News article

Believing this common myth could mean you’re infuriating valuable clients

Read the statement below and think, really think hard, about whether you’ve ever said anything similar.

“My clients are highly intelligent, successful businesspeople. I need to write to them in a way that reflects this. Pass me the thesaurus.”

Sound familiar? If yes, you’ve fallen victim to a widespread problem, and it might be harming your business.

Luckily, there’s a solution. To understand what it is and why it’s so crucial for companies like yours, let’s take a trip across the pond…

What a US professor discovered about communication

In the classes he taught at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Christopher Trudeau always stressed to his law students the importance of plain language. The legal world is hard enough to understand, he’d say, without baffling people with complex communication. Then one day, the professor realised something.

Using anecdotes from his time as a practising solicitor, Trudeau could tell his pupils why he thought plain language was preferable, but he couldn’t prove that it was. So, like any professor worth his salt, he set out to get that proof.

Trudeau commissioned a study of legal communication, which drew responses from people with a range of different professional backgrounds and education levels. In one section, respondents were shown a document full of complicated terms and Latin words, and asked how it made them feel. 41% were annoyed by it, and only 0.5% were impressed.

In another section of the study, respondents were asked to choose between traditional legal documents and ones written in plain language. The results were broken down by education level, and Trudeau expected these to show that the less educated a person was, the more likely they’d prefer plain language. In fact, the opposite was true:

Degree level Less than Bachelor’s Bachelor’s Masters and Doctoral Juris Doctor
Preference for plain language 76.5% 79% 82% 86%

There are many reasons why highly educated people might want to shun complexity, of course. But Trudeau has a simple explanation: “They know what’s clear; they know what’s understandable. They know better.”

5 plain language pointers to make your marketing less irritating

Whether you work in financial services, or law, or another industry, if your clients are busy businesspeople, take note. You could be putting clients off without even realising it if you think you need to sound “intelligent” when you write to them.

There’s an easy fix, though, and it’ll instantly improve your website, social media pages, or anywhere else you talk to your target audience. Just follow Professor Christopher Trudeau’s simple tips, and you can make the power of plain language work for your business.

  1. Use clear, understandable written communication

How? Here are three ways to get started:

  • Use short sentences (ideally no more than 15-20 words) and paragraphs (1-2 sentences per paragraph is fine)
  • Aim for a 10-12th grade reading level – check this in Microsoft Word or the Hemingway Editor
  • Follow web formatting rules, such as including subheadings and using bullet points and tables to break up text.
  1. Don’t assume that all readers will understand industry terms

You may think your clients already know what you mean when you talk to them about annuities and self-invested personal pensions (SIPPs) and diversification. But can you be confident that all of them do? Do you want to take that risk?

Instead, define any terms you include. Also, write out acronyms in full the first time you use them, so readers don’t have to guess what things like SIPPs are.

  1. Prefer the active voice

Consider these two sentences:

  • The dog bit the man
  • The man was bitten by the dog

Which is better?

The first is “active”, which means it puts the subject of the sentence (the dog) up front so it’s easier to understand who’s doing what. Passive sentences are often longer and less clear, so they’re usually best avoided.

  1. Avoid multi-word prepositions like “prior to” and “with regard to”

“Prior to” just means “before”.

“With regard to” just means “about”.

When you’re choosing words and phrases to use in your marketing, swap the complex for the simple and your clients will thank you.

  1. Remember that the vast majority of clients and non-clients prefer plain language

It’s vital that your existing clients clearly understand the points you’re making when you write to them. But what about your targets, or your prospects, or all the people who could one day end up becoming a client?

Using plain language across all your marketing and communications can make your business more attractive to potential customers, but it isn’t easy to do consistently. Unless, that is, you let someone else lend a hand.

How we can help

Since 2017, we’ve created hundreds of websites, thousands of newsletters, and countless marketing strategies all designed to win the attention of clients just like yours. Email or call 0115 8965 300 and we’ll help you grow your business too. We can’t say it any plainer than that.

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