Write less, say more: how to communicate effectively with diverse communities

By Eva Hussain

When I first came to Australia at the age of 18, I embarked on a life-long journey of learning of how to deal with information. There was so much to take in. From the physical environment, to the language, understanding how a new country works takes many years. Even today, migrating to Australia can be intimidating for most people, although many already speak English. Information is also much more accessible nowadays. I learned about Australia from my grandfather’s books and a miniseries called Return to Eden, watched by millions of Poles every Tuesday night. As you can probably imagine, the knowledge I thus acquired was either outdated or based on bad acting and stories of crocodile mauling, miraculous plastic surgery and bitter revenge. Needless to say, Australia of 1986 was nothing like I imagined.

Back then, there were many things that confused me and some still do. For example, governmental reports that no-one every reads or instructions that need instructions to be understood. Navigating things like lease agreements, hospital consent forms or car insurance papers was a real challenge. I’ve even quit my first job thinking I was being offered a place at a college, whereas I was just being put on a waiting list.

If you want to know what it’s like not to understand, think back to your first week in a new job. Remember the words that threw you off when you first heard them? Or that time you went to Japan and everything you saw and heard lacked familiarity? For some people, that feeling of alienation and stress never goes away.

Every day we receive, send and process a large number of messages. We live in the age of information overkill. We all know that successful communication is far more than sharing information. Successful communication happens when it travels from the receiver to the sender in the way that it was intended. It can deepen relationships and help us understand people and situations. It can help us avoid conflicts, compromise and make better decisions.

One of the keys to successful communication is clear language. So why is it so difficult to achieve? And why do people use complex language? Perhaps some think that it makes them sound more important or professional. Others may not know how to explain things clearly. Whatever the reason, expressing information in plain language is something many people find a real challenge.

Yet, plain language is simpler and more direct. It makes the reader more included in the conversation and helps them belong.

Research suggests that complex language can adversely affect decision making, innovation and productivity, as well as health and legal outcomes.

When Google was launched in September 1998, it was serving ten thousand search queries daily. Today, it processes over 40,000 searches every second of every day, which corresponds to 1.2 trillion searches per year.

This alone should give you the scale of the information overload we’re exposed to, but if it doesn’t, here is what else is happening on-line:

  • There are 5 billion unique mobile phone users in the world with 4.5 billion internet users.
  • Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram have 2.7 billion active daily users and 60 billion messages are exchanged through the Facebook Messenger platform.
  • Twitter emits 6,000 tweets per second or 200 billion tweets every year.
  • On average, people have 8 social media accounts and spend two hours per day on them.
  • 81% of businesses use some kind of social platform.
  • 78% of people watch online videos every week.
  • On WordPress alone, 70 million blog posts are published every month.

So how can we cut through the white noise and make the information easier to understand? It involves more than making your text size bigger and putting some pictures in your document. It is about working with people your information is for and finding out how you can make it more useful for them. There are no quick solutions but ensuring your writing is clear, easy to understand and contains information that is valuable is the first step.

Why write in plain English?

Plain language removes barriers between you and your readers. People and organisations who write clearly are perceived to be more credible and inclusive. Plain English is also simple to translate into other languages.

What is the purpose of plain English?

  • To get your message across
  • To make a good impression
  • To achieve your goals

How do I know my material is written in plain language?

Material is in plain language if your audience can:

  • Find what they need
  • Understand what they find
  • Use what they find

How do I write in plain language?

Before you write anything, spend a few minutes thinking about what you’re writing and who it’s for. Remember that you’re one human being talking to another human being. Think of your 15-year-old niece or neighbour. How would you explain things to them?

Top tips

  • Keep things simple. The less information you present – the easier it is to understand.
  • Avoid writing for everyone. When you write for everyone, you write for no one.
  • Choose words familiar to your audience and remove slang, idioms and jargon.
  • Use short sentences and paragraphs.
  • Well-formatted content helps people of all reading levels.
  • Use bulleted lists and tables. Apply white space and indentation.
  • Keep it relevant. Information that meets the user’s needs is less likely to overwhelm.
  • Make it clear what is to be done with the information. What action should the user take?

Did you know?

  • Complicated language is harder to read, but it’s easier to write.
  • Plain English is easier to read, but harder to write.
  • This is because convoluted phrasing is the default setting for our poor modern brains.
  • Plain language is for everyone, even experts.

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