The plain language world is filled with passionate people who believe strongly in the power and importance of clarity. We spend our days fighting jargon and legalese like the true foes they are. We help our clients share clear, empathetic messages that reflect their audience’s true needs.
But, for many of us, looking more closely at our own communications may uncover an unfortunate secret: The cobbler’s children have no shoes.
Now, this phenomenon is common and certainly not unique to our industry. Doctors don’t always follow their own advice. Many excellent web-design companies have pretty mediocre websites. And successful PR firms are often far less prominent than their clients.
So, what gives?
When you dedicate your career to a skill, you usually try to spread your message and knowledge to the people and companies you believe need it most. In the process, you may end up forgetting to focus that skill on your individual endeavors as well. But, if we plain language pros want to effectively share clarity with the world, we need to ensure we’re also practicing what we preach.
Want to avoid the classic cobbler’s children conundrum? Start with these three tasks:
- Assess your email communications
We all know that email takes up an inordinate amount of our working time. In fact, a recent report shows that the average white-collar employee spends 4.1 hours a day checking email. Over a career, that adds up to 47,000 hours — or more than 5.3 years.
Even if you can’t prevent the email onslaught, you can control how you contribute to it. By applying plain language principles, such as short sentences, clear calls to action, and audience-focused messaging, you will write emails that other people don’t mind reading. And in the process, you can cut down on the number of unnecessary back-and-forth messages that arise from unclear or less-than-thorough emails.
- Review your website content with a fresh eye and technology
When is the last time you audited your website content and performance to see if you’re really reaching your audience’s needs? If your last audit was at least a year ago, now’s the time to comb through your site to find content and structures that don’t exemplify clarity.
Write down the key message you hope readers will gain from each page, and assess how quickly and easily they find this information. Also consider using technology, such as URL Profiler, to comb through your site and find data on what pages are working — and where audiences bounce.
- Take a hard look at your contracts
In an ideal world, every document you send should be a representation of your work. But, so often, with client needs and real-life demands capturing your attention, critical communications don’t receive the scrutiny they deserve — especially contracts and other legal documents. But, when new clients sign a contract or you share an NDA with employees, these files tell the story of your plain language expertise and commitment.
If you believe everyone deserves clarity in every interaction, that goal includes all of your documents, too. Review your organization’s contracts and determine if they represent your plain language skills and commitment. Should they be less clear and succinct than you would like, create a plan to revise them into the exemplary documents you — and your clients — deserve.
Our business lives are filled with countless written communications, so these three tasks are just the beginning. With each of these examinations, remember the tenets and definition of plain language.
Breaking the cobbler’s children curse can be tough and time-consuming but is well worth the effort. After all, if we care so much about plain language, we should be living it in every communication we share!
About the author: As Principal of Zuula, Meghan Codd Walker helps clients understand — and unleash — the power of plain language. She brings more than a decade of experience as a writer, editor and content strategist, with a focus in the financial services industry.