No plain, no gain.

5 Minutes

When you write in ‘plain English’, you use simple words, short sentences, clear headings and short paragraphs. It’s something legal and finance departments can struggle with, as they rely on jargon to communicate complex messages.

But simple writing needn’t change or simplify what you’re trying to say. Instead, it means as many people as possible will understand your writing quickly and easily.

The first rule of copywriting is to think about your reader. They could be reading in a hurry. Maybe they find reading difficult, or don’t speak English as their first language. (Or they might be an expert in your subject – but even experts appreciate simple language.)

Why are we talking about it now?

Plain language isn’t a new idea. In fact, its supporters date all the way back to the 16th century. In 1596, a British chancellor cut a hole in a 120-page court document he thought was too long. He then ordered the author to stuff his head through it to make an exhibition of him outside Westminster Hall.

More recently, New Zealand has passed a bill to make sure the government speaks as clearly as possible. They believe this will strengthen democracy by helping people understand their rights and what they’re being asked to do. It’s also a priority for the UK government, as shown with guidance on and across organisations like Transport for London.

It’s good for government. But is it good for business?

In a word: yes. In the financial world, research suggests simple writing offers significant return on investment. In a 10-K annual performance report, plain writing attracted more investors and saved money and time spent on audits. Another study found that when the readability of a fund’s annual report slightly dropped, the fund reduced in market value by 2.5%.

Cornell accounting professor Kristina Rennekamp discovered something similar: simple writing “increases investors’ beliefs that they can rely on the information”. In other words, it made investment advice more believable and trustworthy.

Simple language can save money and time in the legal sphere, too. GE Aviation found when a contract left out legal jargon, the time it took to negotiate fell by 60%.

What are some ways to simplify legal and financial language?

Free resources like Hemingway App are useful to check the readability of your writing. Here a few other ways to make sure legal and financial language is as accessible as possible:

If there’s no plain English alternative to the word you’re using, explain what it means
Explain what acronyms mean the first time you use them, and don’t form new ones
Move from the abstract to the specific. A good example from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission plain English handbook is:
Asset ➡ Investment ➡ Security ➡ Equity ➡ Stock ➡ Common stock ➡ One share of IBM common stock

Explain abstract points with a hypothetical scenario involving one person
Watch out for long words or phrases which don’t add meaning:
‘Alter or change’
‘In terms of’
‘Good and sufficient’
‘Last will and testament’
‘Null & void’ (also: ‘totally null and void and of no further force or effect whatsover’…)
‘Peace and quiet’
‘True and correct’
‘Undertake and agree’
‘With regards to’
Finally, think about getting a fresh perspective. You might be so immersed in your world that you can’t recognise what’s complex and what’s straight-forward. And that’s where we can help.

Hemingway reading grade: 6
(What US school grade you’d need to read and understand this)

Flesch reading ease: 64.8
(Scored from 0-100, a good score is 60 or over)

This article was originally published in Global Finance & Banking Review.

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