Plain language: the what, the why and the how

Plain language: the what, the why and the how

3 minute read

Plain language: the what, the why and the how

3 minute read

Plain language: the what, the why and the how

Marli Mesibov

VP of Content Strategy, Mad*Pow

When we write in plain language, that means writing in a way that makes information:

  • Clear and understandable
  • Jargon free
  • A low cognitive load
  • Easy to act on

This is what every content creator strives for. But why? Aside from sounding nice, does plain language really matter? Here is some advice from three content strategist to help you decide.

Good copy vs. bad copy

At Confab 2019, Erika Hall talked about Conversational Design and addressed the difference between “oral” and “literate” language. Erika offered examples of how something might be said orally, vs written down. She suggested that written content is more complicated.

But not all written content needs to be complicated. What Erika calls “Oral” and “Literate” could also be called “good copy” and “poor copy.” The literate examples are formal, with more words than necessary. The oral examples are very casual.

Healthcare, for example, is often written in a formal, stilted language. But plainly written health information improves health literacy. When subject matter experts (such as doctors) work with UX writers they find ways to explain what you, the patient, needs in a way you can understand it. That’s why organisations like New Ocean and Cancer.net partner with companies like Mad*Pow and Visible Thread. These UX and readability partners make sure the content is clear, to the point, and readable.

Plain language can be formal, but never at the expense of literacy. Being literate should never mean the language isn’t plain and understandable.

Easy to read means easy to do

David Dylan Thomas also spoke at Confab 2019., In his talk, Fight Bias with Content Strategy, he says that people correlate “easy to read” with “easy to do.” In other words, if instructions seem simple, then the related task will seem easy as well.

Let’s use taxes as an example. They’re complicated, but with easy-to-read instructions, they can be broken down into simple steps. A well-written set of instructions saves time and energy and may facilitate better decisions. In the US companies like TurboTax revolutionised taxes. They promise to save people money, simply by helping them understand how to do their taxes correctly.

An example from the TurboTax website of how they have explained a complex process using plain language.

Make it boring

I’ll reference one last content strategist - Scott Kubie. Scott recently wrote that content strategy is boring – and that’s ok! Scott says:

It’s OK to be boring. Boring beats baffling. Obvious beats obtuse. Articulated beats assumed. (I can do these all day.) Time and again, smart people get stymied in their content strategy work because they’re afraid to write down something that seems too simple, too obvious, too boring. Boo!

Scott Kubie, Content Strategy is Boring (and that’s okay)

Scott’s right. Strategy is about getting the simple, obvious, and important things decided. Similarly, plain language doesn’t need to be exciting. The UX pyramid speaks to significant and enjoyable experiences, but before it’s possible to have that, the information must be reliable and usable.

UX Pyramid with 6 levels: Functional (bottom), Reliable, Usable, Convenient, Enjoyable, and Significant (top)


Take CloudSigma’s 404 page. While it’s very friendly, and has a lot of personality, it’s confusing. It doesn’t clarify what really happened, and it doesn’t offer a way to find what you were looking for.

The CloudSigma 404 page with content that doesn't help the user.

Plain language isn’t as fun and exciting as creating a brand personality. But brand personality makes content enjoyable. Before that, it must be useful – and that’s where plain language comes in.

Plain language is simple (not easy)

Here are six practical steps to help you  write in plain language: 

  1. Identify the goals of your content. What does the audience need to know?
  2. Remember your audience is not you. What makes them different? What information do you have that they don’t? You might record this information as a persona, or an empathy map, or simply some notes.
  3. Imagine a conversation with your audience. What questions do they ask and how do you answer them?
  4. Read what you’ve written aloud. See how it sounds.
  5. Use tools, like Hemingway Editor or Readable.io. These will help you measure readability. Try to stay at a Grade 6 or below for complex topics.
  6. Work with a designer. Designers have different perspectives from content creators, and getting that external feedback will help clarify content.

Take these steps with the creation of your next piece of content, or review existing content with the steps in mind. Finally, if you have a content style guide, think about any changes you can make to that to help others write in plain language too.

When we write in plain language, that means writing in a way that makes information:

  • Clear and understandable
  • Jargon free
  • A low cognitive load
  • Easy to act on

This is what every content creator strives for. But why? Aside from sounding nice, does plain language really matter? Here is some advice from three content strategist to help you decide.

Good copy vs. bad copy

At Confab 2019, Erika Hall talked about Conversational Design and addressed the difference between “oral” and “literate” language. Erika offered examples of how something might be said orally, vs written down. She suggested that written content is more complicated.

But not all written content needs to be complicated. What Erika calls “Oral” and “Literate” could also be called “good copy” and “poor copy.” The literate examples are formal, with more words than necessary. The oral examples are very casual.

Healthcare, for example, is often written in a formal, stilted language. But plainly written health information improves health literacy. When subject matter experts (such as doctors) work with UX writers they find ways to explain what you, the patient, needs in a way you can understand it. That’s why organisations like New Ocean and Cancer.net partner with companies like Mad*Pow and Visible Thread. These UX and readability partners make sure the content is clear, to the point, and readable.

Plain language can be formal, but never at the expense of literacy. Being literate should never mean the language isn’t plain and understandable.

Easy to read means easy to do

David Dylan Thomas also spoke at Confab 2019., In his talk, Fight Bias with Content Strategy, he says that people correlate “easy to read” with “easy to do.” In other words, if instructions seem simple, then the related task will seem easy as well.

Let’s use taxes as an example. They’re complicated, but with easy-to-read instructions, they can be broken down into simple steps. A well-written set of instructions saves time and energy and may facilitate better decisions. In the US companies like TurboTax revolutionised taxes. They promise to save people money, simply by helping them understand how to do their taxes correctly.

An example from the TurboTax website of how they have explained a complex process using plain language.

Make it boring

I’ll reference one last content strategist - Scott Kubie. Scott recently wrote that content strategy is boring – and that’s ok! Scott says:

It’s OK to be boring. Boring beats baffling. Obvious beats obtuse. Articulated beats assumed. (I can do these all day.) Time and again, smart people get stymied in their content strategy work because they’re afraid to write down something that seems too simple, too obvious, too boring. Boo!

Scott Kubie, Content Strategy is Boring (and that’s okay)

Scott’s right. Strategy is about getting the simple, obvious, and important things decided. Similarly, plain language doesn’t need to be exciting. The UX pyramid speaks to significant and enjoyable experiences, but before it’s possible to have that, the information must be reliable and usable.

UX Pyramid with 6 levels: Functional (bottom), Reliable, Usable, Convenient, Enjoyable, and Significant (top)


Take CloudSigma’s 404 page. While it’s very friendly, and has a lot of personality, it’s confusing. It doesn’t clarify what really happened, and it doesn’t offer a way to find what you were looking for.

The CloudSigma 404 page with content that doesn't help the user.

Plain language isn’t as fun and exciting as creating a brand personality. But brand personality makes content enjoyable. Before that, it must be useful – and that’s where plain language comes in.

Plain language is simple (not easy)

Here are six practical steps to help you  write in plain language: 

  1. Identify the goals of your content. What does the audience need to know?
  2. Remember your audience is not you. What makes them different? What information do you have that they don’t? You might record this information as a persona, or an empathy map, or simply some notes.
  3. Imagine a conversation with your audience. What questions do they ask and how do you answer them?
  4. Read what you’ve written aloud. See how it sounds.
  5. Use tools, like Hemingway Editor or Readable.io. These will help you measure readability. Try to stay at a Grade 6 or below for complex topics.
  6. Work with a designer. Designers have different perspectives from content creators, and getting that external feedback will help clarify content.

Take these steps with the creation of your next piece of content, or review existing content with the steps in mind. Finally, if you have a content style guide, think about any changes you can make to that to help others write in plain language too.

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About the author

Marli Mesibov

Marli Mesibov is the VP of Content Strategy at the digital UX agency Mad*Pow. Her work spans strategy and experiences across industries, with a particular interest in healthcare, finance, and education. She is a frequent conference speaker, a former editor of the UX publication UX Booth, and was voted one of MindTouch’s Top 25 Content Strategist Influencers in 2016. Marli can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on UX Design, content strategy, and Muppets. You can learn more about her and her work at http://marli.us

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