Summary: Content strategy means radical change. We risk losing users’ trust if we don’t explain our reasons for doing things differently.
Writers love plain language.
Actually, let me modify that: writers whose aim is to communicate a message clearly love plain language. There are other kinds of writing that are closer to art than pure communication, but let’s set them aside for now.
For most of us working online, writing in the simplest possible form that conveys the information we’re trying to get across is almost a default, a given.
The plain language problem?
Hold on though. We can’t ignore the years – the generations – where plain language has been anything but normal in the public sphere.
The Government Digital Service has been doing great work to improve and simplify government communication. GDS’s head of content design, Sarah Richards, posted this on Twitter recently:
If you saw a site’s terms and conditions, completely in plain English, would you trust it? What about an application for benefits etc?
— Sarah Richards (@escmum) August 5, 2013
Many of us spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to communicate online. To paraphrase Sarah, we do the hard work to make it simple for our users.
That’s well and good and right, but it can lead to a problem. It’s a problem that’s common to a lot of disciplines. We jump straight into a solution and don’t spend time explaining the reasons for it.
Kind of ironic if you’re a content strategist who spends their days telling organisations not to do just that.
Overcoming a lifetime of bad communication
As we grow up we gather a sense of what officialdom sounds like. It’s not pretty. It’s jumbled and it’s over-complicated. It’s stupid in the name of trying to sound clever.
Most people never question it. They internalise it. That doesn’t make us better than those people – they just have different priorities. It’s not their job to care about this stuff, let alone change it.
Well-meaning organisations try to hitch a ride on this broken wagon, aping the language that other ‘authoritative’ organisations use. Which leads to this kind of thing.
…I carefully remove jargon from a client’s copy, and I get a note: “It doesn’t sound professional anymore.” – Diary of a Content Strategist
Do the right thing, but explain why
For people who don’t work as writers, editors or content strategists, simple language can be jarring when it appears in unexpected places.
Sarah’s question is a useful reminder that unless we’re transparent about the reasons for doing things differently we could lose users’ trust, even as we try to act in their best interests.
Editorially’s blog post about their simple terms of service is a good example. They’re preaching to the converted, maybe, but it’s a start.
One day this kind of thing will be the norm. It’s on us to make it a smooth transition.
I’ve used plain language as an example here to make a bigger point. Content strategy is revolutionary. We can lose sight of that fact but it’s worth remembering.
The work we’re doing involves radical shifts in methods and mentality compared to what has gone before. It’s good work and it has to be done, but it only works when we bring users and colleagues along for the ride.
Let’s never stop explaining why.