The Power of Simple Language

“Plants are sneaky.”

My 10th-grade biology teacher—who I think was secretly a branding expert—would repeat this single idea at the beginning of every class.

“If there is nothing else you take away from this class, I want you to remember that one thing.”

And the crazy thing is, I DO remember it—well over a decade later. I don’t remember the details of photosynthesis. But I know plants are sneaky.

Why? Because it is simple.

Simple language is the key to effective communication in all lines of work—not just teaching biology.

This concept is the backbone of any brand, because for an idea to be magnetic—to unite your community—it needs to be a clear and simple one.

Why We Lean Towards Complexity

While we innately know that simple language is easier for people to understand—many nonprofits wrestle with how to do this well. Because for the organizations working to make our world better, the systems and structures they are up against are complex.

Imagine your organization addresses the issue of homelessness. You’ve studied the issue and worked in the field for years. You realize the root causes of homelessness are lack of affordable housing, poverty, low wages and systemic oppression. This can be difficult to articulate using simple language.

To simplify what you do goes against every fiber of your being. You desperately want people to know how tough the problem is, and how smart your organization’s approach or solution is. The last thing you want to do is simplify the problem. It makes you feel like your work will be undervalued, and people won’t get why they should partner with you. Though these concerns are understandable, they will hinder your ability to create effective communication.

Jargon is NOT the Answer

Sometimes terminology that is known within your organization may not translate to your audience and ultimately comes across as jargon.

Jargon is the nuanced language professionals use in certain disciplines or fields. While it is great for experts to communicate concisely and precisely with each other, it is insider language. In pretty much every other context, it acts as a barrier between you and those you want to attract.

When your audiences don’t know what you’re talking about, they feel left out. They won’t ask for clarification—they’ll simply disengage.

The Nielsen Norman Group, a UX research and consulting firm, shared in their article Plain Language Is For Everyone, Even Experts: “The misconceived notion that long sentences and big words make you sound smarter (or more professional) results in great sacrifices to readability and credibility.” They found in a usability study with domain experts that even experts “…crave succinct information that is easy to scan, just like everyone else.”

In short, simple language is inclusive—and jargon is not. Almost all jargon can be replaced with simple and direct language that doesn’t sacrifice meaning. Simple language helps keep your audience engaged and makes them feel included.

Simple Language Grows Your Brand

Not only is simple language inclusive—this is well recognized to the point that there are legal requirements for federal agencies to use “plain writing” when communicating with the public—simple language is also persuasive. It leads to action. This is because most decisions stem from intuition, not cognition.

Cognition requires deep thought, analysis, and “thinking things through.” This process can drain our energy and stall decision-making.

Instead, we’re prone to make snap judgments, trust our gut, and place weight on first impressions. We feel before we think.

You need simple language to achieve extraordinary results. And this is why branding works. Strong brands, especially strong nonprofit brands, simplify all the complex ideas into a clear brand positioning. This is also why an effective campaign strategy connects to our emotions; and why you should start any meeting, interview, and proposal with a short and pithy belief message.

When you utilize simple language, you can broaden your reach and create content that is accessible to the communities that you serve.