Plain Language Standard

Using words for good — an experiment in the power of care

Close up image of a heart-shaped leaf which is turning golden yellow. Bare branches in the background.

Lynda Harris conducts an experiment in the power of care through plain language. Image by DaMoJo / Excio licence

This B Corp month (March 2022), Lynda Harris explores links between being a B Corp and using words for good. Write, the company behind the WriteMark and WriteMark Plus, became a B Corp in 2021.

This blog was written for accredited and aspiring B Corps. But the ideas are relevant to all business writers!

Does being a B Corp improve the way you write? It certainly does for some B Corps.

A few years ago, I did a small experiment with some B Corps to see if their focus on being a force for good in the world influenced the way they wrote. And it did! I don’t know if all B Corps write clearly. But I do know that being a B Corp will give you a great head start.

Find out more about B Corps in Australia and New Zealand on the B Corp website

What made me do that experiment?

As a plain language professional for over 30 years, with a passion for training people in the art of clear communication, I’d seen some people transform their writing overnight simply by being encouraged to apply the age-old ‘golden rule’. Asking a writer to treat their client as they would like to be treated and ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ sometimes trumped more formal writing techniques. And almost instantly writers produced much clearer, more reader-friendly documents.

Since the notion of honouring ‘people and place’ is baked into B Corps, I wondered if the foundational concepts of care and empathy would naturally translate into a more effective, human-centred writing style from those firms.

Testing my idea

So I decided to find out if my hunch was right and interviewed several B Corps. To raise the bar, I picked a sector traditionally known more for obfuscation than clarity — law firms!
Here are some of the inspiring responses to my all-important question, ‘Do your B Corp values, especially your value of care, influence the way you write to clients?’

From Alexandra Doig, Managing Partner of Atticus Lawyers in Melbourne:

Yes! Telling people what they need to know and doing all we can to help, means we need to write like a human. We need to communicate clearly and personally in ways that don’t alienate. We can’t give a client a convoluted document. We have to walk the talk and act on what we believe in.

We could write a 10-page document. We try to write a 1-pager that clearly captures the most important info and that the client can easily understand and be comfortable with. It’s a calculated risk — with benefits. We want to write in a way that gives clients that lightbulb moment If a client doesn’t walk away with a greater understanding of their position than they had when they arrived, we haven’t done our job properly.

From Joel Cranshaw of Clearpoint, Australia

Yes! I say that for two reasons. Our retainer-based fee model means that we must work efficiently — so we must be clear, concise, and to the point. And what we believe in, our philosophical approach to compassionately meeting clients’ needs, also means that we must communicate in ways they can readily understand.

From Sophie Tremblay of Novalex, Canada:

Absolutely! We know that even the smartest people aren’t necessarily familiar with legal terms and concepts. So a huge part of what we do is to make the law understandable. We use concrete examples and remove the abstract, along with many other techniques such as metaphor (it’s like), and ‘this means’… We remove jargon and make important concepts stand out. We do what we need to do to be understood.

Accidentally using plain language techniques

Hearing Sophie’s list of useful plain language techniques, I asked if she had ever had any formal plain language training. She hadn’t. Nor had Alexandra, or Joel. Yet instinctively, motivated by strong human values and a sense of care, all three ticked so many plain language boxes.

Here’s what a sense of care, and a desire to connect and be helpful, prompted these firms to do:

Keep the content as concise and relevant as can be — thinking very carefully about what the client needs and sticking to that, avoiding cognitive overload
Use a layout that is carefully organised and makes important points stand out
Make it personal, putting yourself in your reader’s shoes, being ‘compassionately reader-centred
Focus on clarity, explaining concepts in a way non-lawyers could understand
Use metaphor or simile (it’s like) and reader-friendly interpretations (this means)
Avoid jargon

Without knowing it, they applied these key principles of plain language:

  • a highly personalised approach aimed at connecting and truly helping
  • clear organisation of content focused on achieving a specific purpose
  • clear, familiar language and a major attempt to explain unfamiliar concepts
  • a layout that signals key messages and supports comprehension.

And while achieving the above, they naturally applied more detailed concepts of plain language, such as writing in the active voice, favouring verbs instead of nouns, writing strong informative headings, and so on.

Since doing those interviews, I have informally looked at the websites of many other B Corps. My sense has been that a good number show a higher standard of clarity and connection than their non-B Corp competitors. And some are outstandingly clear and inviting.

So what do the results of my experiment mean for you?

First it means that your B Corp values are most likely influencing you to write with more care. That’s great! But rather than assuming, why not test your writing against a recognised plain language standard? You can download the Write Plain Language Standard here for free and use it as you wish in your organisation. Quite apart from putting your writing to the test, using the Standard will help you label some of the good practices you may already have and teach you some you weren’t aware of.

For some, perhaps those creating and retailing products, the focus on plain language may be easier.
But for others, working in industries known for complex concepts and language, it will be a bigger challenge. However, if lawyers can do it, you can too, right? (Shout out to Sharesies, the Cooperative Bank, Pathfinder, KiwiBank, and others who prove you can write warmly and clearly in the financial sector too!)

What’s the deal with plain language anyway?

It’s probably pretty clear to you by now that striving to create clear, human-centred writing has many practical benefits.

When you focus on the purpose of an email, you’re more likely to get understanding and the action you’d hoped for. When you focus on what the user needs to know, and begin with action words in a set of instructions, your user is more likely to follow them. When you put just the right content in a report, and use informative headings, your reader is more likely to keep reading. When you write your terms and conditions with a reader-friendly tone, using everyday words and making key messages clear, people are more likely to feel positive about them.

And at the big-picture level, plain language is essential to a functioning democracy in which all people can access their rights and understand their obligations. Human-centred writing makes everything work better.

But here’s the most important bit for you

Actively applying the ethos and principles of plain language creates a beautiful congruence between your values and how you show up in the world. It’s about authenticity and speaking in a voice that truly reflects who you are. It’s really at the heart of being a B.

March 22nd, 2022

Posted In: Plain language, The WriteMark, WriteMark Plus

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