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When to Use Plain Language on the Web

By Diane Austin

I’ll come right out and say it: communication is hard. And written communication is even harder. At least when you face your audience, they can pick up hints from your tone, facial expressions, and body language.

But in print or on the web, your audience doesn’t get the same context clues. Which is why these communication rules will always be important:

  1. Know your audience. What do they know? Are they beginners or experts? What will they learn from you?
  2. Answer your audience’s questions. What do they want to know? Give them the information they came for.
  3. Let them know what to do next. Do you want them to call you, sign up for an event, or submit an application? Make it easy by pointing them to the next action.

Everyone Prefers Plain Language

We’ve written about the importance of writing in plain language and lowering the reading grade level for web writing, but with a higher-ed website, it’s easy to slip into a pattern of using sophisticated, academic writing for the web.

In fact, research continues to support the premise that even educated experts prefer plain language on the web.

Gather Content, a UK-based content management and marketing company, recently hosted a webinar called, “The Real Cost of Not Using Plain Language.” The presentation, by Christine Cawthorne (Content Strategist and founder of Crocstar), was based on two international studies* of English speakers’ preferences for plain language in legal writing.

Takeaway 1: In every major English-speaking country, people overwhelmingly prefer plain language
Christine Cawthorne, of Crocstar, a creative marketing and content agency, presented the webinar hosted by Gather Content. Her first takeaway from the research on plain language preferences was that “In every major English-speaking country, people overwhelmingly prefer plain language.”

 

Their first takeaway from the data was not surprising to me. Researchers found that people in every major English-speaking country preferred plain language. But the second takeaway did surprise me.

Greater Education = Greater Preference for Plain Language

Both studies demonstrated that more educated readers had an even stronger preference for plain language.

Takeaway 2: Preference for plain language increases with education
Christine Cawthorne’s second takeaway from the research on plain language preferences presented in a Gather Content webinar was that the “Preference for plain language increases with education.”

 

Ten of the questions in the 2017 follow-up study dealt specifically with whether the reader preferred text written in plain language or one written with more complex structure and typical legal language. Readers overwhelmingly preferred the one in plain language, even if it was longer.


Overall avg. for PL Pref Less than Univ. degree University Degree Masters or PhD Professional Degree
Total (Avg.)    86%    78%    89%    91%    91%

This chart shows average plain language preferences (PL Pref) based on the reader’s level of education in a 2017 international study of English speakers.


Plain Language Benefits Everyone

We’ve been telling you for years to use plain language when writing for the web. Studies have shown that it’s just better for the user. And if it’s better for them, it’s better for you.

Here’s a great video from the Nielsen Norman Group that offers the same conclusion from their own research.

When should you use plain language on the web? You should use plain language whenever you want your reader to understand your message. You should use plain language when you want to give your audience the answers they are looking for.

You should use plain language on the web all the time. Your visitors will thank you by sticking around and maybe taking the next step, instead of backing out and looking for a website that’s easier to understand.

Contact webcontent@liberty.edu for answers to your web strategy questions.

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References:

*2017, Christopher R. Trudeau, Christine Cawthorne, The Public Speaks, Again: An International Study of Legal Communication, University of Arkansas Little Rock Law Review https://works.bepress.com/christopher_trudeau/4/

2012, Christopher R. Trudeau, The Public Speaks: An Empirical Study of Legal Communication, Scribes J. Leg. Writing https://works.bepress.com/christopher_trudeau/1/


Meet the Author

Diane Austin

dyaustin@liberty.edu

SEO Specialist, LU Web Content Team

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