As I holidayed this summer, in Canada and in the US, I found myself comparing levels of and styles of customer service. Experiencing a lack of clarity in instructions, directions and information, it reminded me that plain language truly is a form of customer service excellence.
Any business can gain an advantage by using plain language. In preparing for my presentation The Solution to Persuading Plain Language Sceptics—Training for the PLAIN 2017 Conference: Improving Client Relationships, I became even more convinced we need to really persuade clients—internal and external—to integrate plain language with customer relations initiatives.
What benefits does plain language provide?
Unhappy clients can mean a loss of business and negative publicity. It can affect staff morale, productivity and commitment. No one wants these. Incorporating plain language and supporting it with training offers huge benefits for your staff and clients:
What are my plain language training needs?
The best way to plan your plain language training is to begin with a thorough audit of what communication training has been or is being delivered. Identify key customer relations problems—existing or potential. Then assess who needs which skills or knowledge in clear communication. Once all these are agreed, the plan can take shape. Plain language training can be stand-alone, integrated or connected to a specific project.
What should we focus on?
What results should we look for?
Integrate plain language training or consulting into every customer service initiative. Ensure staff can effectively connect with clients using clear communication for problem solving and promotions. Look for and measure the improvements:
Check the PlainLanguageAcademy.com Calendar for courses that can help. We offer three options for Course 6: Plain Language Project, including coaching and consulting combinations.
There are simple solutions to testing
Ever wonder why a message or campaign just doesn't get the results from people you expect. Did you ask clients, readers, users for their input along the way? The most important aspect of the plain language process is testing the message with your readers or users. Yes, asking them what they think, feel, want.
However, both the process and resources—human, time and money—often mean organizations drop this stage. But, it delivers a brilliant return on your investment. Imagine if one concept, word or phrase was turning away clients, decreasing sales and taking up staff time answering the same questions over and over.
Here are five easy options for testing.
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1. Listen and learn
Listen carefully to the words your readers use when they describe your products or services. You will learn a lot about using 'their language' to gain understanding and really connect.
2. Everyone is a salesperson: let them sell
Get clients to explain o another person (even yourself), in their own words, what you offer. You can pick up some great clues as to how well your message matches your client's interpretation. And, you get an inside look at how people talk about you.
3. Use the simple Plus or Minus Checklist
Give a group of testers a section of your marketing materials, web content or product description. Then ask them to simply read through it and put a plus sign (+) beside info they like and understand and a minus sign (–) if they don't understand, like or get it. Now you know where to focus.
4. Get website users to perform a task
Watch how people get from the home page to the task page. How long it takes them? Which problems did they encounter? You will get great insights into how they navigate, what's important to them, and if your content and design are delivering the results you want and they need.
5. Start by asking clients what they really want
If you haven't done a client survey, focus group, or product test recently, now is the time to simply ask some key questions. What do you want from us? What are we doing that you like? What could we do better?
Your clients hold the key to your success. You ignore them at your peril. And, if you really want to create clear or plain language materials to connect with clients, you need to involve them along the way.
Here are some helpful sites:
ProsWrite—A simple way to test your reader's response
UserResearch.gov.uk—Tips for testing your words
By Cheryl Stephens
Plain language projects, like any others, can be enhanced by clear documentation. Plain Language Academy program advisor and facilitator Cheryl Stephens shares four ways to track your project progress, for current and future needs. Thanks Cheryl.
For a freelance writer-editor, many jobs are short-run, although there may be repeat assignments with the same client. Early in your career, one tends to think of some jobs as quick and easy to do, so the engagement is not fully documented. In situations when you are working with a team member, you may not view it as your job because there is someone else who is supposed to do it.
Just remember, it is your career and your reputation at stake.
Create a case study
After a two-year project, I was asked to write an article about the project. It was then I wished I had made notes along the way and treated the writing project like a case study. In another instance, deemed an emergency by the client, I finished a short, written piece in one day. Later, there were many occasions when I wanted to use this piece as an example, but could not recall the details.
Many of us use checklists to make sure we cover off all the standard issues—in a written piece or an entire project. Checklists are good, but even better if you annotate them with some detail.
Write Interim report or memo to file
For project needs, an interim report is sent to the client or team, to bring everyone up to date on the status of the work-in-progress. A memo to file is used, but not circulated, to record some difficulty or reason to change the project's direction. Sometimes the memo to file is not kept in the project file, but in your own folder. A CMA (cover my ass) folder keeps information available, if you should ever need to CMA.
Track with originating documents
Of course you should always have a contract that sets out the expectations for each person involved, but sometimes an editing or writing project is started less formally. Then, the first memo should set out those parameters and it should be sent to the client. You can refer to it when things start to go sideways. Sometimes, veering sideways is unavoidable due to external developments, and you should record those changes and new decisions in a memo to file.
Learn more in Academy courses
You can get the full complement of skills needed for plain language project management by taking our six-course Foundation Program, or selecting Course 6: Plain Language Project, or its options (adding on coaching and consulting services). Registration is open. Visit Calendar for start dates.
One great aspect of online communication, whether email, social media or website content, is its immediacy. At least when sending. But, as we all have personal experience with information overload, how do we ensure our messages get noticed, get read, and get the reaction we want? Here's a guide for you to follow.
3-point benefit checklist
Benefits are primarily for your readers. With emails and online content you want to ensure your audience can:
Ask your readers, or a test group, if they 'understand' your message or content. Ask a question based on the content to see if they 'understand' it the same way you do. Listen to your group explain what it means to them. Watch how they move through your information. Measure the results. The rewards are worth it.
3 ways to stand out from the crowd
Or, should I say overcrowding. I haven't heard anyone complain lately that they didn't have enough emails, are just surfing for fun, or their to-do list is empty. Plain language, or clear content and design, can make you stand out from the crowd.
Real email subject line: Status of your website
Plain language revision: We can help you get more site traffic
3 things to do when signing off emails
Emails are still the biggest form of communication. How do you sign off your emails? It's an important part for you and your reader. It leads (hopefully) to the next action, purchase, meet-up. However, many of us stumble here. These are three recommended closings (and three not recommended) from Grammarly.com.
Best wishes, Cheers (my favourite) and Thanks in Advance (very positive results) all work very well, when matched to the situation.
Not recommended: Thx, Looking forward to hearing from you (passive aggressive), nothing or just your initials. Plain language is about conciseness, but not at the expense of connecting.
Being clear is what will make you stand out. Take the time to check that your online communication and content meets the three E guidelines, connects with your readers and gets the action you want. It's all about clarity and conciseness.
Check out four.sentenc.es. They offer a nice signature tag for your 'four-sentence email' as a reminder and to encourage others! I love it. Use it! And, I challenge you!
Don't forget good, old face-to-face, even if it's a Skype call, Google Hangout, or Face Time. According to this Harvard Business Review research, "you need to ask six people in person to equal the power of a 200-recipient email".
If plain language or clear communication is new to you or your job, or you want to enhance your skills, check out our Plain Language Academy courses. Plain Language Basics and Plain Language Writing and Editing start at the beginning of each month (except Aug and Dec—we are on holiday).
Link to PlainLanguageAcademy calendar.
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Cheers for reading this blog.
Peers share top strategies for selling benefits
Despite the many successes I have experienced and positive stories from my colleagues, we are still challenged by those who don't understand the benefits of plain language. After many years in the field, sketicism is still a topic peers want to talk about and seek a solution to. A recent PlainLanguageAcademy.com Google Hangout focused on how to successfully sell plain language services to skeptics. Hosted by Cathy McPhalen, thINK Editing Inc., Edmonton, the group of peers shared their experiences and expertise on ways to convert clients to this new (to some) way of connecting with audiences, by simply being clear. The discussion was lively as options were explored.
"What is plain language?" "Isn't that dumbing it down?" "I don't want to lose my professional voice. That's what I'm paid for." "We've always done it this way. If it's not broke, don't fix it." Whether you are new to plain language or have been providing clear writing, editing, design and training services for some time, these protests may sound familiar. So, as a profession, what can we do to persuade skeptics clear communication is worth the investment? Here we share three proven approaches highlighted during the Hangout.
1. Educate your clients
It has never been more apparent that lack of education, or understanding, can lead to sad social, political, organizational and cultural situations. Integrating a training or orientation session into your plain language proposal or project is important to get organizational support. You may have to do it to get a project started. Integrate it and get help from a plain language trainer if you need one. But, expect positive results.
2. Health check on current practices
We are all somewhat resistant to change. It takes time, resources and commitment. Your client, internal or external, may say making all these changes will meet resistance and cost money. Here is a great way to turn this around.
Get permission to ask some questions to help you understand their situation. Here's what our NZ colleagues at ReWrite–How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit have to say about discovering what is really going on. Find out how long it takes to produce an email, a brochure, web updates or reports. How many people are involved? How many versions? Now, do a calculation: time it took x salaries = cost. Scary? Plain language can be the solution. The upfront investment in training can generate savings at many levels for the long run.
3. Words that work
We are plain language professionals all helping our clients use words more effectively. Are we doing our best? What words could we use to better explain—and sell—the benefits of plain language? Do you find yourself using negative terms like 'problems', 'challenges', 'issues'? The Hangout peers put their heads together to come up with words that positively promote plain language. What do you think?
For every problem there is a solution. And, the best way to find it is with the power of peers. If you have ideas or stories on success in persuading skeptics, please post a comment or share on social media using #plainlanguage or #plainlanguageacademy.
If you want to join or lead future PlainLanguageAcademy.com Hangouts, send your contact details and ideas to Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out Academy Course 1: Plain Language Basics, designed to increase your understanding of plain language. It can help increase your options for persuading others. The course is open to registration throughout the year.