Virtual Roundtable | Plain English T&Cs

Plain language T&Cs:
less friction, happier customers

  • What is plain English writing all about? What difference does it make if you write your business contracts and T&Cs in plain English?
  • In this Virtual Roundtable / Zoom presentation, we’ll discuss how using plain English in all aspects of business communication can improve vendor and supplier relationships, ensure a smooth customer experience from start to finish, and build trust and confidence in your brand.
+ - Roundtable details
Co-hosts: Niamh Kelly from Tigim, and Trevor Fenton from Plain English Law.
Industry Expert: Graeme Kerr from Scots Of The World.
Moderator: Lucas Nightingale from Plain English Law.
Recording Date: 16 Dec 2021
Recording Length: 00:47:15
YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjCr2IZ3M1Y

 

+ - Roundtable transcript
LN: All right, so we'll get started. Welcome everyone to our inaugural Plain English Virtual Roundtable.
Today is the launch of our series and we're planning to make these a regular occurrence throughout 2022. In each of these sessions we're going to be looking at different aspects of the plain English movement and the commercial benefits of using plain English in business writing and communications throughout the series. We're going to be inviting industry guests to our panel to talk about how they've incorporated plain language into their business processes and the difference it's made for them.
So a little bit of housekeeping before we get too deep into it. You will have noticed that we are recording these sessions. The reason why we're doing this is because we want to create a digital resource library of these roundtables for when people can't make it for the live broadcast. And also if anyone wants to revisit an idea that came up in a previous discussion. Please be assured that the final recording that we post on YouTube will only show the faces of myself and our panellists. The profile pics and names of the attendees will not make it to the final recording. If you have any questions or concerns about that, please get in touch. I'll put my email in the chat window.
Speaking of dates, you might want to mark this in your calendar. The next round table is going to be on Thursday27 January, and we're going to start that at 3:00 PM GMT. Our special guest will be Carrie Clewes from Chattertons Solicitors, and we'll be discussing the connection between plain language communications and issues around accessibility. You'll be able to sign up on Eventbrite again, and I will be posting the link later today on all of our social media pages.
Today, of course, we're going to be talking about plain language terms and conditions, and how writing those in a way that everyone can understand can reduce friction between vendors and suppliers, and generally just make it a better experience for customers.
So without further ado, I'll introduce our panel – panel if you can just give me a thumbs up or say hello when I introduce you, that would be great. So we've got our two co-hosts. First we have Trevor Fenton, who is a solicitor and founder of Plain English Law. Plain English Law is a boutique commercial law and data privacy practice based in Dundee, Scotland.
Next, we've got Niamh Kelly beaming in from Dublin. She is the CEO and founder of Tigim. Tigim is a communication dynamics platform whose mission is to break down the barriers that are ingrained in the language of professional communications.
Finally, our guest today is Graeme Kerr. He's the CEO and co-founder of Scots of the World. Scots of the World is an ecommerce marketplace that showcases the best of Scottish-made products and experiences, and then promotes them to a global audience. Graeme is joining us from Glasgow and it's great to be with us today.
OK, let's get things rolling. Let's start with a question for you, Trevor, I wonder, can you give us a quick summary of what we mean when we're talking about plain English – quote-unquote “plain English” – and why this is something that businesses in particular should be aware of?
 
TF: I think plain English is really about being understood and about communicating between businesses and their clients and their suppliers and their business partners. And as a solicitor, as a lawyer, I'm painfully aware that, I'd say probably the biggest complaint that I come across from people who use lawyers is the absolute bafflegab that they get from many lawyers in their emails and especially in contracts and other legal documents.
And so for me, I look at a document and I ask myself who is going to use this document the most and are they able to use it? And when it comes to the types of things I do such as contracts and privacy notices for GDPR compliance or PIPDEA compliance in Canada, these kinds of documents tend to be written in legalese, and they shouldn't be. So I really focus on trying to make them as understandable as possible and as painless to read as possible.
I'll often get asked questions such as well is a planning which contract actually going to be as enforceable as a sort of traditional one? And the answer is simply yes. A contract is a document that records and agreement, and an agreement usually comes down to five things, which is: you're going to do this; I'm going to do that; here's the price; here's the schedule; and if one of us doesn't do what we promised to do, this is what we're going to do about it.
Every contract I've ever read comes down to that. Every paragraph in the agreement comes down to that. So why would it need to be written in this sort of pseudo-Shakespearean language that nobody actually speaks to their customers in? It's a jarring experience, I think, for customers when they when they come along and they've been enjoying the interaction with you and suddenly you stick this piece of legalese in and it's a total, you know, it actually threatens your brand in some ways because it's a totally different feeling than what they had in the conversation that led them to think that I'd like to buy something from this person.
 
LN: I wonder, is that because people just assume that this is how legal contracts and documents like it are just supposed to be written? Are people thinking that they’re not enforceable if it's not written this way?
 
TF: Yeah, well I think it's a habit and it's a habit that comes from, I think it probably comes from law school if I'm perfectly honest because, when you learn the law, you're reading all sorts of old court judgments that were written in a much more formal style. And you can you know, you just get into this headspace where you think: I'm not doing “legal” unless I'm writing in this style. So it's almost a bit unconscious. And it then gets reinforced through the process of training to become a solicitor. The way that you end up putting documents, or are shown to put documents together, you're reusing old forms of words that you know have worked in the past, and the thing is that most of our clients have moved on from writing these very formal letters to each other. Look at it a personal letter that somebody would have written to their lover 100 years ago. I mean the style of language back then was very different and I don't think our legal documents have kept pace with the way that we interact with our customers in real life, in modern times.
 
NK: I'd like to add just pick up on some of the points there that you thought you made that I thought was very interesting. You said like they're often using this language, and maybe it doesn't match with their brand, or it could harm their reputation. A lot of companies, they spend a lot of time on what their brand is, their brand voice, but then on the legal side of things they go back to those old habits like you said, which I do think come from the past. Companies that want to be current and want to show themselves as being quite current and modern need to be speaking to people in a modern way, with you know, accessible language.
And when I say accessible language, adding that on from plain English, it's that we have to think about who your audience is. You know, if you're a retail business, you are selling to consumers, you know in Britain, say for example. In Britain, you have 9 million people, 9 million adults that can't read or write and you have over 6 million with dyslexia. So there you already have quite a large proportion of the population that can struggle, and how many of those actually might be your consumers or your potential customers? And the answer can be quite a lot. So you don't actually know who you are communicating to. You don't know who this language is reaching and, if you're putting those barriers there in front of people, then it can have more detrimental impact on your brand with complaints, with you know, contracts not going in the right way and ultimately it can be causing more problems for your business overall than you know than giving you gains.
 
TF: I think what's really interesting about this Niamh is that so many of us do these kinds of things. We write in this style without even realising that we're doing it. You know, professionals in particular, I think, overestimate the literacy of most people. And when I say literacy, people they'll be able to understand the words, but actually be able to get the meaning out of the document and do it in a way that they're both comfortable with and they can do it quickly enough that they actually will read it and understand the document. And if you don't realise that's what's going on the other side, and you're writing in your own style, you might have no idea what it is you're doing that's causing these kinds of barriers for other people.
I think, having looked at the tool that Tigim is working on is and now released, it's a great tool for actually pointing that out to you, isn't it?
 
NK: Yeah exactly, and that's what we're trying to do. The way I think people write and try to communicate is at their own ability level, and the people that are writing a lot of these legal documents have masters degrees and everything. So I think of it that we write with our own ability bias: What can we understand, or what do we know to be believed to be true.
So what we're trying to do is actually flag up points to say: Look at this sentence. Look at this word. We have a diverse population. Everybody doesn't speak English as a first language. They have dyslexia, low literacy rates, and they just don't understand all of the jargon in legal documents. And so what we do is we classify all of the words, and we say this word actually might be quite complex for some people, and that could even be a word like “commence” instead of “start”. Why use it when there's an easier alternative that more people will understand? And that simplicity can really engage more of your audience and not lead to problems down the road. That's what we're trying to avoid. That's good for your business, not the alternative.
 
GK: I think the brand part of that I think is quite important. Because I think there's a lot of, especially a lot of big brands that claim to focus on customers and customer experience, and people buy into the brand and what they what they believe in and what their ethos is. A lot of these big companies, you look at their agreements or terms and conditions or legal documents, and I would have thought 9 out of 10 of their customers don't understand them.
So that, I think, that's an idea that a lot of the big brands probably haven't picked up on as well, that it probably creates some mistrust among some of the customers. I would imagine a lot of them just accept them because they don't understand them, but that obviously causes knock-on effects further down the line which could then damage the brand.
 
TF: I wonder how many customers end up, when they actually see an example of whether it's terms and conditions or privacy notice or just whatever bit of your website they're looking at, when they see it's well written, when they see it's easy to understand, it's concise, you know. I wonder how often they actually come away from that thinking: “that's unusual”. Because if most people looking at and expect the terms and conditions, you know, we talk about the fine print, you need to look out for the fine print.
And why is it “fine print”? Well, number one there's too much of it. How do you fit it into a small space? Make it 3-point font! Number two you know most people are looking at that going: “What are they trying to pull? What is what is buried in there that I don't understand? That these people have hired some lawyers who are smarter than me and know how to make words dance. What exactly am I agreeing to here?”
 
LN: There's an intimidation factor in using really complex language. Because when you read this, instinctively you don't understand it if you're not a solicitor, or you don't have the training. And then you think, oh, I'm I too embarrassed to bring this up to admit that I don't understand. Or maybe what are they trying to pull by using all this complex language? And neither of those are really great for the customer experience at all, are they?
 
NK: I think there's a thing there with transparency. A lot of companies, again they're trying to create communities around their brand and try to sell in a way that says, we're really transparent, this is how we treat our employees, we're really great at doing this, this, this and this. But yet they use that, you know in the terms and conditions, and it does feel like there's things in there hidden. And you feel like sometimes that they don't want me to read this because it's going to catch me out.
I think with the pandemic as well, there's been such a movement to everybody, you know, businesses going online, and then people having to buy a lot more online as well. That there were some sites and things coming up that if you didn't feel that they were very transparent with their terms and conditions, I know I personally would stay away from them. If I couldn't get a lot of information about shipping and things like that, what will happen, refunds, and then I would just I, I wouldn't. I wouldn't go there. And then alternatively with other factors such as insurance companies, you know flight insurance, all of these things. I had to go to find flight insurance. I looked up my insurance policy there yesterday and there's 80 pages in it! 80 pages that I needed to get through in order to be able to understand something and it's really difficult.
I analysed it with our software as well. We do a six point scale and it's five out of six – it’s almost like an academic research paper. The language in there is almost as difficult as an academic research paper that it's too overwhelming for people. And what that means then for companies is I'm on the phone, I'm on the phone talking to people, wasting their time, wasting, you know, call centres and using their time rather than them making profits and doing good things, they're listening to people that don't understand their terms and conditions. “Do we really need 80 pages?” is a question that I would like to ask insurers, you know, first hand is 80 pages really necessary for me to understand my rights?
 
LN: And that's a good point and leads really well into Graeme’s experience. Graeme, you've got a lot, quite extensive commercial experience on working on boards and different companies and things. And you've recently gone through a plain English exercise with your own business. Could you talk us through that? Like, what have you experienced before and why did you undertake this process?
 
GK: Yeah, so I've been involved in quite big, pretty big businesses, so quite a large PLC in the UK and then an international travel business. And I think the common thread with a lot of contracts and terms and conditions. Say these actual businesses themselves, you know we dealt with a lot of big suppliers as well and you would often come across these contracts and they were all written in a way that a kind of layman wasn't really going to be able to understand.
We were fortunate that we had legal teams, or we had lawyer firms who would check contracts. But it just became a culture in the business that none of us agreed to terms and conditions or contracts without that legal support, which slowed everything down. You know, it did create a kind of mistrust because a lot of the times the legal firms would come back and say: “You should challenge XYZ” which I think is not a great way to then start dealing with suppliers and companies.
So when we founded Scots of the World, we were very conscious that we wanted to create something that was going to be very easy to understand. Because you know 9 times out of 10 the vendors and the brands that we take on board are small independent companies, they don't have legal firms and they don't have potentially the budgets to get everyone to check every contract they get, so we wanted it to be a very straightforward and easy to understand process.
So I’d met Trevor on the various networking circles and I think, just the philosophy that came across was this ability to write something in a way that A.) I was going to be able to understand and B.) the vendors were going to be. And I think they testament to that working is that we've taken on about 50 brands and I think we've had 3 queries across all of them. You know, we were warned by a few of them, a few of them said I'll be looking through the terms and conditions with a fine-toothed comb before I sign anything so they definitely have read them.
I think it's definitely been a worthwhile exercise because it's saved us a lot of time. The 3 queries that came back, I was able to answer them all because I actually understood the contract. I think it just helps our brand because everyone mentioned it was very easy to understand, we weren't trying to hide anything, everything was pretty straightforward. So you know, I think it's been a very worthwhile exercise, from the perception of us as a brand, but also, it saved us a lot of time and money as well.
 
TF: That's great because, when you think about who's reading those documents the most – you're operating an online marketplace, so you've got your vendor supplying products and you've got your customers coming and selecting those products and then going to the basket and ticking the little box that says yes, I accept these terms and conditions – those are the people reading the document. If anybody does, they will.
And I think one of the reasons we still have these kinds of very legalistic overly long and complex contract templates out there – and templates, by the way, these are just ones that people download online and use themselves. These are the same as a lot of the contract templates that law firms use as their starting point. These are very complex arcane documents, and I think the reason for that is because, Lucas you mentioned about people feeling intimidated perhaps, looking at a contract and thinking, wow, this has been written by some, you know, a really smart lawyer who obviously knows all sorts of stuff and I don't know anything. I'm going to be perfectly honest with you, that's how it feels when you are learning to be a lawyer, when you're doing your training contract or your articles. You get asked to do things that you've never been asked to do before, and when you go and download one of these templates, that it's come from 100, 200, 300 years of history, 1000 years of common law frankly, and the first thing that happens, that first thought that occurs to you is: “I’d better not change anything because this template has obviously been written by a much smarter, much more experienced person than me. And if I don't understand why that clause is in there, there must be something, it must be because I'm a numpty, not because the clause doesn't belong there.
And the other thing is, so there's that fear, you know, I'm not going to cut this document back because I don't know what I'm doing. The second fear is what if this goes in front of a judge. What I’d like people to think about is: “how often does that happen?” So whether you're buying £50 or £100 worth of stuff at an online marketplace, or even if you're signing a £100,000 or £1,000,000 contract, what is the likelihood that that contract ends up in front of a judge? I'm going to say it's only very slightly more than zero because the vast bulk of legal documents never end up near a court.
And what that means is that, by definition, the user of the document is almost never a judge. It's always almost never another lawyer either. It's going to be the customer, it's going to be the business, it's going to be a supplier of that business, it's going to be the business partner of that business founder. Those are the people using the document, and so those are the people who need to be able to use it.
That's why I love hearing from Graeme that the feedback from his vendors that they were able to go through it, that they were able to understand it, Graeme felt comfortable using the document, that's exactly the result I think we should all be shooting for. But it takes a lot of confidence to do that and, frankly, anyone coming straight to law school will never have that confidence. Or if they do have that confidence it's pretty rare.
 
NK: I think that's an amazing outcome Graeme for, like you said, building the trust with your vendors as well as building up them at the marketplace. And I think on your point, Trevor, that you said when you don't want to change something in these documents because you think somebody smarter than me wrote it. And that's the way consumers feel, or vendors. It's like: “Well, I don't understand this. That's my fault because I'm not smart enough to understand this” and actually it's not your fault at all. It's companies and organisations putting the onus on the consumer to understand everything rather than taking the responsibility to communicate in a way that their audience, their consumers, no matter who it might be, can understand it. You know it’s, kind of important that this is their responsibility, if we're going to do everything to make the sale, if we're going to do everything to come get their money then why would we not be clear, transparent and not make people feel less smart than us? And that would be a really nice characteristic of an organisation like Graeme has demonstrated with his.
 
GK: I think the thing that that strikes me with it is, from the business’ perspective and consumers’, I think it's created a bit of, a kind of apathy towards the contracts themselves, because I think people just don't read them. Then I think if people think straight away, I'm not going to, I'm not even going to bother reading these terms and conditions because I'm not going to understand them anyway. Or they kind of look at them and, as you say, if it's 80 pages they probably go: “Well, I'm either not going to read that” or “I won't understand it”.
So I think that the knock-on effect is something happens or they're not happy and they go back to the business. So yeah, I think it's just a way for people to ignore terms and conditions, and bypass them as well, which I don't think is good for either party.
 
TF: No, it's not because, when the business I buy something from does something I'm not expecting or I don't like, and I'm not expecting it because I haven't read the terms and conditions, it doesn't help. It certainly doesn't help the customer relationship for the business to then turn around and say: “Well, it's right there in the T&Cs and you need to check clause 13.4.8.” Well, I didn't read the T&Cs because they were enormous and I just don't have the time. Before spending that relatively small amount of money to read through all of that – nobody has that kind of time.
So it can really, and that's when I think that the customer starts to feel like they've been had because their expectation got dashed and I don't think, if you've got a contract people can't readily understand then I don't think they had a chance to understand it the first place, so you're setting them up for disappointment. And I can't think of anything you could do that could harm your brand more than routinely setting your customers up to be disappointed with you.
 
GK: Yeah and if anything, I think we had almost the opposite happen with one of the vendors. They've queried something which I think they, well, they then admitted to the fact they didn't read the terms and conditions. And then when they read the terms and conditions they said: “I'm shocked. Yeah, I wish I'd read these because I now understand exactly why this is happening.” I think that kind of backs-up the fact that, they probably just didn't, they're used to something that they're not willing to read because they didn't think they would understand it. Whereas in fact, if they had read that, they would have known from the start.
 
NK: (laughing) Yeah, you caught them, you caught them out. But I think there's a lot more knock-on effects as well down the line in some organisations, depending obviously on the on the size of them. But if they have call centres, they have to hire people just to handle queries that are maybe already written there but not understandable for a lot of people. And in call centres and things like that there's a high turnover of staff, so there's a lot of costs in retraining staff, hiring staff because people don't want to be listening to people complaining all the time or asking questions or like: “It’s there on page 36.” OK, well, why don't we just simplify page 36 and then we can minimise that?
And there's an example of an organisation, Ministry for Justice actually in Portugal. They simplified, in their commercial debt collection, they simplified the terms and conditions and the injunction letters that were going out to peoples’ houses, and they reduced the income on call queries by 147% and they increased the rate of people paying back debt by 67% in a over a year period. It took a little bit of time but again they invested that time in simplifying the letters that were going out to people and saw huge returns in receiving the money back and lowering the amount of call centre staff they needed.
 
LN: And I think that's a great point. It's the timesaving – that's the real value. When there's understanding, when everyone understands it, then there's less responses to queries from customers, there's less call centre time. There's more time to be like spent doing what you want to do, business development, getting new customers. That's huge.
Niamh, in our chat before we started, you mentioned about how now is a really good time to be thinking, for businesses to be thinking about language and if you are understandable, and simplifying using the plain English. I wonder if you could tell us about that, about these legislations that are coming in?
 
NK: Yeah, I think it's becoming a lot more known I suppose around the world. There have been some of some countries like America, for example, where they introduced the Plain Language Act in 2010 for government and for government websites and public documents. Whether everybody follows that or not, this is something different, but it's something that is having a knock-on effect in a lot of other countries. In Ireland we have a bill in. In the UK there is an ISO standards coming in that has been trying to get through for a few years, so 2019. They're developing the ISO standard again for public documents in Australia and now New Zealand as well are trying to pass that legislation, so there's going to be a requirement of organisations to actually make sure that their communications are at a plain English standard.
So I think for those reasons there is a lot of people, there is a plain language movement, there's a lot of people that have been pushing this, maybe solely for quite a while. But now it seems that people are starting to listen a bit more. And I think a lot of that comes from how open society is as well, like with diversity, and with remote working, everybody hiring all over the world. But you know, you can't just give a contract, your English language contract, to somebody from a different country – it’s not their first language and expect them to understand that.
I think the awareness of diversity is opening people's minds, at the same time as these bills being passed through in a lot of countries. So it's better for a lot of organisations to try and get ahead of the curve rather than legislation gets passed and then oh, you need to follow this and maybe, I don't know, you're fined or something like that or you're going to lose out to the competition. So the companies that can get ahead of the curve now, I think they’re going to have a competitive advantage moving forward.
 
LN: It must be particularly true for a company like your own Graeme, literally a global marketplace. Have you found that the kind of international audience you're dealing with is responding to kind of T&Cs that you've that put in your business.
 
GK: Yeah, I think again this is where it comes back to writing it in a in a way that people understand because I mean, it’s obvious to say there's a lot of different variations across different countries. A lot of contracts will be written in different ways and different jurisdictions of law, and I think thinking of writing it in a way that's understandable certainly helps from an international perspective.
Certainly, we were spending a lot of time on the GDPR aspect and data protection as well, because obviously we need to adhere to that here. It's, as you know, it's notoriously strict compared to other parts of the world. I think as that evolves, I think you're probably in quite a good place as well. You've obviously seen those states in America starting to become a bit more strict, California, for example. But I think adhering to GDPR here, I think it's probably been a good thing, if anything, because it means that we're probably well placed for virtually everywhere else in the world as well.
 
TF: And GDPR is a really good segue into pointing out that the GDPR itself actually mandates using plain language. It uses that exact term in the GDPR to say: “This is how you need to write the privacy notices.”
We see all these privacy notices, links to them on the bottom of websites. I think most of us categorise privacy notices in the same category as T&Cs, we go: “Yeah, whatever.” But the point of that privacy notice is to tell people who you are, what you're doing, what data you're collecting about them, what you're doing with it, how you're keeping it safe, who you're sharing with, all those kinds of things. And these are things that, I think if you ask most people they say well yes, of course I should know who's got data about me and what are they doing with that data – it’s the privacy notices on all these sites that tell us that.
Through the GDPR, what the European Parliament was telling us is, guys you have to do this in language that people understand or otherwise you're not telling them. So, telling somebody something very complex in complicated language that they can't understand is just as good as not telling them anything at all. And the GDPR recognises that. PIPEDA, which is the sort of the equivalent federal law in Canada, same thing, it's been around since about 2000, it requires plain language for use in privacy notices.
The GDPR itself is basically propagating, it’s working its way around the world, one country after another in other parts of the world, Africa in particular. I’ve been doing some work with a company there and literally one country after another is taking the GDPR, almost photocopying it and passing it into law as their local privacy law. So, these standards are working their way through and they demand plain language because frankly, most people need plain language in order to understand what it is that we're doing.
 
NK: GDPR just puts fear in people. They're just copying what somebody else has done, that's how it it continues, right? It's like, that person is smarter than me, they must know what they're talking about, I'm going to copy that and this is how the cycle continues. And there's nobody that puts the brakes on that and says: “Hold on a second. Can we do this in an easier way that can make everyone happier and not so afraid and worried about all of these scary things like GDPR?”
I think those four letters just conjure up so much fear in people. That and data protection and all of that, is such a massive area and so important, but there's still so much confusion around it. And again, the onus isn't all on us as consumers to understand everything; the onus is on the organisations to make it clear to build that trust with their audience.
 
GK: Yeah, I think there's still a lot of misunderstanding around GDPR as well, and I think especially related to kind of online businesses, privacy policies and cookie policies and things like that. Because I have had various conversations with people and I've asked them how have they approached it. And they said, well essentially just what you said, you know, copy and paste it from somebody who they think knows what they're doing. Because you know you need to very much tailor these two things in particular to what your business does, how you handle it, where you store things and things like that.
But again, I think that just comes back to the thought that it's a too complex a thing to deal with so we may as well just use something somebody else has done and that'll be good enough.
 
NK: And hope they don't ask you questions about it, because you can't answer them because you didn't write it.
 
TF: I think that one of the great ironies about the GDPR itself, by the way, is it mandates plain language in privacy notices. If you've ever read the GDPR, you know it is not an example of plain language drafting. It's, I mean, I've seen way worse, but oh my goodness, those sentences are long. They've got enormous numbers of commas. You spend an awful lot of time trying to parse paragraphs and figure out: “OK, does this adjective modify that noun or that noun?” But anyway, life is full of these ironies, I suppose.
 
NK: One of the things about plain language is that one of the recommendations is not to use acronyms. GDPR in itself, once again is the irony of it all.
 
LN: It sounds like plain English, we’re talking about plain English like it’s this silver bullet for everything, so can we just use like plain English writing in all of our documents? Does it work for every legal document?
 
TF: It can, but it doesn't mean it's always appropriate, so I'll give you an example. When you're writing a will, for example, now this is not something most of us do you. If you need a will done, you're going to go to a solicitor or a specialist will-writer. And I can almost guarantee you, they're almost certain to use some ancient forms of language in places and then have to explain it to you. Now on the one hand, I'd say maybe that isn't necessary, maybe they could have written it in plain language. But on the other hand, the consequences if you will, you know, if you're fortunate enough to have lots of money to give away when you've made your last trip around the sun, there could be a lot on the line, so making up new language to do the same transaction that's been done millions of times before probably isn't a smart idea.
Let's remember who's reading this will. This is not something that you and your customers and everyone else pulls out and uses on a daily basis to try to regulate your relationship. It's something that comes out once you've died, your executor is going to look at it, probably a solicitor or two will look at it, and if things go badly maybe a judge will look at it. So that, to me, is an example of a document where this isn't really a daily use document, so I think plain language is less urgent.
Same thing for property conveyancing. So when you buy or sell a house, all those documents that go into the Land Registry to explain this is what the transaction looks like, again these are standardised documents that rarely involve negotiation about the wording because everyone’s reusing the same wording for every transaction. It's not something you're ever going to pull out again. You buy your house, you're done, and if you ever pull out your deeds it's because something has gone terribly wrong and you're probably taking them to a lawyer anyway.
So that's an example of a document where I think the user, in that case, probably isn't a member of the public, and it might not be worth the effort and the risk. But a commercial transaction, or when you sell it, you're selling something to another business or to a customer, that's where the documents are about your business and about your business relationship. Everybody who's involved in that relationship should understand every word that's in there, they should understand every consequence of every sentence.
 
GK: Linked to that, there were a lot of the process that we went through drafting out terms, getting a real understanding of the business and the relationship. And you know, the who and what clauses were going to be relevant to what parties. And I think that's where doing something very tailored and, as Trevor said, not necessarily using just a template that's been around for many years, I think that's all part of the process because it then makes it very easy to understand. You know, these clauses relate to this and I think it's all part of the process.
 
NK: Can I just ask you Graeme, because obviously there's a time investment that is involved in altering your terms and conditions and contracts beforehand. Obviously you've seen the benefits of it now, but what sort of timescale did you input to bring them into plain language?
 
GK: I think, from experience, I think we probably invested a bit more time than we would have done previously. Just because I think in previous contracts I've had drawn up for previous businesses that I've had, probably were very standard and we didn't really have a lot of a lot of dialogue through that process. Whereas this one, because it was quite a unique model as well, they needed that, that kind of input. But I do think it's definitely been a good use of use of time with the benefits that’ve come out of it.
From Trevor's perspective, does writing up a plain English contract or terms and conditions take you longer than they would have done with a more traditional process?
 
TF: Yes it can, because the traditional process is download the template and then just go through and just maybe delete the odd thing or tweak the odd thing but largely leave it alone. And whereas to do it in plain language, you actually start the other way around. Or maybe what you do is you take that complicated template and use it as a checklist, but that's about it.
There's that famous letter that Mark Twain may or may not have ever written but everyone says it was Mark Twain, so I'll go with it – he starts it off saying something like: “I'm sorry to have written you such a long letter. I didn't have time to write a short one.” And there's no truer sentence has ever been written. Because if you want to write, anybody can write a 95 page contract, anybody could do that, you know, stream of consciousness, throw in every imaginable term that you've found from a template from a database of standard terms. But to actually sit down and say, is this actually necessary and actually prioritise not only what's likely to happen, but what do we know? What’s the actual core of the deal and the relationship here? And what are the things we actually need to talk about?
Because you can never talk about everything, you have to draw the line. Somewhere, when you're making a pitch to a customer, you don't talk to them about every possible eventuality. You couldn't possibly do that. So why are you doing that in the contract? It really forces you to sit down and think about what's important to you to your customer. And in order to get it down into a form where you say, yeah, this provides enough of a framework, enough protection for both sides without running on at the mouth, that's a really good point.
 
LN: Ok folks. I'm just looking at the time and we are right on time, so I'm going to throw the floor open to any of our guests who want to share some final thoughts, or if there's a question that anyone would like to ask, this is your time. And if not, I think I'll just wrap it up here.
So thank you to everyone for attending. Thank you very much to our panel: Trevor, Naimh and Graeme, thanks for joining us today.
If you'd like to revisit this recording, just go to our YouTube channel. It should be up in the next few days as well as all the rest of our future roundtables.
A reminder that our next roundtable will be January 27th. That's a Thursday and I'll be putting the making the Eventbrite link live this afternoon.
So that is it from us. Thank you everyone for again for joining us and very Merry Christmas. And we'll see you in the New Year.

 

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