What is plain language
A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.The International Plain Language Federation
Plain Legal language is the same, but focus on legal communications.
To draft a successfull plain language law, contract, policy or information guide, you must adopt a rigourous approach which implies these 4 steps :
- To fully understand your reader’s profiles and needs and adopt their point of view in the drafting process
- To carefully define the purpose of your content
- To rethink the structure, the wording and the graphic design to make your content easily scannable and understandable
- To chose the relevant and useful information for your users
What plain language isn’t
It is not dumbed down content
When done right, a legal document in plain language is as accurate as a document written in legal jargon. As a matter of fact, often a plain language document is even more precise. Plain language leaves no room for ambiguity or lack of transparency.
It is not patronizing to readers
To the contrary, a legal document written in plain language empowers readers. Legislation written in plain language requires no translation for laypeople to understand.
It is not only pertinent for people with no legal knowledge
Experts love plain language as much as anyone else! Documents written in plain language save everyone time by being easy to read and understand. In fact, studies have shown that people with medium to high literacy levels benefit the most from plain language.
In short, you have every reason to adopt plain language within your organization, whoever your main audience is and whatever type of documents you work on.
Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.Charles Mingus.
Benefits of plain legal language
Increased autonomy for individuals
Plain language gets the message across without the need for help or clarification. People feel empowered when they can find, understand and use information on their own.
Better access to justice
Citizens need to understand the law and legal decisions that affect them. Inaccessible legal writing generates confusion and frustration. It can even result in unnecessary charges, like failing to appear in court or breaching probation. Plain language allows people to understand what’s being said to them – and about them – in the justice system.
Trust between legal professionals and their clients.
Think legal jargon makes you sound clever? Think again! A compelling study by Professor Christopher Trudeau (University of Arkansas, 2017) shows people are at best unfazed, at worse irritated when legal advice is full of complex jargon and obscure terms. This comes as no surprise: clients want to understand the advice they receive and the documents they sign. It gives them confidence in themselves, and in the legal system.
Big savings and new opportunities for organizations
Complexity has a tremendous cost. From the number of calls and emails to customer service, to the duration of calls and meetings, errors by employees and customers, training time, printing and document management costs, loss of productivity… These costs add up and can cripple organizations. To the contrary, organizations that embrace simplicity can expect savings, an improved public image and greater customer loyalty.
US $98 Billion. The amount of money organizations waste due to complexity, according to the Siegel+Gale Global Brand Simplicity Index.
How to implement plain language in your organisation
Documents will not simplify themselves, and it’s unlikely any employee will wake up with a burning desire to review complex contracts or regulations. Leaders must show how committed they are to changing things. Be honest and motivated, and others will follow.
Change causes resistance! Long-used contracts or standard legislation drafting feel safe to many, even when they’re hard to read. Rethinking their structure, content and style can be destabilizing. There will be doubters. Be considerate, but press on, and bet on early adopters.
If your employees and managers are eager to participate, beautiful! People who know the organization, its culture, objectives and methods are essential to any plain language endeavour. However, simplifying complexity is far from simple. Seek advice from plain language experts to guide and accompany your team through the process.
Don’t rush things. A serious plain language project requires reflection time and benefits from the thought process of those involved.
An idea as old as language (or almost!)
Plain language is not a new idea. Greek and Roman thinkers discussed its importance as far back as antiquity. As expressed by the famous Roman teacher and lawyer Quintilian, “We should not speak so it is possible for the audience to understand us, but so that it is impossible for them to misunderstand us”.
The importance of plain language for legal matters has also long been known. The King of Sweden instructed the Royal Chancellery to produce documents written in clear, plain Swedish… over 300 years ago!
In recent years, public awareness of the importance and effectiveness of plain language has increased. This has led to significant new laws and regulations around the world. In the U.S., federal agencies are now legally required to use plain language in their public communications. New European regulations on privacy matters have set a high standard of transparency and clearness. This could be the start of a golden age for plain language. Will you be a part of it?