I think I have an adequate understanding of the English language. After all, I do earn a living partly by writing. So anytime I read articles, instructions, and disclaimers that I can't understand on the first reading, I think that indicates a problem. The average consumer has the same difficulties. With so much content to consume these days, people don't have time to read things over and over to gain understanding.

In business documents, sometimes the blame for incomprehensible writing relates to misguided efforts to comply with legal and regulatory requirements. Of course you must follow the law. But the regulations usually don't dictate the actual wording; only what information needs to be conveyed. Amazingly, companies frequently produce customer-facing documents that are unfathomable by the majority of individuals in their target audience.

Here are a couple of factors that consistently contribute to unclear writing, and some suggested improvements. If there is any question about complying with laws or regulations that pertain to your industry, do pass any proposed language changes by your legal counsel. But aim for clear, concise, and relevant communications with customer understanding as the main goal rather than a secondary objective.

Generic Terms and Conditions
Lots of documents still use boiler plate text. Since a single version has to cover multiple situations, these documents include long sentences that feature lots of "ors", "ifs", and "nots". The reader is forced to apply Boolean logic to decide what parts apply to them. This makes for tedious reading.

Today's modern document composition engines make it easier to include only the conditions that apply. If the customer address is in California for example, maybe it's not necessary to tell them about all the conditions that apply to customers residing in other states. By eliminating one-size-fits-all terminology, entire sections can be eliminated or shortened, resulting in lower page counts and verifiable cost savings - in addition to document clarity!

Formal Language
Excessive formality can really get in the way of clear writing. For some reason, writers tend to avoid personal pronouns. Instead using "You" to refer to the reader, some documents resort to phrases such as "Cardholder, Named Responsible Party, or Parent or Guardian of a Minor". Excessive use of fancy legal words like "notwithstanding", or "aforementioned" also inhibit reader comprehension.

If establishing the identity of the reader is required for legal purposes, define the terms one time and then use personal pronouns such as "you", "we", or "us" everywhere else. Some writers use the first sentence to accomplish this task. For example, "The existing agreement between XYZ Corporation (We or Us) and an Individual, Corporation, Partnership, or Limited Liability Company (You)"

You can lose the "hereinafter referred to as" phrase also. People understand what the parentheses mean.

If you really want your readers to take some action or you want to change the way they think about something, they have to understand your message. Admittedly, some business communications exist just to satisfy the letter of the law. No one really expects customers to actually read them. But for everything else, a conversion to plain language and clear writing will be welcomed by your customers.

Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and President of Print/Mail Consultants. In addition to helping clients improve their document operations, Mike advises companies on content marketing strategies. Through PMC Writing Services he creates customized content such as case studies, articles, and white papers To find out more about content marketing, sign up for Mike's free "Customer Retention NOW!" newsletter at www.printmailconsultants.com or email him directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com.