Plain Language in Practice

Thought Leadership, Best Practices, Insights and Examples


Plain Language in Practice

by Nina Vuong
Post Date:02/01/2017

According to PlainLanguage.Gov,

Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Written material is in plain language if your audience can:

  • Find what they need;
  • Understand what they find; and
  • Use what they find to meet their needs.

Using plain language has become especially important in government since President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act of 2010 to ensure federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” Though the concept may seem straight forward, putting it into practice – especially online – has been a struggle for many municipalities.

If your content strategy has involved flooding your website with every piece of information possible, it might be time to take a step back to apply plain language techniques to all of your communications efforts, and consider these great examples from the City of Olathe, Kansas website.

Skip the Jargon and Legalese

Do you have a permit for your open flame cooking device? Do you have your neighbors over for an open flame cooking device party? No? If you host BBQs and cook on grills, then your residents probably think in those terms, too. For the average person, government websites can be chock full of jargon and legalese that simply make it difficult to understand the information presented to them.

Concrete, familiar words allow readers to quickly understand their meanings.

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Common words like trash, streets and utilities are used in the OIathe Services to allow residents to find exactly what they need. There’s no confusion about what each label could mean or what’s included in each category.
Olathe - trash.png

Even Olathe’s legal department page is concise yet thoroughly explains the types of legal services the city provides to its residents. Notice how legalese is kept to a minimum, making the content easy to digest and understand, and the sentences are short and to-the-point. Contact information for the appropriate city staff members are also included so residents will know exactly who to reach out to if they have a question about the information listed on the page.

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Determine what your main message is for each web page and if it’s clear to your readers.

Break Up Text

People don’t read web pages word by word – they scan the page. Because of this, headings should be in your content writing arsenal. Headings clearly describe the information that follow and allow readers to quickly scan the page to find what they need.

Olathe’s Community Enhancement page outlines the processes for preserving the city’s neighborhoods. Bullets are used throughout to draw the reader’s attention to key bits of information, while subheadings clearly describe what each section is. If a resident wants learn about the types of residential code violations, he’ll be able to quickly scan this page and find exactly that information.

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Use Action Verbs

Action-oriented content allows readers to understand what is required of them. It also lets you be specific about what the content is about and gets people to take the action you want them to take.

Olathe’s “I Want to…” menu is filled with action-oriented options – such as License a Pet, Pay a Ticket, and Apply for a City Job. There’s nothing more confusing than having a menu for “Applications” when there are so many different types of applications.

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Think About Your Users

Incorporating plain language into your site takes careful and strategic planning. Don’t make your site visitors think or work too hard to find what they want. Simplify your content to effectively and efficiently communicate your services and information to them. While you may understand how your local government operates and the services it provides, your residents may not. Write for them, not yourself.

If you’re looking to dive into plain language for your website but don’t know where to start, check out the National Archives’ top 10 principles for using plain language. Check out our blog for a deeper dive into what is plain language and why it’s important.

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