6 Plain language principles that make your Communications Clear & Effective

As lawyers, your role is to weave your values, ethical principles, and shared purpose into accessible training & communication messaging that facilitates client understanding, employee engagement, and enables consistent behaviors. 

However, over the years, our writing has become dense and needlessly complex, laden with technical terms and abbreviations that make it time-consuming and difficult for our readers to understand. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Adopting plain language principles will allow you to communicate more effectively, more clearly, and more passionately, ultimately deepening your knowledge of topics and relationships with both clients and colleagues.

These principles provide you with a list of human-centric design items to consider when developing or revising internal communications, training, and policy-related assets. Not all will apply to every asset, but you can use them as a tool to improve overall quality.

  1. Write for your primary audience

Write to your audience using language they understand and feel comfortable with. Contrary to popular belief (e.g., write for a 6th grader), your content isn’t for everyone. So, determine who it’s for & what they need from you. Use pronouns (e.g., You, We, Us, etc.) to help them see themselves in the text. You should know the expertise and interest of your average reader, and write to that person. Don’t write to the experts, the lawyers, or your management, unless they are your intended audience.

2. Organize your material to enhance understanding

Poorly organized documents distract readers. So it is important to present information in a logical, narrative order that is most useful to the reader and easy to follow.

3. Keep it simple & be concise 

Use simple words, short sentences, and short paragraphs to keep your reader informed, engaged, and focused. One of the biggest challenges in legal and compliance writing is wordy and dense texts. And nothing is more confusing and boring to readers like long and complex sentences containing multiple points. Effective communication hinges on simple and unambiguous words and statements.  Choose your words carefully, picking familiar or commonly used words over technical or legal jargon.

4. Keep it conversational

Use active voice to simplify your sentences and help your audience relate to your message. Remember we’re speaking to people and people get turned off by adversarial tones (i.e.,  common in our briefs and pleadings). Using active voice helps to simplify sentence structure. Because it emphasizes the doer of an action, it is usually briefer, clearer, and more emphatic than the passive voice. 

5. Design for engagement  

Guide your readers attention using informative headings, use bold/italics and vibrant colors for emphasis. Your reader should be able to decide, based on the heading, if they need/want to read a paragraph that follows. Begin with the main point, then elaborate to provide context if needed. Be open to the idea that a powerfully crafted main point can stand on its own.

6. Integrate strong visual elements

Use images and other visual elements to complement your narrative and bring your message to life. Too often we think of visuals as nice-to-have add-ons, which diminishes their valuable communicative potential. This is why our communications tend to be very text heavy. However, great visuals are crucial elements of any narrative or message. Used appropriately and frequently, they grab attention, replace needless words, and as they say – speak a thousand word.

From writing policy documents, developing trainings, to advising clients, your ability to communicate clearly and concisely can make or break your audience’s trust in you. The above principles will set you apart. We have used them for years with remarkable success. Try them and let us know how it goes. 

Be sure to check out our other articles in the communication series. 

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