Chances are you’ve been hearing the terms “plain” and “inclusive” language more and more. Unlike many of the passing fads of today, the emphasis on plain and inclusive language signals how modern languages and societies are evolving.
Each has its own origins, execution, and purpose, but the reasoning behind both comes from the same idea: making content palatable and digestible to all audiences.
Let’s look first at plain language and what makes it different from other stylistic trends today.
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 defines plain language as “Writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.”
Let’s break down this definition.
“Writing that is clear, concise, well-organized”: This part of the definition addresses the mechanical elements of writing. To be clear, language has to be built on substance, not fluff. This means avoiding flowery, multi-syllabic language that the average person can’t follow. For example, most writing doesn’t need words like “perspicacious” when “insightful” would do just fine.
Concise writing means keeping things tight. If you can effectively make your point in a paragraph, there’s no need to stretch your point over a whole page. Keeping things concise means including only the necessary information and avoiding tangents.
Well-organized writing refers to the structure of your piece as a whole. You want the flow of information to be easy to follow so your reader doesn’t have to re-read portions of your work. Well-organized writing requires a bit of planning ahead of time so you can structure your arguments and points efficiently.
“Follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience”: There’s nothing wrong with using complex terminology or structure when the writing demands it. However, doing so when not required leaves readers confused and creates ineffective content.
For example, a medical writer creating a piece on the effects of chemotherapy in different age groups distributed to doctors can assume their audience is well-informed on the subject. The writer should use complex terminology and an academic structure to achieve plain language.
That same writer creating a brochure to distribute their findings to patients will have to take a radically different approach in language and structure. They will have to explain their points in an easy-to-read way because they can’t assume that patients are well-informed on the intricacies of chemotherapy treatments.
Now that we’ve defined plain language, you probably wonder why it’s emphasized today.
The steadily increasing demand for plain language is largely a response to events unfolding over the last several years.
The rise of mis/disinformation and fraudulent claims about everything from the presidential election to product offerings has left audiences demanding greater transparency and clear communication from industry and political leaders. This includes not hiding behind overly flowery, patriotic, or “fake inclusive” language.
Simply put, the average person sees through this facade. People know when a figurehead hides behind language to avoid addressing a question or “soften” a reprehensible talking point. Audiences everywhere are demanding clear, straight-to-the-point communication.
But plain language has immense value outside of appealing to audience demands.
Regarding plain language, the International Plain Language Federation says: “All industries and sectors benefit from improved communication. Readers benefit when they can understand and use information. And organizations gain improved branding, efficiency, and effectiveness of communications products. A plain language standard provides all sectors, in nearly all languages, with a set of guidelines and strategies to make information more accessible and effective.”
Plain language, as a content standard, is becoming increasingly important. Greater diversities of audiences consuming greater diversities of content means that content has to be universally accessible and readable.
Plain language is a key part of reaching a greater diversity of audiences. Studies by the Labrador Company and the Office for National Statistics in the UK confirm that most people prefer text written in plain English. In fact, the Office for National Statistics puts that number as high as 80%.
Plain language is especially important when considering how people approach newly found content today. In a study by the Nielsen Norman Group, 79% of participants scan content the first time they come across it, and only 16% read every word. If someone can understand the purpose and general point of your content by scanning it, it will help them decide if your content is relevant to their needs.
Plain language is also powerful for building trust and credibility with your audiences. If your audiences can easily understand your content, you’ll build a sense of reliability and authenticity, two factors that are also in high demand in today’s content landscape.
Achieving plain language is a simple, straightforward process that doesn’t require extensive training or knowledge. Let’s review the Top 10 Principles for Plain Language promoted by the National Archives.
The previously mentioned Plain Language Act of 2010 requires government agencies to use plain language when communicating with the public. The National Archives have outlined 10 principles to follow to achieve plain language.
While these principles are explicit, they are broad enough to accommodate a writer inserting their personal voice into their work. These principles shouldn’t hinder your writing; they should act as scaffolding to support your piece and your efforts toward creating effective content.
Now, let’s turn to inclusive language.
Inclusive language is exactly what it sounds like: language that does not exclude. Inclusive language does not assume characteristics like race, age, or gender and is free of any bias or prejudice. Essentially, inclusive language is an open form of communication that, much like plain language, is accessible and acceptable to everyone.
The key thing to keep in mind is that inclusive language does not have many firm rules on what to include, as each demographic has its own preferences on self-identification. In fact, inclusive language is largely achieved by an absence of things like assumptions and negative connotations.
Inclusive language focuses on the subject and relevant details rather than peripheral, unimportant details. For example, many professions are phasing out gendered labels. It’s “comedian” not “comedienne,” “firefighter” not “fireman,” and “actor” not “actress.” Gendered professional labels are an excellent example of exclusionary language because the gendered label often only applies to women.
Some people are under the misconception that inclusive language makes writing nebulous and unclear, but that isn’t true. Writers using inclusive language can be just as specific and direct as writers who don’t.
The heart of inclusive language is all about knowledge and empathy. A writer should always know their subject and how they want themselves and their issues discussed. Being unsure of how to refer to a specific demographic or subject resolves like any other lack of knowledge: research. Learning about any subject and giving it the respect it’s inherently due is the best way to grow your understanding.
Inclusive language has always been something to strive for, but it’s only recently gained traction as a universal writing standard. Let’s explore the situations and circumstances that have grown the demand for inclusivity.
Inclusive language is becoming as in-demand as truthfulness, accuracy, and clarity. Content creators who do not use inclusive language are liable to see their audiences diminish over time as the importance of inclusive language increases.
The people historically harmed by exclusion, not just in language but in all aspects of society, are finally having their voices heard and issues brought into the limelight. Millennials and Gen Z have been at the forefront of this effort. As these generations assume more positions of power and authority and dominate larger portions of market shares, they bring a non-negotiable emphasis on inclusivity.
Authenticity is a vital and easy-to-notice portion of inclusive language. As we stated earlier, the average notices authenticity or a lack thereof. In the same way people don’t want organizations to hide behind flowery language, people also don’t want organizations to hide behind “causewashing.”
Causewashing is an attempt to capitalize on inclusivity movements in a bandwagon attempt to drive profits. Disingenuous use of inclusive language and inclusivity, in general, spurs intense backlash from audiences and can be worse for your organization than not promoting inclusivity at all. A famous example is the infamous Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner, which many felt trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement and downplayed the severity of the issue.
Authenticity is the only true way to achieve inclusive language, and this often starts at the top of corporate culture. People care about results and action, not the disingenuous use of keywords.
Using inclusive language at the highest levels of corporate culture promotes a “trickle-down” effect that spreads to the rest of the company hierarchy. When executives make a purposeful effort to use inclusive language, it promotes true inclusivity throughout the organization and enables meaningful diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) frameworks.
Let’s now evaluate some of the guiding principles of inclusive language and what your organization can do to achieve true inclusivity.
The National Assembly of State Arts Associations is a longtime advocate for inclusivity. In their efforts to educate the public on inclusive practices, they’ve outlined eight guiding principles regarding language.
Some people feel intimidated by the idea of inclusive language, but the truth is that using inclusive language is the same as using technical language: you need to expand your understanding.
No one expects a high schooler to understand the ins and outs of thermodynamics. But, if the high schooler wants to work in that field one day, they are expected to take the time to learn.
This same idea applies to inclusive language. The effort of conquering our own ignorance and internal bias enables us to achieve inclusive language and promote an environment that goes beyond tolerance and into acceptance.
We’ve covered both plain and inclusive language in some detail. Let’s now move on to the differences and similarities between the two.
Striving for both plain and inclusive language yields huge benefits for your organization and the world as a whole. While both aim to promote fair, equitable communication, each is achieved differently.
|Plain Language||Inclusive Language|
|Goal||Content that can be read, understood, and digested, in one reading, by a majority of the population||Content that does not exclude any demographic and is free of conscious and unconscious bias|
|Benefit||Easy-to-read content that appeals to a wider range of audiences||Appeal to broader audiences and showcase brand values of inclusion and tolerance|
|Demand Drivers||Huge amounts of content on the web means more people are scanning content before they commit to reading it||Opposition to the rise of political extremism and younger generational demand for openness and acceptance|
In the same way plain language is not oversimplified language; inclusive language is not “broad language.” Both require specificity and style to be clear and effective and contribute to your content voice.
Plain language makes your content easy to read for your target audiences. In the modern age of diverse audiences, platforms, and content, you don’t want to limit your audience to people with doctorates and advanced reading levels.
Achieving plain language is entirely separate from the subject matter. While some audiences may not be able to understand highly technical or complex subjects, all audiences should be able to understand the writing itself.
Inclusive language makes your content palatable to all audiences, not just your target. Insisting on using outdated terms and gendered or biased language is the quickest way to prevent your organization’s content from reaching modern audiences.
A little research can go a long way toward achieving inclusive language. If you’re unsure about terminology or how a specific demographic self-identifies, simply consume content created by members of the demographic and empathize with how they self-identify.
Plain and inclusive language often overlap in how to achieve each, but they are still separate goals with their execution strategies. Achieving each involves different methods. Making an organizational effort to achieve plain and inclusive language is swiftly becoming less of a bragging point and more of a hygiene factor.
If you want your writing to fulfill all six dimensions of content effectiveness, you must make a concerted effort towards achieving plain and inclusive language.
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