ViewPoint: Is your site content written in Plain English? And why does it matter?


That is not a word that is used too often but it is a good one. According to the Encarta dictionary, it is ‘silly and irrelevant or inaccurate talk’.

Why use it now? Well, the Plain English Campaign have a free tool called Drivel Defence. Basically, you can put your writing through it and it will tell you if it is in ‘Plain English’ or not.

The story and activity behind the UK based Plain English Campaign is a good one. One woman in Liverpool (Chrissie Maher OBE) took it upon herself to change how documents were written for ordinary people and to try and rid the world of jargon. Why? Because bad writing confused people and made them feel stupid.

“Since 1979, we have been campaigning against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information” is their mantra.

And what has that go to do with content management, web sites or even intranets?

Plenty. Have a look at your own intranet or web site. Look at some of those policies or updates from the IT Department, HR or even product descriptions. Riveting stuff I bet. And people are expected to read and understand these online on a monitor. I won’t even mention trying to read it on a mobile device.

See the word ‘understand’? That’s crucial. Putting it on your site or intranet usually means a box has been ticked and a job done. But is that content going to be read and understood or even acted upon? If, as in many cases especially on intranets, the language used for much of the content is, well, dull, uninspiring and frankly, unreadable. If people don’t read it, that’s a fail. If they do try to read it and can’t understand it, that’s also a fail.

How to lose 3 hours a day

Sometimes people don’t actually read and understand the content they are meant to be looking at. If they are confused or ensure, they email, call or visit the relevant person in the office. If 20 people did this over the course of a day and spent say, 10 minutes doing it, then that’s 200 minutes lost.

Over 3 productive hours lost in one day trying to understand some writing. If it had been written in Plain English in the first place then those queries could be avoided. Sure, it’s a simplistic example but it goes on all the time in many organisations. And that is lost productivity, a waste of time and ultimately a bottom line cost to a company.

How to be ‘drivel free’

Back to ‘drivel’ and how to avoid it. The Plain English Campaign has many resources to help content producers to create readable and easy to understand content. But here’s a few quick tips to keep your content drivel free:

  • Short sentences. But you can have a longish sentence if it makes sense to do so.
  • Use short action words. Do, call, buy, enrol, make, return, choose, pick, etc.
  • Write good headlines and sub headings that are clear and concise. And make people want to read on. You don’t have to clever. Just make it interesting and relevant. “How to submit cash expense claims” for example.
  • Use short paragraphs, bullet points, numbered items to break up the text.

Oh, there are lots more but try the Plain English Campaign’s site for more advice. They are pretty good at it. And you can be do. Think about the person who has to read and understand what you have written. Will they understand it? And if they won’t, re-write it. Again. Avoid drivel, it will be worth it.


Plain English Campaign

Subscribe to get Gilleran’s ViewPoint every two weeks.

Sign up here or on the right hand side.