Tell me.”
It reminds me of a phrase that I sometimes use when I’m ready to really engage in a heartfelt discussion: “Let’s talk.”
“Let’s talk” or “tell me” moments make for the best kinds of conversation, I think. To me, they indicate that it’s time to kick off your shoes, grab a cup of something warm, and have a heart-to-heart with someone you care about.
In moments like these, people talk at the same level. They naturally stay conversational and ease up on the use of complicated language.
I think this is why I love writing for the web so much. It’s filled with “tell me” and “let’s talk” moments.
Or at least it should be.
Are You Relating to Your Audience?
Unfortunately, more often than not, we use the web as a platform to “talk at” or “down to” our users in a way that can create a disconnect with them. In a medium that can create a warm, one-on-one experience, our scholarly language can come off cold and standoffish.
We don’t mean to communicate this way, I’m sure. Who tries to alienate their target audience on purpose?
I think that maybe we’re just not understanding that the secret to engaging our audience on the web lies in keeping our text simple and relational.
In a Q&A over on the Acrolinx blog, Deborah Bosley from The Plain Language Group suggests that when you’re describing something to your target audience, you should write it the same way you would imagine them describing it to their friends. “That often means not talking to them like they’re subject matter experts,” she says, “but rather using language that’s plain, direct, and succinct.”
Bosley also gives some tips on plain language that include:
- Keep your sentences short (15-18 words)
- Keep paragraphs short (3-5 short sentences)
- Use 3-5 headings per page
Write for Their Reading Level
Because of a multitude of factors like disabilities, device limitations, and the fast pace of our culture, I suggest you write at an 8th-grade reading level. With a level that low, you know you’ve lost a good portion of your readers when your web copy tests in at a much higher level.
If you’re looking over your pages now and seeing some room for improvement, you’re not alone. Huge companies and even government sites are seeing the value of plain language and are making the switch. And Google is even rewarding sites with better ranking when page text is written plainly and clearly.
The Liberty University Web Content Team wants to help you make your pages more readable for your users. For starters, you can read our Web Writing Tips and our Voice and Tone Guidelines. There are also many great posts in this blog that can help get you started. Connecting with your users in a way that they understand is not as hard as you may think. The answer is an easy one.
Keep it simple.
Meet the Author:
Web Content Specialist — LU Web Content Team