Deborah Bosley cleans up language

 In April 2020

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By Page Leggett

Communicating clearly, in writing and in speech, is in Deborah Bosley’s wheelhouse. She maintains a laser focus on disambiguation — something her clients consider a real value-add. She brings a lot to the table.

Bosley will cringe reading that jargon-clogged paragraph. It’s what the owner of Charlotte-based The Plain Language Group helps clients avoid. She may be professor emeritus of English at UNC Charlotte, but she eschews academic and business jargon and all manner of mumbo jumbo. She coaches clients, including Bank of America, Google, TIAA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others, to do the same.

“People have a mistaken belief that complex language makes them look smarter,” she says, citing the example of “utilize” versus “use.” People use fancier, bigger words — often without being aware of it — to impress peers and the higher-ups, Bosley says.

Nearly everyone is guilty, but lawyers are guiltier than most. An attorney once told Bosley that if her plain-language crusade caught on, people wouldn’t need lawyers anymore. She countered: “We will always need lawyers. I’m not going to represent myself in court.”

“Every profession has a blind spot where their own language is concerned,” she says. People who work in banking, law and government forget that not everyone speaks finance, legalese and bureaucrat.

The business case for plain English

It’s not just that jargon is annoying. It excludes the uninitiated. “If people in the same industry want to speak to each other using their own acronyms, I have no problem with it,” Bosley says. “If they understand each other, that’s great. My problem comes when people use language as a barrier.”

Unclear language, whether used by mistake or by design, confuses, conceals, and can ultimately result in unhappy customers and lost revenue. “Using plain language,” Bosley says, “increases profits and decreases wasted time.”

She’s not a plain-English advocate purely because she empathizes with the beleaguered consumer who doesn’t understand annual health-insurance enrollment forms, college-aid forms and loan applications — although she does empathize.

“Think about how many decisions we make every day based on information we don’t understand,” Bosley says. “Customers don’t trust entities that make it hard to understand necessary information. People read with their emotions. If you read something that confuses or distresses you, you can’t make a decision.”

But it can be difficult to initiate an industry-wide change in communication. Most companies pay little attention to how they’re communicating until they’re forced to, she says. What gets their attention? Getting sued. Bosley knows, having testified as an expert in several lawsuits where the “understandability” of disclosures was being contested.

The federal government is trying to do its part. The Plain Writing Act, which turns 10 this year, requires federal agencies to use words the general public can understand.

The government has also intervened on behalf of consumers. In 2008, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission cited 300 companies for not putting meeting requirements for sections of 10-K annual report forms in easy-to-understand language, Bosley says. Many companies had to rewrite their shareholder materials.

The misnamed Explanation of Benefits

Health care, Bosley contends, is ahead of many other industries when it comes to plain writing, although she acknowledges that a “five-page, double-sided ‘Explanation of Benefits’” explains nothing. “The [National Institutes of Health] has advocated plain speech for decades,” Bosley says. “And more medical schools are integrating this into their curricula.”

But the “EOB” is Exhibit A in the case that many industries may as well be writing in Tsuut’ina. Organizations tell people what they want them to know rather than what people need to know. In the case of the unnecessarily complex EOB, consumers want to know: “How much have I spent, and how close am I to meeting my deductible?” That’s it. All the other words on that tedious form are a waste, she says.

“We’re overloaded with information,” Bosley says. “We don’t have time to read every message put before us.” Bosley often tells clients that the average attention span of an adult in the United States is 8.25 seconds. A goldfish, by comparison, has an attention span of 9 seconds.

So, organizations that make their communications clear, concise and credible — to use Bosley’s words — are apt to win customers’ loyalty.

Still, the health care industry has a long way to go. Bosley’s eye doctor once asked her, “How’s your vision when your eyes are in a superior position?”

“Huh?”

The doctor said, “Oh, I just mean when you look up.”

“I don’t speak ophthalmology,” Bosley said.

“No one reads until the end”

The Plain Language Group offers clients training, testing, research and editing services. It’s usually the HR, compliance or marketing departments that hire Bosley. She always asks if the CEO supports the initiative. If the effort to use plain English doesn’t have backing at the top, it’s not going to take root as easily.

DeAnn Wright, a content strategist for a Silicon Valley tech company, hired Bosley last year. The former lead content strategist at eBay manages a team of tech writers who sometimes sound robotic in writing, she says.

Bosley reviewed the company’s communications in preparation for her customized workshop with the teams in California and Bangalore, India.

“Writers always feel our words are sacred,” Wright says. “We feel like, ‘Of course someone will read, from start to finish, what we’ve written.’ Deb told our team: ‘No one reads until the end.’” You’ve got to get your readers’ attention quickly and tell them what they need to know. Every week, Wright holds a content workshop so Bosley’s lessons stay fresh. And the team can measure how well they’re doing. They use the Flesch-Kincaid readability test to determine how easy their sentences are to understand.

“We used to write at about a 32-grade level,” Wright says. “Now, we’re aiming for an eighth- or ninth-grade level. It’s sad, but true: The average American reads at a fifth-grade level.”

So, it may be time for many companies to review their communications to see how easily they’re understood. Bosley considers everything put in writing — from statement stuffers to disclaimers — part of a brand. “Your brand is more than just brochures,” she says. Your brand encompasses every way you communicate. You’ve got to consider what people need to know versus what you want to tell them and then be willing to hit the delete key.

“You can usually eliminate 30% of everything you write,” Bosley says. It’s fluff.

Remember that the next time you’re trying to get buy-in, leverage best practices, move the needle or think outside the box. When you give it to people straight, it’s a (forgive the jargon) win-win.

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