Simple Language and Communication Success

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump continues to demonstrate some of the best – and worst – PR practices. Included in the best category: Trump’s mastery of “simple language.”

This recent article exploring the “linguistic” decline of Trump’s language got me thinking about Trump’s repetitive use of simple words and phrases. Some people theorize that Trump’s language style indicates his cognitive skills are slipping. An alternative theory is that Trump has purposively adopted a simplistic communication style because he finds it effective. Perhaps Trump has mastered the art of the deal – or at least figured out how to deal with communicating to the masses.

Trump’s simple language is easy to comprehend and his messages are easily retained. If you are in public relations, or if you are in any way motivated to promote a product, service, or even yourself, a look at Trump’s communication style reveals a few lessons.

Why simple is better in PR

We live in a complex world with a constant barrage of information that we’re expected to comprehend and retain. This is especially true in healthcare, with all its jargon and acronyms. It’s thus no wonder that we are drawn to the simple – things like Southwest Airlines’ no-hidden-fee pricing, the iPhone’s user-friendly interface, and the Keurig’s no-mess system for brewing a single cup of coffee. In the same way, our overloaded brains appreciate plain-language messaging that is clear and concise.

Whether it is a website, a press release or a speech, your audience should not have to read (or listen to) your content multiple times to comprehend its meaning. You don’t want your prospective customer to view your website and wonder what the heck you’re selling or why you’re better than the competition. When you craft your message in simple language, it’s easier to understand and remember.

Unfortunately, simple language content is not simple to create and is arguably harder to craft than jargon-filled messages with run-on sentences and $5 words.

Best practices for keeping it simple

Whether you’re writing or speaking, consider these best practices for simplifying your message:

Use simple words – As Mark Twain said, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” It’s more important that your audience understands your message than it is to impress them with your vast vocabulary. Keep the language plain and simple.

Keep sentences and paragraphs short – Avoid trying to communicate too many ideas within a single sentence or paragraph. Target a sentence length of 20 to 30 words and limit paragraphs to two to three sentences, especially when the content is written. Readers will follow and retain your message more easily.

Eliminate the fluff – One way to keep sentences short and sweet is to eliminate unnecessary words and keep the message concise. For example, rather than say “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” Martin Luther King, Jr. could have said “I have a dream that one day all Georgians will eat together as friends.” Okay, okay, my sincere apologies to one of history’s greatest orators, as there clearly is a time and place for fluff – but it’s not within a press release.

Get rid of the jargon –Your target audience won’t assume you are an expert in your field just because you use a lot of industry jargon. In fact, the very people you are trying to impress may tune you out if they don’t understand the meaning of those terms. Replace the jargon with plain language substitutes whenever possible.

Stay active – Use an active, not passive, voice. The passive voice typically requires more words, especially the use of prepositional phrases that can create vagueness. For example, do say, “The company is exhibiting its products at HIMSS,” and avoid saying, “The products will be on exhibit by the company while at HIMSS.” Not only is the first version smoother and shorter, it is also more easily understood.

You may also want to consider running a readability index on your content. Readability indexes, such as Flesch-Kincaid and Gunning Fog, will estimate how easy it is to read and comprehend your text based on word and sentence length, syllable counts and other factors. A message that scores a reading level of grade 7 or 8 is considered to be an easy read and in plain English. It’s also the ideal level for communicating with the masses. Interestingly, the average score for medical information designed to educate patients is a grade level of 10 or higher.

Finally, here’s one more reason to adopt a simpler language style: it can improve your website’s SEO rank. Readability is one of the many signals that Google uses to rank websites. If you want a higher ranking, make sure your text easy to read and perceive.

Adopting a simpler language style may not be simple – but it can lead to greater communication success!

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