Plain Language: a part of your brand

Christopher Balmford
(Managing Director of Words and Beyond (Australia), past-president of Clarity, convenor and project leader of ISO’s TC 37 Working Group 11, lawyer)

Christopher Balmford<br>(Managing Director of Words and Beyond (Australia), past-president of Clarity, convenor and project leader of ISO’s TC 37 Working Group 11, lawyer)

1. Introduction

Plain language has become a distinguishing feature for service providers — especially for legal service providers.  It’s also central to triple bottom line reporting and to corporate transparency and accountability.

The documents you write form the voice of your brand.  When someone reads your documents, their subconscious conducts a reality check on the claims your organisation makes about itself—claims about being, say, “innovative and “client-focused”. 

Do your organisation’s documents enhance its brand?

Plain language also matters because of the increasing pressure for full and frank disclosure. In that environment, clarity becomes key. 

In turn, clear writing leads to improvement in the substantive aspects of a document — both in terms of the document’s accuracy certainty, and precision and in terms of whether the document work for its author and audience and achieves its purpose.

2. Voice

Each time we speak, the voice we use is heavily influenced by our audience and our purpose: whom we are talking to and why.  For example, we use different voices to talk to our pet, to our mother, to our boss and—if we are a lawyer in private practice—to our clients. As a lawyer, we probably use quite different voices for different sorts of clients.

At the same time, the voice we use depends on our purpose. For example, the voice an employee lawyer in a law firm uses to talk to the managing partner:

  • in a conversation at a social function about how fantastic it is that the firm just won a major pitch for a new client with much, interesting, lucrative, and challenging work for all;

is very different from the voice that same employee lawyer would use:

  • at their annual performance review to ask for a 25% bonus, a 30% pay rise and whether they can work out of the London office for a couple of months a year—business class travel will be fine thanks.

That’s how our audience and purpose influence our voice when we speak.

But when most lawyers write, they do so without thinking about the who and the why. They put their fingers to the keyboard or they pick up a dictaphone, and a-way they go. Usually the lawyer’s “work-voice” kicks in and takes over. That work-voice tends to be fairly heavy, formal, traditional, and impersonal.  When writing, most lawyers automatically use their work-voice regardless of whether they are:

  • writing to a major corporate client to tell it that the jury awarded it $150 million in compensation;
  • writing to a retail client in the process of buying a house to say that on some technicality the vendor has avoided the intent of the contract and sold the house to a third party at a much higher price; or
  • writing a document for the firm’s client to use to communicate with its markets. That document shouldn’t be in the voice of the law firm’s brand. Rather, it should be in the voice of the client’s brand.

Many lawyers are proud of their work-voice.  It gives them confidence: makes them feel like a real lawyer. I remember the moment when as a final year law student a friend of mine asked me a question about a legal issue he had read about in the paper. Lo and behold, I knew the answer. Even better, when I explained it to him, even I thought I sounded like a lawyer. The relief—the feeling that, “Hey, maybe I’ll be able to do this after all”—was immense.

Many people have a work-voice—not just lawyers.

Most of us are familiar with our work-voice. We notice it especially when it starts coming out in an inappropriate context. For example, you’re having a relaxing time at a social event and then someone asks you a question about something related to your area of expertise. All of a sudden, you’re being consulted professionally.  Your work-voice kicks in without you summoning it. The first thing you notice is your cheeks feel a little funny and the words aren’t coming out quite right—you feel a little slurry or odd. The second thing you notice is that the person you’re speaking to suddenly has a baffled expression on their face because they have no idea what you’re saying. That’s your work-voice.

Somewhere along the way to becoming a lawyer (or whatever it is we are), most of us develop a work-voice and use it for nearly everything we write—no matter how inappropriate the work-voice is to the audience and purpose of the document.

I think the reason many of us (lawyers in particular) so habitually use our work-voice is because we want to sound professional. Fair enough too. But if we look up and think about “professional” writing, we don’t really see anything. So it’s difficult to see how to write professionally. Then I think what happens is we decide that in order to write professionally, we’ll write in a way that is “formal” and “traditional”—in the hope that that will equal “professional”. But “formal” plus “traditional” doesn’t equal “professional”.  It equals pompous and out of date. We can write a letter that’s warm, human, clear, and friendly and still be completely professional.

Having thought about voice, let’s think about brand.

3. Brand

Today, in these communication saturated times, an organisation’s reputation is expressed through a clearly defined brand. The brand represents the essence of an organisation: everything it stands for, and everything that differentiates it from its competitors. To quote the global management consultants McKinsey & Company:

A name becomes a brand, when consumers associate it with a set of tangible, or intangible, benefits that they obtain from that product or service.  To build brand equity, a company needs to do two things: first, distinguish its product from others in the market; second, align what it says about its brand in advertising and marketing with what it actually delivers.¹

Perhaps the best way to understand the concept of brand is to imagine me offering you a sports car and asking you to choose from 3 leading models each from a different manufacturer.  The vehicles are labelled Model A, Model B, and Model C.  The trouble is you have to choose your car on the basis of the anonymous manufacturers’ vehicle specifications and performance criteria (no photographs of the car either). 

I expect you’d have trouble choosing—until I told you that Model A was a Corvette, Model B was an Alfa Romeo, and Model C was a Porsche.  With that information alone, most of us would choose one of the cars immediately—who cares about the torque ratios, the widget factor, or the number of what-have-yous in the thingy.  (Personally, I’d take the Alfa).

Whatever it is that enables us to decide which car to buy as soon as we know the names of the manufacturers is the brand—the intangible thing that influences our buying decision so much more than the product specifications and performance criteria.

The key point about building and maintaining a brand is alignment. This point was made by McKinsey & Company in the quote above: “… a company needs to … align what it says about its brand in advertising and marketing with what it actually delivers.”  That’s true, otherwise, all that advertising and marketing is undone when the customer’s or client’s expectation is not met by the reality of the product or service. So alignment and delivery are the key to a successful brand.

One aspect of an organisation’s activities that needs to be aligned with its marketing and advertising to create a successful brand is the organisation’s documents.  Because the documents an organisation produces, or relies on, form the “voice of its brand”.

4. Voice of your brand

The people who create written communications for an organisation are creating the “voice of their organisation’s brand”—whether they work for the organisation or as one of its advisers.

The voice of the brand is vital to the success of some organisations ¾particularly those that provide intangibles.  Their communications may be the only thing of any substance that the customer (or potential customer) has to go on when, for example:

  • they are deciding whether to buy in the first place;
  • they are deciding whether to continue using the service;
  • they are working out how to use the product; or
  • they are trying to understand and apply some professional advice they’ve received.

Consequently, each time someone reads an organisation’s document they connect with the organisation’s brand. Too often, that moment of truth is sour: the document is formal, impersonal, and awkward.  It fails to live up to the values that are the foundation of the organisation’s brand.

Organisations spend fortunes on logos, visual identities, and advertising.  They do so with the aim of creating or refining their brand in an attempt to woo and retain customers.  Yet the very same organisations pay little attention to the voice of the brand.  Even though it is the voice of the brand that the audience has to deal with¾often when the audience is busy at work, or weary at the end of the day, and would rather be doing something else.

An organisation needs to treat the voice of its brand as seriously as it treats its visual identity, its customer service, and the flowers in reception.

A simple way for the organisation to do that is to measure its documents against its brand values, its brand promise, its mission, its vision etc. 

Consider this simple letter from a major global organisation. The letter was sent to a former colleague of mine in response to a letter she wrote to the organisation seeking information to help with her tertiary studies.  (I need to mention that the information my friend asked for was not at all secret or valuable.)

Here’s the letter:

Dear Ms X

Thank you for requesting information about [name of the company]. We appreciate your interest in our company and our products.

Due to the sheer volume of student requests for information we receive, we are not able to provide detailed answers to specific questions about our company. However, there is a comprehensive packet of marketing information available to students.

Please note, that as we are a [particular type of company], we are not required to produce a [certain publication] and this information is considered proprietary in nature.

Our student information packet is now available for review on our corporate website, www.[web address] in the section titled “All about [name of company]”.  All information contained in our student packet is available on this website.

In case you do not have internet access, we have enclosed a copy of our current student packet.

As most of the information published about [name of the company] is available in magazine articles, we strongly recommend that you look through the “Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature”, which is an annual index of magazine articles.  This should be available to you at a public or university library.

Thanks again for contacting us. Please call us at [number] if we may be of further assistance.


Let’s consider a few questions about the letter and the organisation. I need to emphasise here, that I’m not concerned about the content of the letter. I completely accept that the organisation does not have to answer every set of questions it gets from students. My concerns are only with the style.

So to the questions about the letter:

  • How does the letter make you feel about the organisation? I find the letter insincere—for example, it seems to give with one hand and take with the other.  Then in the last paragraph, the writer invites the reader to ring for more information but that’s the last thing the writer wants the reader to do.  Also, the letter is defensive, impersonal, and repetitive.
  • What sort of organisation might the letter be from? Hard to tell really: maybe a financial services organisation or a government body.
  • Is the organisation cool? Not at all.
  • Do you want to work there? Buy its products? Not really.  Invest in the organisation? Hmmn, investment is different.

The letter is the voice of the organisation’s brand and it gives us a fairly clear impression of the organisation. 

To see who the letter is from, see the footnote where the answer is hidden to preserve the surprise?²

How did the letter measure up against your perception of that organisation’s brand?  I use the letter as an example in a plain language training course I run. Most participants on the course say there is a massive disconnect between how they feel about that organisation—that is, its brand—and how  the letter reveals that organisation to be.

Let’s consider a legal example. Several years ago I was employed in the Melbourne office of a national law firm but I worked on secondment in-house for a client in Sydney. One Friday afternoon, a partner I knew slightly in my firm’s Sydney office rang and asked me to help him out. He had developed a suite of documents for a client and needed to deliver them on Monday. The documents had to be as plain as could be. He’d gone way over budget and still felt the documents weren’t clear enough. Effectively, he asked me to give him my Sunday and edit the documents to improve their clarity.  I was happy to help.

A few hours later the documents arrived by courier. There was a covering letter addressed to me:

Dear Sir
We refer to our earlier conversation and enclose the documents for your review. We look forward to your comments in due course.
Yours faithfully
[Handwritten name of firm—The partner hadn’t even signed his name!]

The letter irritated me. A lot.  (Mind you I edited the documents anyway.)

I would have been happy with a handwritten note on a with compliments slip. Something like “Dear Christopher, Thanks for this, I owe you lunch. Cheers [name of partner]”.

As I see it, the letter from the lawyer was a classic example of someone automatically using their work-voice.  In a Zen sense, the writer was not “in the moment” when he dictated the letter. He did not even remotely consider his audience or his purpose.

5. The importance of the voice of your brand

For some organisations the voice of the brand doesn’t matter—for example, Levis.  We don’t care too much about the way Levis writes to us—if it ever does other than in advertising and labelling.

But for some organisations, the voice of the brand is of vital importance— for example, a radio station.  If we don’t like the voice of the brand of a radio station, we’re never going to listen to that station. The radio station has got nothing to give us other than its voice.

So if we had a spectrum showing the relative importance of the voice of the brand to an organisation, we could put Levi’s at one end of the spectrum and a radio station at the other end.

At the same end of the spectrum as the radio station—where the voice of the brand is vital—are organisations like accounting firms, law firms, financial services organisations, many government bodies, providers of medicines, and any organisation that gives its staff or its customers a set of instructions or a product manual.

For these organisations, the voice of the brand is fundamentally important.  Consider your firm and its relationship with its clients.   The moment of truth comes when the clients read something written by someone in the firm.  In that moment, it doesn’t matter how brilliant the writer is at the subject matter, or how pleasant they are to deal with—what matters is how easy it is for the clients to use the documents to make decisions about their businesses and their lives.

That moment of truth matters to the reader because the document matters to the reader. If that wasn’t so, they wouldn’t be reading the document— and they wouldn’t pay the firm to write it.

The moment when the document is read is either a brand damaging, or brand enhancing, moment. The person reading the firm’s document quickly sees whether the way in which the firm communicates lives up to the claims the firm makes about itself in its advertising and marketing material. The reader can “smell” whether the firm’s advertising and marketing puffery reflect the way the firm provides its services.

To make that point using the McKinsey & Company language (quoted above), the reader is made abundantly aware of whether the document—a key aspect of the firm’s behaviour and service—is “aligned” with the firm’s claims about itself. If the document fails to live up to the brand, then the firm’s brand is damaged.  However, if the document and the brand are aligned, then the moment when the document is read is a brand enhancing moment: the client is likely to feel happier about using the firm, paying the invoice, coming back next time, and referring other clients to the firm.

Those moments of truth matter for businesses that rely heavily on documents to communicate with their markets.

6. Clarity and corporate governance

Increasingly plain language matters for reasons that go beyond the marketing benefits related to the voice of your brand (as an individual) and the voice of your organisation’s brand.  Plain language also matters because of the thinking behind triple bottom line reporting. That sort of reporting requires organisations to be up front, to be transparent, and to be model corporate citizens in every regard.  In an age in which the themes of reform and regulation are often full and frank disclosure, clarity becomes a key.

This pressure to be clear applies to clients in their financial reports and it also applies to accountants advising clients how to manage their businesses and how to organise their lives.

7. When a lack of clarity bites

Given the following true-life document disaster stories, one wonders how long it will be before the courts and regulators move against a lack of clarity in corporate governance documents:

  • An Australian banking client was excused from having to pay under a guarantee because none of the barristers in the case could explain the guarantee’s first sentence to the judge. The sentence was over 1,500 words long —there was no punctuation either.³
  • A New Zealand insurer that won a case had to pay the loser’s legal costs simply because the insurer’s documents were so unintelligible.⁴
  • An English court found that a solicitor’s letter of advice was so unclear that the solicitor had to pay its client £95,000 to compensate the client for losses suffered because the client misunderstood the advice.⁵             

8. Improved style can also improve substance

People expect that plain language improves clarity. But the benefits of plain language go further than that. They extend to improving a document’s accuracy, certainty, and precision.  Indeed, the substantive benefits of plain language go even further than that. This point was made by Merwan Saher, Director of Communications with the Office of the Alberta Auditor General in Canada when he said:

What we’ve learned so far is that structure that forces the auditor to discretely set out audit criteria, findings, and implications exposes substandard work. So clear, concise writing influences our audit rigour by identifying the need for more thought or evidence. In summary, by exposing unsupported audit recommendations, plain language improves audit quality.⁶

Merwan’s point is worth dwelling on. Plain language can also be at the heart of the substantive activities to which communications relate. It’s as simple as this: by improving the communications relating to their audits, the people in the Office of the Alberta Auditor General improved the quality of their audits.

9. Key steps to writing clearly

We need to adjust our style to suit our particular audience and purpose.  It’s almost certain that one style won’t suit all our audiences and all our purposes.  Here’s some tips.

9.1 Take responsibility for how the message is received

Writers need to take responsibility for how the message they send is received. Merely sending the message isn’t enough⁷

9.2 Write for your audience

  • Who are you writing to? A friendly client, a fellow adviser, an opponent in bitter negotiations, a potential client, a regulator, your colleagues.
  • What do they already know?
  • What do they want you to tell them?

9.3 Write about your audience

Your readers are probably more interested in reading about themselves than they are in reading about anything else.  So you should try to write about them. 

To measure the extent to which you write about your reader (as opposed to writing about yourself), take a letter you recently wrote to one of your clients.  Take 2 highlighter pens in different colours:

  • Use one colour to highlight every use of “we”, “us”, “our” and any other words or phrases that refer to the writer or the writer’s organisation — including the name of the writer’s organisation.
  • Use the other highlighter to highlight every use of “you”, “your”, and any other words or phrases that refer to the reader or the reader’s organisation — including the name of the reader’s organisation.

Then count the number of times you used each colour.  Your readers will probably be happier if the ratio is at least 2 references to your reader for each single reference to you.

Your readers will probably be happiest if the ratio is 10 to one.  Also, you’ll be showing that you really are client-focussed.

9.4 Write to achieve the document’s purpose

Why are you writing? Perhaps to advise, to persuade, to educate, to market, or to say thank you.

You probably know how to write. For each document, think about why you are writing it.

9.5 Order your ideas for your reader

Sometimes even though it may be easiest to write “beginning, middle, middle, middle, end”, the reader really only wants “end and a dash of middle”.  Maybe after you’ve written the document you should move the rest of the middle and all of the beginning to a separate attachment.

9.6 Write sentences that people find easy to process

  • Have only one thought in each sentence.
  • Average about 20 words a sentence.
  • Prefer active sentences to passive sentences — for example, “I prepared the accounts” is better than “The accounts were prepared by myself”. (Or worse, “The accounts were prepared”. In the last one, the writer doesn’t say who prepared the accounts.).
  • Prefer the verb form of a word to the noun form (avoid nominalizations) — for example, “We applied on your behalf” is better than “We made an application on your behalf”. In that example, “apply” is the verb, and “application” is the noun.
  • There’s many more guidelines that will help you to write clearly. If the tips here sound unfamiliar, buy a writing book with exercises … and do some of them.

10. Conclusion

Every person who writes for an organisation helps form the voice of that organisation’s brand—they are its custodians, champions, and guardians.  And for some organisations, the voice of the brand is fundamentally important.

To help determine whether the style of an organisation’s documents is helping or hindering an organisation, we should measure those documents against an organisation’s brand values.

It’s fairly easy to do that measuring. First, simply ask the people in an organisation to comment on their documents. Usually, they say things like “wordy”, “formal”, “heavy”, “repetitive”, “worse than boring” etc. Sometimes people go much further than that.  Then compare those comments with the organisation’s brand promise, its values, mission etc. Usually, the gap between their comments and the brand is huge.

After the measuring, organisations need to consider:

  • “How important is the voice of our brand?
  • “Is our brand’s voice aligned with our brand?”
  • “How well is the voice of our brand being managed?”
  • “Who in our organisation is responsible for how the document’s audience receives the message?”
  • “Would clearer documents help our organisation succeed?”

    [1] McKinsey & Company Journal, 1997.  As quoted by THOMAS FRIEDMAN in THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE, HarperCollins 1999, p189.
    [2] The letter was from Levi’s, the clothing manufacturer.
    [3] Houlahan v ANZ Banking Unreported, ACT Supreme Court, Higgins J., 16 October 1992.
    [4] Commercial Union v Patchell (1993) 7 ANZ Ins Cases 61-171.
    [5] Sopcen Trustees Ltd v Wood Nash & Winters Unreported, Queens Bench Division, Jupp J., 6 October 1983.
    [6] Personal email to the author after PLAIN’s “At the Heart of Communication” Conference in Toronto, September 2002.
    [7] The idea that writers need to “take responsibility for how their message is received” is Julian Canny’s, formerly Principal of the branding consultancy EnterpriseIG.