Out with the gibberish in with the plain English

Out with the gibberish in with the plain English

Must use plain English, must use plain English. It’s become a mantra for communication professionals. Whether you work in the public or private sector we all live by the same rule book – our messages whether they be verbal or written must be clear, consistent and easily understood.

Seems so simple, doesn’t it?

Then why is there so much content flying about that is full of gibberish? It’s in the letters we receive from our local councils, it’s on the websites of our state and federal government departments and major industry websites, and it frequently flies out of the mouth of social commentators.

Enough already.

Speaking, writing and communicating in plain language, the language of your audience, will not only increase your likability, which in turn effects your reputation, but it can also have major economic benefits… And yes, there is evidence to support this.

In a study by the Australian National University, lead researcher Dr Evan Kidd from the School of Psychology found that using Australian slang increases likability among the Australian public.

Using slang seems to promote common ground between the speakers… People use them if you want to indicate social closeness with each other.”

I know that many of you will say organisations, particularly the government, will never use Australian slang in their communications, and, to be honest, I kind of agree. So let’s take out the ‘slang’ part of the study and focus on the true, underlying message.

Speaking and communicating in the language of the audience, a language they understand and is familiar to them, will ultimately increase your overall likability. If your audience likes you and can establish common ground, your reputation can sky rocket—and who wouldn’t like that?

I am the first to admit that it’s no easy task. It takes time, effort, support from the ‘powers above’ and a lot of man and womanpower to translate all the jargon into plain, simple, easy to understand language. But it can be done and the return on investment is well worth it.

In April this year, Dr Neil James, Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation made a pretty big statement about the economic return organisations, particularly government, can make in refining their communications so it’s easier to read.

In his article A 9900% rate of return? The value of plain English to government, Dr James brings to light a convincing case study involving the Department of Revenue in Washington State.

The Department implemented public sector reform like no other, one that generated one dollar for every cent invested, making it a 9900% rate of return.

So how’d they do it? They decided to rewrite one of their tax letters in plain English “with the goal of raising US $1.2 million from businesses who commonly failed to pay a particular sales tax. As a result of the new letter, compliance rates leapt by 200%, raising an extra US $2 million in revenue.

This, among other examples of reform, led the entire state of Washington to “develop a ‘Plain Talk’ program that trained 7500 people, revised websites and rewrote 2000 standards forms and letters.

In this same article, Dr James emphasises the benefits plain English can bring to an organisation, especially those in the public sector, through:

Improved productivity

Dr James’s organisation, the Plain English Foundation, found that its clients who converted briefing notes and internal submissions into plain English would reduce the length of them by 25% to 40% without compromising content and quality. It can also halve the time staff and managers spend writing, reading and rereading text.

Lower costs

Dr James maintains that direct writing and reading time is around one-third of staff time in many agencies. He says, “for a $90,000 position, this costs $30,000 a year. Reduce that time by 25% to 50% with plain English, and the time saved is worth $7,500 to $15,000 each year. Multiply by the number of employees and the figures quickly add up.

Enhanced reputation

As we have always said, one very real benefit of plain English is the positive impact it can have on an organisation’s reputation. If organisations continue to go down the path of writing and speaking in a complex and obscure way, their audience will become more and more disengaged. They will like you less, trust you less and your reputation will ultimately be affected, and not in good way.

Better decisions

Perhaps the most beneficial to the public sector is how plain English can improve the decision-making process. Dr James states, “Documents still drive government. Virtually every decision is assessed, conveyed, reviewed and recorded in some form of text. When those texts are poorly written, it is not just time that is wasted and readers who are annoyed — decisions themselves are compromised.”

Now we have read the reputational and economic benefits plain English can bring to organisations, what are we waiting for? Clear communication reflects clear thinking and leads to clear action. When language is vague or unclear, there is uncertainty from within the organisation and outside the organisation.

Next time you need to prepare content for your audience, keep them at the front of your mind. Make sure you write in simple, easy to understand plain English. Let’s make the effort to keep it simple for our audience. After all, it’s just common courtesy.

If you’ve caught the plain English bug too, read our zombie guide to plain English.


Sam has a passion for internal communication which she has developed across eight years of experience in the public and private sectors. Sam gets out of bed everyday with the mission of making internal comms cool again.

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