The Power Report: Marketing, plain language & the law
by Megan Power (@Power_Report) It’s no accident that South Africa’s consumer protection legislation insists on the use of plain language. Communication lacking it is neither smart, nor fair. We communicate to share, guide, help; if one party doesn’t understand, what’s the point?
To pass muster with Section 22 of our Consumer Protection Act, business has to communicate in such a way that an ordinary person, with average literacy skills and minimal experience of the goods or services offered, will understand. Without much effort.
The US-based Center for Plain Language sums it up well: plain language is making wording, structure, and design so clear that people “can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” How “plain” depends on the audience; what’s plain for one audience may not be for another. But it’s not just about the grammar.
Says the Center: “Plain language is more than just short words and short sentences… when you create material in plain language, you also organise it logically for the audience. You consider how well the layout of your pages or screens works for the audience. You anticipate their questions and needs.”
That last sentence (the emphasis is mine) is crucial. Communicating effectively with consumers starts with understanding their challenges. It’s the only way you can discover what your customers need to get the job done (not what you think they need) and, more importantly, how to talk to them in the language they use and understand. Sounds simple enough, but a quick look at how consumers are engaged with shows a concerning disconnect. From notices, promotional material and T&Cs to product packaging, website content and social media scripts, business communication is too often awash with jargon, acronyms and clichés.
It’s sales speak, neither relatable, useful nor relevant, and coming at a time when people demand answers and direction. As consumers, we just want to understand the proposition and the product. Tell us how this works, how it helps us, what to do when it goes wrong. It’s lean stuff, with no frills.
Medical schemes, insurance, banks and telcos are often among the worst culprits. Burdened by technical lingo and complexity, it’s second nature for them to speak in their own vocabulary, instead of a consumer’s. Even the better communicators who ditch the jargon still hang on to words none of us ever use. The reality is we don’t get into our vehicles every day; we get into our cars. We don’t peruse a document; we read it. We don’t utilise data; we use it. We don’t commence a journey; we start it. We don’t purchase bread; we buy it. And nobody terminates relationships; we simply end them.
When my local supermarket is out of stock of my favourite coffee brand, it’s an “inconvenience”. When I’m double-billed on an account three months in a row, causing havoc with my bank balance, “inconvenience” no longer cuts it. As for companies that thank me for my patience; it’s not a virtue I possess. Rather say you’re sorry you made me wait two weeks for an answer.
Words have power and need to be chosen wisely. Some are better off not chosen at all, like the inane “Have a good day further”. Who speaks like this? I’ve seen it in emails, and it was the automated message when I got off a recent domestic flight.
It’s not easy writing plainly; anyone who’s tried will know. And it’s also not a case of dumbing down; consumers are not that easily fooled. Besides, no matter how educated consumers are, nobody wants to work hard at understanding something. Making it easier is not patronising; it’s empowering.
How they say it
The trick is to know not only what your customers say about your brand, but how they say it. Then you can talk to them in the same language. Besides traditional customer research, direct input from frontline staff is invaluable. These are the people at the coalface, who experience up close and personal what customer painpoints are, where gaps in understanding exist, and, most importantly, how these are expressed.
There are other ways in, too. You should be tracking, through call centres and on social media, how customers verbalise the obstacles and how they describe your processes. You could commission independent customer-journey audits where your communication and messaging at each stage are put to the test, from an ordinary consumer’s point of view.
It’s all about becoming your customer, in an authentic way. So, walk in their shoes for a week or so — you’ll know soon enough how they fit.
Megan Power (@Power_Report) has nearly 30 years’ experience working in South African media, including investigative journalism and news editing; she now runs Power LAB, a strategic communications and customer experience agency focusing on customer journey audits, crisis readiness and brand reputation. Megan’s consumer column, The Power Report, ran weekly in the Sunday Times for six years and has now found a new home on MarkLives.
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