Of all the quality-of-life concerns faced by my former neighbors in brownstone Brooklyn, restaurant menus and promotions pushed through their mail slots seemed to get them the most incensed.

A walk through the neighborhood showed how some are trying to stave off this existential threat. By looking at a few examples, we can learn just how hard it can be to communicate a desired action. We can also see how combining plain language with smart information design yields clarity and gets results.

Communications 101

Here’s one example of what not to do. This sign is based on the worst kind of jargon (What did you do today? Place some unsolicited advertising materials on a property?).

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It also fails to consider its target audience; delivery people may not have a good command of English. And the poor word choice is rounded off with poor design (Is the text left-aligned? Right- aligned?) and subpar production values–a color photocopy placed in a plastic bag. Bottom line: this sign is both ugly and likely to be ineffective.

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Example #2 is better. Aesthetically, its handcrafted appearance is better than Example #1, and it gets the message down to two words. But one of those two words is a problem. Not everyone gets the American: flier, British: flyer thing straight—it’s one of those words that gives people trouble. Is the sign meant to scare away pilots? Mosquitoes?

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Example #3 combines plain language writing with limpid information design and high production values to create the clearest communication in our unscientific sample. Minimal wording, prominently placed informational graphics and the universal symbol for “no” are highlights of this durable, attractive, audience-friendly sign. Note, too, that the name of the sponsoring organization is listed, along with its contact information and the name of the designer. This piece is also likely to be the most expensive of the three, raising the question: Is investing in plain language and information design worthwhile?

And Your Point Is…?

Many businesses consider plain language just another regulatory requirement with dubious outcomes – something to be complied with in letter, not spirit.

Since the SEC published its Plain English Handbook in the 1990s, plain language has been at the heart of a number of key financial regulatory initiatives. And in health insurance, the trend of consumer-directed health care, with the individual making decisions while being required to pay a greater share of costs, has illuminated that health care literacy is not what it needs to be. Health insurance is still full of jargon (e.g., “deductibles,” “coinsurance,” “pre-authorizations”). A vital first step has to be plain language. But are financial and health care organizations reaping all the benefits clear communications can deliver?

If you embrace plain language, you can turn a necessity into a virtue. First, plain language equates to good business – generating, reviewing and publishing fewer words saves money. An investment in clarifying complex functional documents – forms, agreements and required notifications – telegraphs a focus on the customer. And finally, an organization committed to clear, user-centered communications can help change the conversation with constituents from staving off complaints to bolstering the relationship through positive interactions.

  • Originally published on addison.com

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