Virtual Roundtable | Keep it simple

Keep it simple: plain language in business

  • You probably write and speak differently at work than you do with friends and family. Why is that? Is it necessary? Is it good for business?
  • Many of us have been taught to put on a “business voice” to sound more professional, convincing, or authoritative when communicating with customers. However, overly-formal language can have the opposite effect. It can muddle your message and result in a poor customer experience and lost sales.
  • In this Virtual Roundtable, our panel will discuss: Where this business voice comes from, and why it’s less about your confidence level and more about recognising a ‘blinkered’ mindset. How starting from a place of empathy, listening actively to your customer, and using plain language can actually stimulate sales through trust, and reduce costs at the same time. And tips on how to believe in your brand voice so you can get rid of the artificial formality.


+ - Roundtable details
Industry Experts:
Recording Date: 12 May 2022
Recording Length: 00:45:32
YouTube link:


+ - Roundtable transcript

LN: Welcome everyone to the May edition of our Plain English Roundtable series.

So far this year, we've been talking about how using plain everyday language at work can make a big difference for your business. We've touched on a number of topics related to this including legal contracts written in plain English, how to make your business communications more accessible and inclusive, and we've also touched on the various pitfalls to avoid when communicating internationally across cultures. If you'd like to catch up with any of the previous roundtables, you can find the recordings on the Plain English Law YouTube channel.

Today we're going to get to the crux of what plain language business communication is all about, and to do that, we've gathered a truly international group of panellists. And for a change, I'm going to let them introduce themselves. We'll start with our co-hosts, Trevor and Niamh, and then we'll go to our special guests, Mandy and Peggy.


TF: Thanks, Lucas. I'm Trevor Fenton. I own a law firm in Edinburgh, Scotland called Plain English Law. The reason I called it “Plain English Law” was because I realised how many people I've dealt with over my 15 years of practising law who were absolutely fed up to the teeth with legal documents that they couldn't understand, that were written in artificially formal terms. It really is one of the biggest pain points for people dealing with lawyers. And I realised that when I write a contract for a client, I'm writing about their business, not mine. So they should understand what's in there, and their customers should understand what's in there.

So that's what Plain English Law is all about, and it's going very well. And I get to meet people such as Niamh. I'll hand over to Niamh so she can introduce her business as well.


NK: Thank you so much. Yes, I'm Niamh, I'm the founder of Tigim. Tigim means “I understand” in the Irish language. We are a communication analytics company and we really look at the linguistic level of the language that you're using to see is it accessible? is it understandable for your audience? We try to work with plain English, make sure that it's effective, it's accessible, that it's really going to drive your business performance forward.

So again, really happy to be here as well. Thanks.


MS: Fabulous, thank you. I'm Mandy Sinclair, and my background is I had 30 odd years of working in large financial services companies in both the finance and the change areas, where I was lucky enough to be involved in a number of really key customer centric programmes where for the first time, in a lot of cases, their companies were trying to put themselves in the shoes of the customers because of a lot of big changes.

About five years ago, I made a complete career change and I retrained as a coach. And I'm now working with individuals and small businesses on a whole wide range of topics. But certainly with small businesses, there's an awful lot of work to do to keep things really simple and keep things customer focused. So I'm really delighted to be here today talking about this topic.


PH: And good morning from Canada. So yes, with the five hour time difference, I do mean “good morning”. I know it's good afternoon to many of you.

My name is Peggy Harnock. I'm the founder and social media strategist at The Social Gourmet. We are a boutique social media marketing agency and we're located in Grimsby, Ontario, Canada. We work exclusively with small businesses, non-profits and community organisations throughout Southern Ontario and across Canada to help them build and grow their online communities.

I started The Social Gourmet back in 2016 with just me, myself and I here in my home office at the time. And we've grown over the years into a small team of marketing experts in the areas of written content, graphic content and social media strategy. So that's what I'll be bringing to this Roundtable discussion today – the benefits of using plain language from a marketing perspective.


LN: That's fantastic, thanks everyone for those great introductions.

So to get started I want to pose the first question to Mandy. Mandy, when I was thinking about plain language and the opposite of that, that is, what people often use at work. And I'm guilty of this – sometimes a habit that I fell into was, in order to seem or sound more professional or authoritative or convincing like I'm trying to persuade somebody, I would use complex and formal language, sometimes really jargony language. And I always thought that I did that because I felt it was a lack of confidence I had. From your perspective as a professional coach, is that your perspective? Where do you think, or why do you think people kind of fall into that habit or that trap?


MS: It's really interesting. I think, certainly in some individual cases that may be the case, especially if you're in a very technical area and you personally don't feel confident in that area. But what I see generally, when I'm working with both businesses small and large, is it's more that they just haven't thought about it.

They're so inward looking, focused on their processes, their goals, their financial metrics, you know, their measures of success that they completely forget to put themselves in the shoes of the customers and they don't even notice they're using jargon half the time. And when I go in I go: “What does that mean?” And they're like: “How do you not know?” And I'm like: “Well, I don't. It's not my business.”

So I think, on an individual basis, absolutely that could be the case. But generally I find people just don't give it the time and the space and they're just too inward looking. They're quite blinkered in their approach in terms of how they consider what the customer really wants.


LN: So if it’s less of a confidence thing and is it more… Are they being lazy or is it a time management thing? Or is it just that, like you said, that they're not, they're just not really giving it enough thought?


MS: Yeah, sorry to interrupt. I think it's, to me lazy means you know you should do it and you're not doing it. Whereas in a lot of the cases, they're just really shocked when you come in and you put yourself in the customer shoes and you maybe ask things, or you say: “What does the customer want out of that interaction?” And maybe what the customer wants is, they just want to know their query’s sorted there and then. What the business wants is they want to pass it from point A to point B and they want to update some systems. The customers don't care about any of that.

But actually, when you say that to the business and they, they get sometimes really confused by what customers are complaining about. And it's because you're coming at it from two different areas. So I find it's not really deliberate a lot of the time. It's just that they've forgotten to look outside.


LN: And Trevor, do you think that, with your legal perspective, that this kind of blinkered approach to communicating is industry [specific]? Like, do you think this happens more in, for instance, the legal profession?


TF: No, I don't actually think it, it's certainly not a special talent. No, I've let me rephrase that. It IS a special talent of lawyers to do this a lot, ok, but it's not a unique talent to lawyers. So, Mandy you brought up your background in financial services and I just recently had to complain to our pension provider because they were sending me statements, pension statements that I don't understand with words in it like, you know different contributions were referred to as “tranches”. Now listen, who sends documents like that to a consumer that says, tranche one works like this, tranche two works like that. Please.

I couldn't agree more with Mandy. It's a lack of putting yourself in somebody else's shoes. A lack of empathy, frankly, not really thinking through who's going to use this document and what is their purpose in using it, rather than focusing on my purpose in writing it. And if that's where you put your focus is on: on the purpose of the person who's picking the document up and also their background and how do they look at things and how would they phrase things.

If you're not looking at it that way, then you do start sending out documents full of “tranches”. Or, when it comes to contract documents or anything that a lawyer produces, it's the same kind of thing.

Yes, there are technical terms that lawyers use to describe certain legal concepts for processes and so on. And there's a time and a place for those words, maybe when you're talking to another lawyer, fine. But when you're talking to your client and when you're helping your client talk to one of their clients, say through to getting a transaction done, why would you use language like that? They're not going to use it. They're probably not going to understand it. They might adopt it because they might feel that it's necessary because we're in this legal context. Actually, the legal context is just life. So why don't we talk in terms that normal people use? Because the law serves them, not the other way around.


LN: Peggy, you had a story, speaking of real life, about your own experience. You mentioned the other day about having some maintenance done at your house and not understanding what the guy was saying.


PH: Yeah,  you know I was thinking about that conversation because that, if you don't mind me saying that conversation was sort of the preparatory conversation for this Roundtable. And two things came out of that. One was when the service provider was here and he was servicing the AC and furnace in our home, which here in Canada we call HVAC system, which stands for heating, ventilation and air conditioning so “HVAC” is just a term that we use to describe that. But when he came upstairs from servicing the furnace and was talking about the part that had seized or that needed to be repaired, he was using the jargon which is commonplace for his industry. But I didn't understand exactly. I heard “seized” and “furnace” and saw dollar signs obviously, but I didn't understand exactly what the problem was and if it needed to be fixed now or later. And so I just stopped him and he kind of chuckled and explained it in better terminology, but that was a great example.

And then ironically, what came out of that conversation when I was sharing it with you folks in our preparatory conversation, was Niamh saying that she didn't know what “HVAC” was. Because in the UK, I guess, that duct system that we take for granted here in Canada that forces the heat and/or the air conditioning, is not universal. And so there's a term ironically that I used in the preparatory conversation for this Roundtable that not all five of us even understood! So, it was kind of interesting to be stopped and someone saying: “H…? H… what?!” and I was like: “Ah, we don't all have that duct system, interesting.”


NK: Yes, because we don't. We don't all have heat and really we don't need all of those things.


PH: It speaks to these assumptions, right?


NK: Yeah, and when you're in a spoken conversation and you can see somebody’s facial expression.

Sometimes people aren't always willing or able to tell you that: “Wait actually, I don't understand what you're saying. Can you explain that a little bit more?” And sometimes we can see that, especially if you're looking, and especially if you're somebody that uses empathy and tries to connect with the person you are delivering your message to, or trying to converse with. But you don't have that in the written word, you know, you don't have that automatic feedback, so you can't adapt and adjust depending on your audience.

And especially for organisations, that feedback often comes in the form of complaints. There's Trevor complaining to his pension provider and customer service. So you're putting the customer service and the complaints people in between to get the backlash because the people that put the communication out there in the first place are possibly a little bit disconnected from how the customer understands things or how the customer should be spoken to in a way that they can understand.

And just, from a language point of view, we need to understand at least 95%  of the words in a communication piece to understand the meaning of it. That's a high amount of words. So a lot of the times you might be using synonyms and use alternative words to describe something. Instead of “tranche” – it’s just a “segment” or a “part” – part one of your payment. Just using those alternatives can reduce the complexity and just mean that people can understand it.

There's a really high amount of words that people need to know the meaning of, and when you're going to communicate with people that English isn't their first language, that barrier becomes even more. And it's probably that, what you mentioned Mandy, it's they've either forgotten to look or they don't notice. And it's an awareness piece around that as well, not everyone has the awareness that the words they're using are difficult.


MS: I think a really good example of that was, just thinking of one of the financial services companies I worked for following the credit crunch that happened back in 2008, there was a lot of changes to collections rules. There was a lot of backlash against financial services in terms of how customers were in treated. We did a complete review of all communications – on collection strategies and the number of letters and the length of letters and the complexity of letters – they’d been built up by committees over many years with bits of regulations added in, blaming the lawyers of course Trevor, in terms of what had to be in there. And I remember we pared down the number of letters significantly, we tried to reduce it. But the fight that we had internally to be able to show some of those letters to customers was huge, because we were like: “We need to check the customer understands this” and it met a lot of resistance. It was crazy it, you know.

And of course, when we showed it to customers, the [letters] we thought were really simple, a lot of customers were like: “I have no idea what you're talking about. I just see that number and I know you're going to hassle me.” You know, they really didn't understand what it meant for them and what their options were. And it led a lot of them to not want to talk to us because the letter was so off-putting.

In contrast to that, I worked for an online retail company towards the end and it was routine – there were customers in the building every day showing them the new UX on the website to make sure they liked the journey and they understood it and they could click through it quickly. So I think some industries do really need to shift their mindset on this. I think some are catching up, but some still have a way to go.


LN: Because that's it, when you talked about the difference between the customer experience, people actively, you know, wanting to be involved in a brand and then others that see the number and just avoid it. I mean, that's what we're really getting at, isn't it – the real effect that confusing complicated language that isn't empathetic, that isn't understanding of your customer – that’s the real the effect of it.


TF: And I think it's probably also born of the fact that most of us, I think most professionals anyway, people who do a lot of writing for a living, I think most of us vastly overestimate the average level of literacy of a typical person in society. And just because somebody can read and read each word and they know the language and they know how to read and write and spell, that doesn't mean they'll comprehend complex sentence structures and complex jargon when it's thrown at them, especially if they're under stress to begin with.

If the letter they're getting is unwelcome and you know, if you're getting a letter from a lawyer or from an insurance company or from a bank, you know there's a pretty good chance that you're apprehensive already when you open the envelope in the first place. So, if we don't realise that and don't accommodate that, and we have silly rules in our heads that we don't even realise are there, you know…

When I grew up I remember clearly being told that you never write the way you speak. And of course if you take that approach and you say never write the way you speak, well number one I'm not sure I agree with that, except you know, like I would never write words like “gonna” and “hafta”, you know? Clearly I'm not going to write like that.

But there's a range. There isn't, you know, it isn't one extreme or the other. One extreme being you're speaking in absolute slang and basically telling jokes at one end, and at the other end you're doing some kind of Shakespeare performance. There is a middle ground and it's OK to write things the way that you speak as long as you speak more or less correctly.


LN: There was a post that you had Niamh on LinkedIn that I really liked related to this, and it was about testing your writing and your communications by giving it to your grandmother. And I thought that was great, like: “Does your grandma understand this? Can she relate it back to you and get the point?” I thought that was really good.


NK: Yeah, and that's even things I used to do. I remember even being told in our science at university and even then it was like: “If your mother or your grandmother cannot understand your big research paper, then it's not going to be understandable to anybody.”

You always have to be able to explain things in a simple way. If you can't do it, then maybe you don't actually know what you're talking about. And that's probably why a lot of traditional industries, they just rehash things that have been done before because they don't know how to change it or don't feel they can.

I think what Trevor was mentioning there, you can write the way you speak. It might come down to your brand voice and building trust with customers. So when you see your letter from the insurance company, from the bank, from all of these coming in, I know I do, I leave them ‘til the last. If I'm already having a bad day, I'm like, I'm not opening that letter today or that email today, so you know I'm going to leave that. You know, you want them to be building trust, and I think that the companies that are more digitally focused, and maybe Peggy can speak to that, that when you're more digitally focused there's a lot more immediate feedback from social media. You know, you're getting that feedback from comments, whatever, so you're more connected I think to the customer. And so you're more willing to adapt and change because you know that feedback cycle is reoccurring a lot more often than in the bricks and mortar kind of traditional industries.


PH: Yeah yeah. And I totally agree, I mean listen. Any good marketing in any fashion is about building trust and on social media it's about building community. So again, trust building is huge and Mandy mentioned it too when talking about financial services.

A perfect example of that from one of our clients, is an insurance brokerage that we work with and, insurance much like law and financial services, is full of terminology and jargon that a lot of folks don't necessarily understand. Insurance is what is known as an “all-commerce product”, which basically means if you're 16 and buying your first car or you're 90 and retiring to your condo in Florida and everything in between, you need insurance. So it's literally the type of product that everyone requires and so, from a marketing perspective, that's very difficult. If your target demographic is *everyone*, that’s a difficult job for someone who's doing your marketing, whether you're outsourcing it or doing it in-house. Knowing who that target demographic is and speaking to them is really important.

Two things for this particular client. We've built an entire campaign around insurance terminology and educating this client’s followers and clients and potential clients about what all those words and what all those coverages mean when you get that document that you don't want to open because we all just want to see the bottom line and how much is this going to cost me. But you also should have an understanding of what all those terminologies and all those terms and jargon mean in terms of the coverage that you have. So we've built an entire campaign for this particular broker around that, and that builds the trust because you're educating. We know you're going to get this document that is confusing, and so here's the terminology that you're probably going to see what those words mean, why those coverages are or are not important to you, et cetera. So that builds trust from a marketing perspective. If you are in an industry that has jargon, then take the time to educate.


NK: And if I could just add on to that, when people start to trust in your brand or trust in your business, you're building loyalty. And one thing that loyalty of consumers brings is actually it makes them less price sensitive. If they're loyal to your brand, then you're not in a position that you need to be competing on price, or in that race to the bottom. If you speak to them as individuals, it doesn’t have to be personalised, but you're making your language accessible across the board from a 16 year old to a 90 year old, you create that loyalty and you'll have them for longer and potentially be able to charge them prices that don't put you out of business.


MS: Absolutely. And Niamh, I think there's a real two-way thing with trust that's sometimes missed as well. Because I think some businesses almost naturally think the customer is trying to drive them down to that lowest price point and that's what they want. But actually a lot of the time, while customers may not be able to afford the highest prices, a lot of customers will pay for something if they think they're getting value. They can actually help the business understand what the value points are that the customer will pay more for, if you listen to the customer and if you ask them. I think sometimes again, when the business assumes they know what the customer wants, they can miss that.

I think you've seen a lot of that with the drive to offshore call centres or where LEAN was rolled out everywhere. From a business point of view they saw reduced individual costs. But actually the cost to their relationship with the customer and the cost of complaints and the cost of them acquiring new customers because they couldn’t retain them. You know, a lot of people are going back to a much more kind of one stop shop holistic approach to customer service. Because in the long run it makes more sense and customers probably could have told them that.


LN: And that's…


PH: Absolutely. Sorry, can I…?


LN: Sorry, go ahead.


PH: (laughing) This is the Roundtable part where we all just jump in! Sorry, I literally just scribbled something that Mandy said, which is that businesses assume they know what the customer wants, which is absolutely true. And the other thing too, I think, is that businesses tend to assume they know who their customers are, and that's not necessarily the case either.

Again, I'm looking at this through a marketing lens, and I will ironically go back to that same client of ours who is in the insurance industry. When we first started working with this client, we did an audience analysis on his current social platforms and learned, surprisingly to us and to him, that instead of the whole wide world as his marketplace, that 80% of his current social media followers were in fact female or identifying themselves as female on social media. And so, what that meant to us from a marketing perspective, was that we were going to speak differently to his social following. And also too, when you think about it, marketing… We're talking today about plain language in terms of either the written word or the spoken word, but marketing is also visuals. So knowing exactly who you're either target demographic or current followers are from a digital and a social media perspective is important because for this client we changed how we spoke, we changed the words that were used, we changed the type of visuals and imagery that we used, which is also communication, because we knew that we were speaking to an 80% or predominantly female audience for this particular business.

So exactly what Mandy said, you know, don't assume you know what your customer wants, but also don't assume you know who your customers are. That's an important piece of the puzzle is to know who it is that you're speaking to.


LN: And research is a huge part of your business and clearly marketing. Whenever I look at your posts on LinkedIn, you're always posting case studies about the amount of research that you've done to get to understand and help your client understand who they're dealing with so that you can speak to them in a language they're going to understand and that they’re going to respond to and connect with.


PH: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's where a lot of this misunderstanding comes from in languages, because again, my furnace repair guy was talking to me like a furnace repair guy, which I am not. And so, if I'm an insurance provider or a marketing expert or a lawyer or a doctor – I mean, the doctor could probably tell you you have an ear infection using words that you don't understand when they should probably just say “You have an ear infection.”

We see this a lot in marketing with folks who are small business owners and are doing their own marketing, which is common. But they speak as if they're talking to someone else in their office or someone else in their industry as opposed to their customer, potential customer or their audience demographic. So yeah, doing that research, whether you're outsourcing and hiring to have it done or whether you take it on yourself, doing that research to understand who it is you're actually speaking to is not only going to build that trust, but again, as Niamh said, when you build trust, you build brand loyalty and that is A) what marketing is all about and B) the point of having a business – building their loyalty so you can build and maintain your business.


MS: I was just going to say, one phrase that I use all the time is “Facts are friends.” And I kind of wish, you know, every client of mine I’d like to get them a mug or a T shirt with “Facts are friends” on it because, so often I'll hear someone tell me something is true about their business or their customers or their market, and I’ll go: “What are the facts? Where are the numbers? What do you really know?” And often it's all just opinion. When they do go, as Peggy says, when they do go and do the work and find out what's really happening, it's quite different.


TF: Yeah, and one thing that Peggy was just talking about there that triggered in me a thought I've been having about the way that we market our business, this law firm. And that is, it's not just about the language that they hear, sorry that they would use but… think about it this way. If you were trying to attract web searches, right, you're trying to market your business so people will find you on the web – what kind of content do you put on your website and how is that written? And when we were first putting this law firm together, and even probably still now if you read the website now, you might look at that and think: “OK, I kind of understand what services are provided” and so on. But is this the kind of word wording that you would use yourself if you were looking for what we offer? Because the thing is if someone is searching for a service on Google, they're going to describe it in their own words. They have to come up with the idea, they have to come up with right “This is my problem” phrase. They're essentially describing their problem to Google. So: “How would your customer describe, or your potential customer, describe their problem?” not: “How would you describe your product?”

Now if you're lucky, the two line up. If you're very lucky, you sell refrigerators and someone is searching for refrigerators, easy enough. But one of the services we offer, for example, is to act as the UK GDPR Representative for companies that don't have an office in the UK. Good grief, how many Americans would be searching for that in Google? How many Americans even know that that's a problem they need to solve?

So you know, it’s an empathy issue it but it's also a trust issue because when you use the same kind of language your customers use then what you're saying actually resonates with them. You're speaking their language and they feel essentially closer to you in a way because they form the impression, whether they realise it or not, that you're actually coming at things from the same angle that they are.


LN: I think Niamh mentioned that as well, that when you start from a place of empathy, it’s the start of building loyalty. Your customers become advocates and it just kind of snowballs and gets bigger from there.


TF: And how complicated language can kill trust, right? So you think about how when you're selling something or building a relationship with a potential customer or supplier, whoever it is, you're having a nice conversation, you get to know each other a little bit, they get to know your brand, they get to know the way you talk, and they decide at a certain point they go: “Right. I like these people. I trust these people. I’m going to buy from them.” Then they actually get to the terms and conditions or whatever it is, that sort of the more the formal bit of let's start doing business together, and suddenly things are written in a totally different voice. And what's the first thing that happens, especially if that's coming from an insurance company, from a bank, from someone you owe money to? The first thing that probably occurs to most people is: “What are they trying to pull? What trick is their lawyer trying to pull on me here? Where's the hook? Where’s the trap?” And that doesn't happen if they understand the language, if they feel the language you’re using because it's language they are familiar and comfortable with.


PH: And that has just immediately eroded their trust because, if they get to that point and their thought process is: “What are they trying to pull over on me?” or, you know “Pull the wool over my eyes” in a sense then, the trust, if it was built, has been eroded, right?


TF: Gone.


MS: Trevor, can I ask you a question? So, I received spent a lot of my career in a highly regulated industry where, certainly I think people have been guilty of almost hiding behind the regulations or blaming the regulators. And I know that sometimes people write a little summary and then they put the regulation, but I know you've got a bit of a mission to have everything in clear English. Do you think it's well understood that that's possible?


TF: Yes and no. And I actually have mixed feelings about: “Here's the summary, and here's the full detail” because my gut has always said, if the summary is good enough, why do you need the summary and a full detail? If the summary gives the person everything they need to know to make an informed decision, then what's the 18 pages of small print after it for?

Turn that around and you say if the 18 pages of small print is actually necessary, it’s phrased in different terms than the summary, do they actually mean the same thing? And if they don't, if your summary actually has a different nuance, different twists to it unintentionally, or you know probably unintentionally – I don't think anybody writes these summaries trying to fool people – but you know, it always does leave me a little bit uncomfortable.

Let me give you a great example. I do employment contract templates and I, one of the phrases I always end up putting it in the contract is: “This agreement also acts as the statement of employment particulars.” And people are like, what?! That's the exact phrasing in the Employment Rights Act, and it's a mandatory element that every employer has to give their employees a statement of employment particulars. What an awful phrase. But I mean, that's the way it's written in the law, so that you're kind of left with the choice: “Do I use that ugly phrase that nobody in their right mind would ever use or do I rephrase it and then people go a little bit later ‘Oh wait, a second, you never gave me my statement of employment particulars’.”

It can be a bit of a Catch 22 created by the regulations that are drafted in this same kind of overly formal language that I think we would like to avoid.


MS: No, I've definitely experienced that. So you know, when you're having debates about whether this level of detail has to be in there or can you leave it out and have a more simplified thing. And then you get the response: “Well, if you ever want to take it to court then it has to be in there”, but then you end up with, before you know it, you’ve got that 18 page document that nobody really understands, but just in case you ever did the thing that's 99.999% likely never to happen, it's there, so the result is nobody understands it.


TF: Yeah, and that's an ever-present battle. You know, one of the things I tend to tell clients – I almost entirely represent businesses and advise businesses – and I tell them: “Look. Here's the truth of the matter: you're not going to court, ok? If you end up in court, you've already lost. Think about who this document is really for. If you want me to write it for a judge, I can do that, but two things. First of all, if your customer understands it and if you understand it, give the judge a bit of credit, they're going to understand it too. The second thing is, writing it for that [reason], for landing on a courtroom table, that's sort of like a one and a half a million chance that that's ever going to happen. What happens for the other 499,000 times?”

Who's reading this document? Who needs to use it? What is their purpose in using it? And I think when a customer and a business are exchanging emails, whatever it is that they're exchanging, they're trying to communicate. And I think our role is to try to help them communicate well and to avoid conflict. And one of the surest ways to fuel conflict is if one of them thinks the other one is trying to bamboozle them. So, those are the users of the document mostly and they're trying to regulate their relationship with it, so let's make it as easy as possible for them to do that so that they don't end up, so they could resolve the problem without having to go to the extreme of ending up in court ultimately.

Now I know a lot of lawyers would think that's a crazy way of approaching it, but frankly, that is what most of our clients are doing. They don't pull the document out of their desk drawer in three years time and go: “Oh, I don't understand this, I'm suing.” Nobody does that.


MS: Like you say, you've already lost.


TF: Well yeah, exactly. Because nobody is suing anybody over £2000 or £3000. That's just not happening. Well, they're certainly not hiring lawyers for it, anyway. They might do a small claim or something and if that happens, OK well fair enough. But in order to avoid that chance of maybe getting sued for a couple thousand pounds, you want to spend thousands more getting a very complex document that might chase half your customers away if they ever actually read it? You can't avoid all risk in life, and I think that's what we all have to do is look at what are the benefits of having that extra safety of covering that edge case versus the cost.


PH: If you don't mind me jumping in and totally outing myself and my business because I love this conversation, because I'm guilty of having this seven page legal document that is part of my contract that I know darn well clients aren't reading, and summarising it in a one page client agreement which is basically the highlights of what I agree to and what they agree to. And on the one hand I found it works because people read that one but they don't read the legal jargon. But like you've said, if I'm summarising it appropriately then maybe all those extra pages of printer ink or space on someone’s hard drive is also not necessary. So I think there's an education piece there to that.

And I did that, this is what I'm learning now, I did that because I was under the impression that my one page client agreement that I wrote in normal English would not be legally binding without those extra pages of legal jargon attached to them. So there's the education piece there, too. There, I learned something.


LN: That's great, we're all learning. Every day is a learning day!

I wonder, since we're just about to wrap up, we've talked a lot about how this use of language is kind of a mindset. It can be like, as Mandy said, blinkers that we need to take off. And once we recognise that and understand that using empathy, combined with education, being compassionate and understanding of who your audience is, and doing research is all part of how we, what we do next when we take off those blinkers. There's something that we can do better.

I wonder before ending, is there anything… What tips can we leave our viewers? So you want to do something differently, you can look at the writing in the contracts you use, you can give it to your grandmother – there’s a good tip! What other tips can we share?


MS: I think for me, I would say there's a great quote from a company I used to work for, that says: “What gets measured gets attended to.” So what I always say to the small businesses that I'm working with is: “How do you know?” How do you know what your customers are thinking? How do you know what they like and what they don't like and what's important to them? So I think as a small business, even as a one man band, have you got some time in your diary every month to find out in some way, whether it's to collect a bit of research, to call a few long standing customers and ask them. You know, no matter how big your business is, if you don't put time aside or give someone responsibility or measure everybody on what the customer thinks, it's going to get lost in the heat of business.


NK: And I think it's about listening. Listening to the customer voice. We've spoken about insurance companies or big large ones, but like you said there can be a one man band and… Recently, a woman I know, she runs a jewellery business and she spent the time to collect and collate all of the feedback, all of the emails that she has been receiving from people to look at, the language that they're using for me to look at. And often that language and the voice of the customer could also be an inspiration for you from marketing potential, a marketing point of view, because how they're describing your business, how they're describing the value that you add to them is probably not the way you looked at it. It's not, you know, we think we're selling a service to achieve a goal, but the goal actually does something else for the consumer and it's the way they describe your business that is actually your business. So I think listening to the voice of the consumer.


PH: Yep, I agree with both, sort of combining both of those, the factual side of things and the consumer side of things. Certainly from a social media perspective, that audience analysis is huge. You need to know who you're speaking to, and so knowing the age demographic, the gender, the geographic location of where those followers, those social media followers are should have a huge impact on how you speak, and so you know who you are speaking to. And that's information, listener a marketing agency can help you find it, but FYI that's information that is freely accessible to you in the back end of your Facebook business suite for Facebook and Instagram. So do that audience analysis. It will pull up a document for you and then you'll have those facts, like Mandy said, that you can build from.


TF: And I'd also say, don't forget that most people who read things that you write won't tell you what they think about it. So, if something that you've got on your website or in your terms of business or wherever it is, if it actually repels people, you will often not know that. They will just move on. You might have been that close to a sale and then they go: “Ugh”, and off they go, and you won't know why they went. You might see in your ecommerce, you might see in your web usage stats a certain number of abandoned baskets, right? And I know that's the bane of every ecommerce business is baskets that you know people are like: “I'll have some of that, I’ll have some of that” and then they get abandoned. You usually don't know why, and I'm not saying that badly written terms and conditions are the reason for it or a badly laid out this or that, but why leave that possibility open?


LN: Great tips, great tips all. Well thank you very much and, look at that: perfect timing. So I think we will end it here because everyone has the rest of their day and week to finish off. And thank you for everyone who joined us today.

Again, if you'd like to catch up on any of our previous roundtables, you can visit the Plain English Law YouTube channel and you will find them there. This one will go up in the next few days, probably early next week, so look out for that and look out for our next one happening soon. And until then, thanks to everyone and we'll see you next time. Ciao for now.



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