Plain language doesn’t have to be plain

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“I like fruit baskets because they give you the ability to mail someone a piece of fruit without appearing insane. Like, if someone just mailed you an apple you’d be like “Huh? What the hell is this?” But if it’s in a fruit basket you’re like, “This is nice!”
—Comedian Demetri Martin

In other words, it’s all about context. At Siegel+Gale we know that how an idea is positioned and packaged is just as important as the idea itself.

As a plain language writer, I often wonder whether positioning the idea of straightforward communication through the term “plain language” is really communicating what the plain language movement represents.

For most people, the word plain is synonymous with being unadorned, lacking flavor or (dare I say) boring. But the goal of plain language writing isn’t to lull anyone to sleep. It’s to boil complex ideas down to their essentials and communicate them in a way that everyone (not just lawyers) can clearly understand. So, perhaps “plain language” could use a little rebranding. “Cut-to-the-chase language” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but you get the idea.

While its purpose is to get to the point, I think cut-to-the-chase language at its best is also about communicating with the right tone. To be engaging, cut-to-the-chase language needs to have a personality that’s relatable to (and liked by) readers. Based on my experience as a human being, I think people respond well to humanity and humor, particularly when it’s coming from an unexpected source, such as a government or financial institution.

An email I recently received from ING Direct proves this point, and shows how cut-to-the-chase language that’s written with humanity and humor can go a long way.

When I first saw the email, its subject of Annual Privacy Notification had me prepared to recite an internal monologue of, “Skim, skim. What does this even mean? Blah blah. Delete.” But instead, upon opening it I was greeted by a very unpretentious and approachable paragraph that read:

“Here’s some important Privacy Policy info that we’re required to send you each year. It seems like a lot of legal stuff, but we promise, it’ll only take a few minutes. And don’t worry, there’s nothing you need to do on your end.”

So down to earth…so human! By not showing off their legal might, they made me want to actually continue reading the email (or complete the call to action, as we often say at Siegel+Gale). As any client would probably agree, having your readers do what you want them to is the ultimate goal. Turns out, as ING shows, sometimes all it takes to achieve this is showing a little humanity in your communications so they’re more approachable.

ING also uses humor as a way to relate to readers and grab their attention. Perhaps my favorite part of their email was its closing, which takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to explaining how readers can contact someone if they have questions:

“Replies to this email end up in a black hole. If you need to reach us, email us at Thanks.”

This bit of humor not only gives the email personality, but more importantly, a sign of life. I, and probably most other people, can better relate to a financial institution that has a pulse and is willing to crack a joke. We are human after all. It helps when banks (or any type of company for that matter) show that they are too.

ING proves how using cut-to-the chase language, with a dash of humanity and humor, can result in improved customer experiences. Not only will customers read what is written, and do what they’re asked, some may even share their positive experience with others in, say, a blog post.

Megan Pluskis is a senior information architect for the Siegel+Gale New York office.

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