Are your lawyers still not writing in plain language?

  • Drafting policies that are read

Nearly a decade into having some of the best plain language legislation in the world, why are we not seeing more comprehensible contracts? Why aren’t we seeing more of an effort from companies and their lawyers to improve consumers’ access to information?
We’ve worked with many different companies – from retailers to financial services providers, and we’ve heard many different versions of the same story. Maybe you have too?

  1. Operations/sales/marketing say: “We’ve tried to write in plain language, but our legal team keeps changing things back to the way they were. They don’t understand what plain language is!”
  2. Legal says: “Marketing/operations/editors open us up to too much risk – we have to protect the company. They don’t understand how plain language works!”
  3. Everyone says: “We’ve been told to write in plain language, but we don’t want to dumb down our contracts/policies/forms. Management doesn’t understand.”

It’s not uncommon to have several conflicting views of plain language in a company, and to have some who feel stronger about its value than others. So what’s the solution? If you are really committed to changing the culture in your company to one of clarity, it’s going to take some effort, and it’s not going to happen overnight.

What is the solution?

We’ve found that the best results come from a management team that believes in the value of clarity. Not because plain language is a legal requirement, but because it’s a way of strengthening the brand, and building lasting relationships with customers and service providers. There is more than enough research to back that up (ask us if you’re interested – we’re nerds too).

This is the solution that has worked for our clients:

Start with an executive awareness session

It sounds super fancy, but really it’s a chance for your management team to get on the same page about plain language. Our consumer law expert and our resident communication expert talk to your team about what plain language is – and what it is not. They are there to answer any questions about how plain language can boost your image, and how to get the rest of the business on board. They’re great at change management.

Invest in bespoke training

When it comes to plain language – one size does not fit all. Find a service provider that will work with your company’s documents, and the skill levels of your writers.

Take the interdisciplinary approach

Don’t just send one person or one team on training. If you want lasting results, you have to send a representative group including someone from management, legal, marketing, design, and operations. Plain language is not an editing exercise – it’s a way of doing business. We like to talk about Clarity by Design. That means you bake clarity into everything you do – from the way that you market your products, to the way you write your contracts and your call centre scripts. Everything has to align, or else your customer or service provider will have a disjointed experience.

Integrate the training with the work you are already doing

Sending someone out of the office for two days to learn about plain language, and then never following up that training, is not going to give you the return on investment your company deserves. It’s also unfair to expect someone to master the art of plain language drafting in just two days. The training should be integrated with the work that your team is already doing. For instance, basing the training on your existing contracts so that the team can work on their own templates during the course.

Keep following up

Ideally, training should be delivered over a longer period, in smaller chunks to give your team the opportunity to practice what they have learned and get feedback on their progress.
Our Clarity by Design course is tailored to the needs of your company and the schedule of your team. We start with a half-day workshop that introduces the most important aspects of plain language, and prepares the team and the company for the 10-week programme to follow.
The 10-week programme consists of a weekly mailer that highlights one aspect of plain language and provides examples of contracts that got it right. Participants are required to complete a weekly writing assignment based on your own documents, and they are graded so that you can track everyone’s progress. The legal and communication experts are available for structured question and answer sessions that are conducted online or in person, and your team are empowered to bake clarity into everything they do.
If you’re interested in Clarity by Design, hit reply and let us know. We’d love to learn about your company and your plain language needs.
 
 

About the Author:

Liezl van Zyl
Liezl is our in-house information design expert (we can’t all be lawyers!). She has only just joined Novation after a five-year stint at Stellenbosch University’s Language Centre, where she was head of Information Design. Liezl has been described by a client as Elizabeth’s ‘professional person’ – perhaps because she wears high heels and doesn’t swear in meetings. She is passionate about making a difference in the way in which companies and organisations view their communications, and the way in which they see the people with whom they communicate. She likes reading first time novels, and she often judges books by their covers (literally, not figuratively). She hates direct marketing and cheese curls. She is scared of frogs and believes they are out to get her.