Plain Language Is Best for Business Communication

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Tuesday, July 12, 2022
By Meg Geddy, Ward Risvold, Micheal Stratton
Photo by iStock/tomozina
At Georgia College & State University, business students learn to write clear, concise documents that demonstrate authenticity, logic, and empathy.
  • Plain language focuses on the needs of the audience. It is accessible, ethical, trustworthy, and practical.
  • A business communication has a specific goal: getting a desired response from the audience. Plain language helps meet that goal.
  • Writing assignments in business curricula should be built around real-life scenarios that provide context for the situation and identify potential audiences.

Clear communication is essential for any business. For that reason, we teach learners to write in plain language in the Business Communication course we teach at Georgia College & State University’s J. Whitney Bunting College of Business and Technology in Milledgeville.

According to the International Plain Language Federation, a document is in plain language if its “wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” In other words, plain language has four advantages:

  • It meets the needs of the audience.
  • It produces documents that are inherently accessible, clear, concise, and readable.
  • It presents information in an ethical fashion.
  • It builds trust.

In our class, we build on these four points to help learners understand the benefits of using plain language.

The Audience Matters

Documents written in plain language move self-interest to the background and focus on the needs of the audience. When the audience takes center stage, citizens, clients, customers, and patients feel heard and valued.

To ensure this shift in perspective, business writers must ask three questions before drafting any document: Who is the audience? What does the audience need to know? And what does the audience need to do with this information?

Business writers who answer these questions are able to craft documents that consider their readers’ needs and time. These writers open with the main point or bottom line. They use specific headings to help readers locate information. They write concise sentences to make information easy to remember and use. They include visual data to clarify numbers.

Readability Means Accessibility

Plain-language documents are accessible and present information in a way that is easy to absorb. Because they use short sentences and common words, plain-language documents allow every member of the audience to understand the piece in a single read. They also allow audience members to skim chunks of text to easily gather the information they need.

As Hoa Loranger writes in a 2017 article, “No one has ever complained that a text was too easy to understand.” We agree. Readability should serve as the goal for business communications because it increases accessibility and offers inclusivity by making the language as user-friendly as possible.

Clarity Creates Ethical Communication

When readers are overwhelmed by the jargon or legalese of a business communication (such as a “terms of agreement” page), they rapidly scroll the cursor to the end without reading anything. They just click the acceptance box and never think about that agreement again.

When an organization uses plain language in its communications, its customers and clients see that business as transparent. Transparency is inherently ethical.

Sometimes the stakes are higher. Necessary information might be hidden in the “fine print”—a euphemism for complex and garbled text presented in a tiny font. In those cases, some readers might rely on others to explain the document, but it can be risky for them to trust someone else’s interpretation of an important paper, not to mention unethical for writers to make it necessary for readers to do so.

Plain language reduces the chance that the audience will misunderstand a business communication. When an organization uses plain language in its communications, its customers and clients see that business as transparent. Transparency is inherently ethical.

Transparency Leads to Trust

When a business communication is readable, concise, clear, and transparent, the audience believes the writer is trustworthy. In Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You, Frances Frei and Anne Morriss explore trust building. They explain that the level of trust felt toward another person or business depends on three elements that form a triangle: authenticity, logic, and empathy. To create this triangle, the writer must take three steps:

Express an authentic persona. Business communicators achieve authenticity if they write with clarity and transparency. When audiences immediately understand a message, they have confidence in the writer. They recognize important information is not being hidden behind impenetrable language or unfamiliar jargon.

Use rigorous logic. Writers must present documents that are logical not only in their content, but also in their design. Business writers can create logical presentations in several ways:

  • By using bullet points instead of crowding a series of details into a paragraph.
  • By using tables to present budgets.
  • By using graphs to depict complicated statistics.

Logically organizing and presenting points makes complex content easy to read. Audiences will be more inclined to trust the writer and be persuaded to act on any proposals.

Show empathy for the audience. Plain language creates empathy through content that is centered on the audience and a structure that presents critical information at the beginning. Frei makes a similar point in her popular TED Talk, “How to Build (and Rebuild) Trust.” Although she is not specifically referring to plain language, she advocates demonstrating consideration for the reader by using a writing structure that puts the bottom line first. Consideration is empathy in action.

Plain Language for Business Communication

Despite the benefits of plain language, only a few schools emphasize good writing in the business school classroom. Too often, business students have been taught that their writing should display their knowledge and understanding of the course content, that they should dazzle their professors with their extensive vocabularies. They learn to write for one specific reader (the professor who already knows the material). Often, their paragraphs are dense and impenetrable, and they strive to make their prose sublimely impressive. In short, learners’ academic writing is a performance.

The three of us have more than 35 years of combined experience teaching traditional English Composition, and in that time we have witnessed many such student performances. But, after teaching one semester of Business Communication, we realized that it doesn’t work to teach traditional composition in business communication courses.

Business communications have a specific goal: getting a desired response from the audience.

That’s because business communications have a specific goal: getting a desired response from their audiences. Business communications are aimed at busy people suffering from information overload and laboring under a lack of knowledge. These audiences appreciate simplicity, straightforward words, uncomplicated sentence structures, and effortless reading.

Our students learn that they must write with a single purpose, which is to further the business by focusing on what their various audiences need. To achieve this goal, they write to inform, so their audiences can take responsible steps. They write to persuade, so their audiences will engage with them. Our students learn that, whether they are preparing a simple event announcement or a complex proposal, their writing should always serve as a call to action.

Writing for an Audience

In our class, we create assignments that are practical and real; they incorporate scenarios that apply to the world of business. These scenarios not only provide context for the writing situation, they also identify potential audiences for the information, so students learn how to communicate to different groups.

For instance, in one exercise, students write an internal email that introduces a new intern to the company and an external press release that introduces the intern to the wider business community. They learn to employ different tones, word choices, and styles to present identical information to different audiences.

In a second assignment, students must write an email in response to a customer complaint. The dissatisfied customer requests a refund, despite the fact that the company’s 30-day return guarantee has expired. Learners must decide whether they will allow a full refund, a partial refund, or no refund at all. No matter what they decide, learners use a plain language structure that allows them to provide an ethical response:

  • They empathize by acknowledging the customer’s frustration.
  • They offer a clear and concise resolution to the customer’s request.
  • They follow the resolution with a readable rationale—they don’t hide behind any legalese.
  • They provide a specific call to action. For instance, they provide a phone number the customer can call for more details.

Through this assignment, students learn that their response to the customer should focus only on what the customer wants to know and what the customer needs to do with the information.

Learning to Ask for Help

Another assignment teaches students how to problem solve, ask for help, and clearly outline possible solutions. In this scenario, they must figure out how to deal with a new employee who has become their annoying cubicle neighbor. Learners first read about the various steps of logical problem solving and apply these solutions to situations in their real lives. Then they are ready to tackle the assignment.

Their first task is to write an email to a mentor (who doesn’t work for the company) and request help. Students learn that they should ask themselves three questions and structure the emails around their answers:

  • What does my mentor already know about me? (That I have been working at my dream job for the past six months.)
  • What does my mentor need to know about the situation? (That my co-worker’s behavior has impacted my life in these specific ways.)
  • What do I want from my mentor? (Advice about the three logical solutions I’ve come up with but have not attempted for fear of making things worse.)

This process helps learners figure out how to ask for help in a professional manner, while showing their mentor they have considered possible solutions.

Clear, well-organized writing helps make and maintain successful business relationships, the goal of all business communication.

The learner’s second task is to write the mentor’s response. After the class discusses why the mentee’s solutions might not work, we debate other solutions that might be more appropriate. Once learners have decided on solutions, they write responses from the viewpoint of their mentors. They first consider what the mentee already knows, so they don’t waste time repeating information. Then they ask themselves what the mentee needs to know, and that is the information they include in the email:

  • They note that the mentee’s possible solutions might have serious repercussions.
  • They offer their own recommended solutions and provide step-by-step instructions for implementing these plans.

By writing these two somewhat complicated emails, students learn to compose concise, direct, and readable documents that answer the audience’s specific needs. That audience-centric focus helps them understand that using plain language and logically organizing necessary information are inseparable. Clear, well-organized writing helps make and maintain successful business relationships, the goal of all business communication.

Plain Language Gains Advocates

In our Business Communication sessions, there is no magic word count or page length. In too many classes, required word counts and page lengths are simply arbitrary. We like to give an example shared by one of our learners who submitted an essay for his Business Law course. Without even reading his essay, the professor told the learner he would not get a passing grade because the paper did not fulfill the required page length.

However, the student persevered, citing the lessons he had learned in our course about the value of concise writing. The professor agreed to take another look. After reading the essay, the professor was pleasantly surprised and acknowledged that the learner had written what had been assigned, but had done so in plain, accessible, easily readable language. This professor is now a champion of our Business Communication course.

What the Future Holds

In 2010, the Plain Language Act was signed into federal law in the U.S. The law requires all government agencies to communicate in clear language that the “public can understand and use.”

Businesses need to pay attention to why the government requires plain language. According to brand strategy company Siegel+Gale, businesses waste 98 billion USD a year because of complexity in their messages. In a 2022 report, the company confirms that “simplicity drives financial gain for the brands that embrace it and shapes a better future for everyone.”

A similar point is made in a 2022 statement from Clarity, the largest international organization committed to plain language. The organization points out that complexity comes with tremendous costs, ranging from “the number of calls and emails to customer service, to the duration of calls and meetings, errors by employees and customers, training time, printing and document management costs, [and] loss of productivity.”

Converting to plain language benefits us all. We know that writing in plain language isn’t easy, but reading and understanding our business communications should be. In learning to write in plain language, our students gain the communication skills necessary to build business relationships based on clear and transparent purposes.

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Meg Geddy
Lecturer, Business Communications, J. Whitney Bunting College of Business & Technology, Georgia College & State University
Ward Risvold
Lecturer, Business Communications, J. Whitney Bunting College of Business & Technology, Georgia College & State University
Micheal Stratton
Dean, J. Whitney Bunting College of Business and Technology, Georgia College and State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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