using plain language - three ways to make content clear and easy to understand

I stand by using straightforward, plain language in almost any online copy, so I’m sharing three things I do to make the content I write clear and easy to read. 

But firstly, is plain language even that important? 

Well… yes. You literally have seconds to grab and keep your audience’s attention online.

People scan rather than read when they’re browsing articles on the internet and will quickly make a decision about how useful a page is when they’re looking for specific information. 

This is one reason why it’s best to use short paragraphs and sections broken up by informative headings, so readers can easily find what they need. 

It also means small changes, such as switching out relatively common words for simpler alternatives, can make content more readable: 

  • Purchase / buy
  • Receive / get
  • Assist / help
  • Commence / start
  • Utilise / use

Potential customers don’t want to wade through website content full of jargon and language that’s hard for the average person to understand. Rather than proving you know what you’re doing, it’s off putting.

So let’s take a look at three ways that plain language can make website content easier to read and understand. 

Oh, and there will be gifs.

1. Remove unnecessary long words

I’ll start with one of my pet peeves – using longer or more complicated words in an attempt to sound intelligent.

When I read anything written in this way, my mind goes straight to the Friends episode where Joey uses a thesaurus to write Monica and Chandler’s adoption recommendation letter. 

Monica: What was this sentence originally?

Joey: Oh, “They’re warm, nice people with big hearts.”

Chandler: And that became, “They’re humid, prepossessing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.”

Joey: And hey, I really mean it, dude.

Monica: Uh, Joey, I don’t think we can use this.

Joey: Why not?

Monica: Well, because you signed it “Baby Kangaroo” Tribbiani.

It’s an extreme example, but it shows that proving you’re an authority in your subject area is about much more than sounding clever. You need the kind of clear, in-depth content that answers a potential customer’s question fully. 

Being a one-stop shop for the information they need is a great way to show both your reader and Google that you really know your stuff.

You want readers to stay on your website – that’s obvious. So what you need is content that’s easy to understand at a glance and doesn’t leave people googling definitions of complicated words. 

And if people aren’t actually reading every word, they certainly aren’t going to appreciate stumbling over words they don’t know the meaning of.

Someone landing on your page then bouncing straight back to the search results to find an article they can easily understand signals to Google that people aren’t finding what they need on your website. 

That in turn can affect how you rank for a search term. If too many people leave shortly after arriving on a website, it signals that this page doesn’t serve searchers well, and that’s one of Google’s main priorities. 

Think about how people search for things, or even how you’d talk about something in a conversation with a friend. Would you say, “We’re looking to purchase a new property” or “We want to buy a new house”?

2. Beware technical terms and industry jargon

This isn’t so straightforward, as I’m not going to say never use industry jargon or technical language. It depends on the audience you’re speaking to, so this is where it’s crucial to understand who your audience is.

If you’re B2B or you’re in a highly specialised niche with technical clients or customers, the use of jargon and technical terms is fine or even expected.

But if you’re B2C, speaking directly to customers who may not understand the technical bits, you need to be very careful about using jargon. The same applies if there’s any chance you could be appealing to a more general audience.

When you know your subject so well, it can be hard to know what other people do or don’t understand (or even how much they need to understand). 

If there’s any chance people could come away from your website not understanding something they need to understand, you should think about the language you’re using.

It would be like if a doctor or vet talked about a condition using the medical name and didn’t break it down in a way a regular person could understand. 

They’re not dumbing it down by doing this. They’re acknowledging that they have very specialist knowledge that the average person probably doesn’t have. 

And while you can ask your doctor or vet more questions to get a better understanding, your website visitors won’t. They’ll just go to another website that explains whatever they need to know in plain language they understand. 

That’s why it’s vital to know your audience, and it’s why it’s one of the first questions I’ll ask a new client before we work together. If I’m writing for your audience, I need to know as much as I can about them. 

3. Be concise

We know it’s important to have content that’s clear and concise. But not only does that mean simplifying the language for easy reading, it also means not using five words where one will do.

For example:

❌ In order that your blog posts might be easier for people to read, make sure that you don’t use any more words than you need to.

✔️ To make your blog posts easier to read, don’t use any more words than you need to.

Or…

✔️ To make your blog posts easier to read, keep your sentences concise.

The sentences still mean exactly the same thing. The difference is the first example has 26 words, the second has 17 and the third has just 12!

Let’s make it as easy as possible for people to get the information they need. 

Examples of easy swaps include:

  • In order that / so
  • In the event that / if
  • Removing ‘that’ where it isn’t needed – ie ‘the first thing you should do…’ compared to ‘the first thing that you should do…’
  • Remove words like ‘very’ and ‘really’ – ie replace ‘very important’ with ‘crucial’

If you’re looking at your website copy now thinking it could be more concise, or you think your business should have a blog but you’re not sure where to start, please get in touch!

(Don’t worry, I don’t force everyone to use gifs…)

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