How can you sell plain language to your manager?

decisions decisions by garrett coakleyYou’ve heard me talk about my interest in the obstacles to widespread adoption of plain language before.  Over the holidays, I read Joseph Kimble’s Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please. What a terrific compilation of resources for those of us interested in more successful workplace writing! Kimble is a law professor with a long history as an advocate of plain language in business, government, and law.

More than half of the book is devoted to describing the benefits of plain language, including 23 examples of time and money saved by organizations.  If any of you are trying to convince management that it’s worth it to spend time creating more efficient and effective documents, you need to get a copy of this book. Let me share just one of Kimble’s 23 examples. This one was originally published by JoAnn Hackos and Julian Winstead in Technical Communication in 1995 based on work they did for Federal Express. I’ve been a fan of JoAnn’s work at the Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM) for many years.

FedEx ‘s ground-operations manuals were tested with target readers and then revised. (For instance, the manual was reorganized by reader tasks instead of by formal job titles based on testing.)  Using the original manual, FedEx readers searched for an average of 5 minutes to find information and found the correct answer only 53% of the time. Using the revised manual, FedEx readers searched for an average of 3.6 minutes to find information and found the correct answer 80% of the time. Although Hackos & Winstead did not produce an estimate of savings based on making fewer mistakes, they did conservatively estimate cost savings related to efficiency of $400,000 per year. Remember — that’s one manual.

The process for crafting an efficient and effective document takes both more time and money. One of the obstacles to adoption of plain language might be your manager. Most managers are probably unwilling to invest in plain language without a clear long-term view of the benefits. You can’t expect him or her to simply trust you when you say it’s important. Do you really PREDICT the impact of a specific plainly written document for your organization? Kimble’s examples should help you develop a business case for creating quality documents in your workplace. You might also check out The Costs of Poor Writing from consultant, William DuBay, for help in estimated costs.

With a well-developed business case for producing a plain language document, you should come across as not only passionate about good communication but also business-savvy. You’ll be helping your manager do his or her job. Sounds like a win-win situation to me!

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  1. We’ve found no difficulty in persuading senior management to spend money backing a campaign to improve the writing style of their employees. We just get them to run the free trial of the StyleWriter – plain English editing software – through typical letters, reports and other everyday writing samples.

    The software measures the writing style, including jargon, interest, readability, plain English and so on. It then shows where and how to edit the document into plain English. The organization can even add its own house style rules.

    So if you want to measure writing style and show how to edit it into plain English, get them to download the free trial to StyleWriter from our website http://www.editorsoftware.com

    To give you an example of how you can use StyleWriter, we’ve just used the program to audit 100 documents from Federal Government websites. Only 3 percent were in plain English. If anyone wants to see the results, email me at info@editorsoftware.com

    The organization soon sees the benefits, similar to those outlined by Professor Kimble. When they see the improvement in sales, administration and general communication, they see investing in plain English is a small price for big rewards.

    1. Thanks for.the suggestion. I have to disclose that I’m skeptical about the overall impact of software focused on style to accurately diagnose a lack of plain language. Although many people assume the term applies only to style (word- and sentence-level phenomena), I know content and organization are critical. This makes me realize I should provide a post defining what I mean by “plain language.”

  2. The question posed in the article is “How can you sell plain language to your manager?”

    My point with StyleWriter is that you can measure the writing style with the program and open the manager’s eyes to the problems. In management, if you can’t measure it, how do you know you have a problem and how do you know if your solution is working.

    StyleWriter offers a better measurement of plain English writing style than any other tool, particularly the simplistic readability tools in popular word processors.

    Yes, plain English is about design, audience and so on. But these are issues easily understood by managers. A good design of a website is easy to appreciate as is one designed to help the visitors find their way around.

    What’s always been the problem is the style of language. Every profession suffers from poor style – lawyers, engineers, academics and so on. That’s what’s hard for managers to recognize the problem problem. They think they write well. And if the style is the way they are used to writing, they think it is good writing.

    Our recent audit of government websites showed only 3 percent of documents were in plain English. How can we be so certain? We compared the results to the plain language award winners (Center for Plain Language). These award-winning documents all came top of the style audit and only three web documents audited had the same plain language statistics.

    The evidence is there, you just have to look at it.

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