Issue 5: Not so “plain” language . . .


Question: have you ever wondered how long you could make a sentence?

Here’s a small excerpt from one that Mark Virtue (1980, aged 15) wrote:

“Once upon a while back there was an ambitious contortionist who made up his mind he would try to conquer the twenty-seventh highest dead volcano on Neptune, with his tongue secretly hiding behind his overweight postman’s Swedish Hi-Fi set and the shoelaces of his Persian Ugh boots stubbornly caught on the corner of the round Toongabbie equestrian sports complex, while he would try to breed miniature brown cicadas inside a quickly rotating water-heater with seven silk pillowcases hanging from his uneducated vacuum cleaner which would be chained around his navel, and ask if his second grand-stepfather has heard of any orange-flavoured Portuguese atomic submarines in the neighbourhood lately that have precisely half of their crews attempting to break the 1958 record for mass voluntary electrocution whilst being sponsored by the dangerous chrysanthemum division of Interflora,”

. . . . . . . and on it goes for another 5,237 words! Impressive!!

Another question: Do any of your documents challenge Mark’s effort?

What is Plain Language?

In this article from our Inversion Series we will have a bit of fun with Plain Language.  Funnily enough, even if you Google “Plain Language” you get some not-so-plain definitions.  Like, “Plain Language could be defined as the systematic application of English language, grammar and context with the aim of providing clear, concise and relevant content, enabling the reader to learn and take action where appropriate.”

Or much more clearly as put by the Plain Language Action and Information Network.

“Plain language (also called Plain English) is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. Written material is in plain language if your audience can:

  • Find what they need;
  • Understand what they find; and
  • Use what they find to meet their needs.”

Or the one I like most: Plain Language is defined by the results using it achieves: — it is easy to read, understand, and use.

Stephen King Quote

Stephen King Quote


10 things you should always do?

Now that I’ve looked at definitions let’s look at the 10 things you should try to do if you want to confuse, obfuscate and/or lose your customers:

  • Don’t write for your reader write for yourself!  Set the tone so they know that you are the expert and you know more big words than they do. Which reminds me of a saying I heard once, “those of you who think you know everything annoy those of us who do!”
  • If ONE word explains it use TEN instead!
  • If you can use a picture to tell ONE THOUSAND words, USE THE WORDS instead!
  • Don’t use pronouns – ‘you’ or ‘we’ – if you do that, then the reader (your customer) will know who is responsible for what!
  • Always use the passive voice!  It’s hard to sue ‘it’.
  • Make sentences long and complex – especially in legal documents like insurance or Superannuation Product Disclosure Statements.  That way, your customers may not understand if they are covered for an insured event . . . and they may not make a claim.
  • Never, ever use tables or lists to simplify the layout for your reader.
  • Don’t use headings or white space – save your company money by compressing as much content into the space as possible.  That will help you to use less paper and save our trees.
  • Make sure that your language will only be understood to a university graduate.  And then, measure how successful you’ve been in making your communications difficult to understand by analysing the number of calls you receive from your customers asking you to explain things to them.  Even better if the call centre can’t explain what you have written.  They can then get clarification from the authors or experts and ring the customer back.  The customer will be impressed with your customer service and the more calls you have to return the more jobs you will create!
  • Last but not least, get multiple authors to speed up new content development.  They will know when to, and when not to, use subject, object, possessive, intensive or reflexive pronouns; and past or present participles.  And all the while making the documents sound like a single author wrote them, wont they?


There you have it. Simple. Plain. Language.  What could be easier?

Plain language at Orpheus

Our people are passionate about design-thinking.  By this we mean we design and write with the end-customer in mind.  And writing content that is easy to read, understand, and use is a key component.

We love Antoine De Saint-Expury’s observation,

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing to take away.”

Our methodologies always focus on strong business case justifications for improving design and language.