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June 13, 2023

Marketing needs its Plain Language Act

Marketing, we have a communication problem.  

Let's start with some of the acronyms and work our way into the jargon. We’ve got CPL, CTA, CTC, CTR, CMS, CRO, CMO, CPM in the Cs alone. You might have studied to get an MBA and work in B2B or B2C. You buy ATL or BTL media, work hard to lift your company’s NPS or EBITDA. You might get disappointed by your campaign’s ROI but stoked by its brand recall. You probably say ‘Mental availability’ instead of ‘How easily our product comes to mind’ and ‘Market Orientation’ instead of ‘Understanding my customers’. This is just off the top of my head by the way. There’s a million more out there. 

All day through we’re doing mental gymnastics to figure out what these words and acronyms mean. That and, when you use loose language, you open the door to everyone’s individual interpretations. Does “increase awareness” mean to make someone think of the brand more often, or simply make people aware that your product exists? If it’s the latter, every piece of media you buy does that, so why’s it on your brief? Chances are the goal is to sell 100,000 more units of your product, steal share from your competitor or appeal to a different type of buyer. Write that down. It’s clearer, smarter, and more motivating and you’ll get what you what you need. 

Sadly, no amount of fancy words and acronyms will cover for a lack of substantial thoughts. As a copywriter, whenever I receive a client brief full of stuffy language, I get confused. It means I need to ask what you actually mean. That process can take days. And with a lot of briefs, that’s time we typically don’t have. 

So how do we fix this? 

Way back in 2004, a training company called Praxis ran a study. They re-wrote five documents using plain English at a business called BANCO. Praxis then gave half of BANCO’s employees the plain language documents and half the un-revised versions. 

The group that received the plain language documents were on average 36% more productive and 77.1% less likely to make mistakes. 

In 2010, the US government picked up on how transformational plain language can be. So, they introduced The Plain Language Act of 2010. The Act’s stated aim is to: “improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public.”  

Apply that to marketing and you’d get a sentence that reads: “to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Agencies to their Clients.” Wouldn’t that be nice?  

Of course, I don’t really believe we’ll see an industry standard around this – let alone an Act. But I do believe we need one. It will save time, money, and help marketers get what they want more often.  

So, if you aspire to writing the best possible briefs, start with using plain language. Surprisingly, the guidelines on the US Government’s website are a fantastic place to start. Maybe it’s the very first instance of the Act being put into practice. It’ll take an evening to go through – just use the navigation on the left and work your way through for a masterclass in writing well. 

But this is the internet, and you might not have a whole evening. So, I've invented an abridged Act for you below. Here are the major points: 

  1. Write for your audience. Simply put, consider the person reading your document. This could be your agency strategist, or in-house creatives. Think about everything they need. Put their needs first. Cut the information they don’t need out of your document. 
  2. Use simple words and avoid jargon. Impress people with the quality of your thinking, not with supercilious language. Are you looking up supercilious in the dictionary? I rest my case.  
  3. Write thoughtfully. Treat every word with care. Delete the clichés and common phrases you’ve popped down. Chances are you wrote them on autopilot and they’re acting as placeholders for a better thought. 
  4. Short sentences always. Keep it to one idea between each full stop. The reader will find you easier to follow.  
  5. Keep it conversational. Imagine you’re speaking the words while you write them. Write like you talk. Or better yet, write like you write. Don’t pretend to be someone different. Let your voice shine on the page. 
  6. Write hot, edit cold. When you start your piece, let your thinking flow. Don’t shut yourself down by being critical too early. Once you've finished your draft, be ruthless with your editing. If it’s a bad, or even an okay thought, get rid of it. If the words are essential but wrong, don’t be afraid to return to the drawing board and replace them with a better thought.  

I don’t believe writing in plain language is just a marketing thing either. It’s a life skill. It’ll save you time with emails, everyone from co-workers to family will ‘get’ you better, and your own thinking will become clearer. Because when you write clearly, there’s no need for the to-and-fro. You’re just understood.  


Better input always leads to greater outcomes

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