1. Use plain language
The use of plain language can be very powerful but:
- It’s not about “dumbing down” your writing. Almost anything – from leaflets and letters to legal documents – can be written in plain language without patronising the reader or being over-simple.
- It doesn’t mean reducing the length or changing the meaning of your message.
- It’s not about banning new words, killing off long words or promoting completely perfect grammar. Nor is it about letting grammar slip.
- It is not an amateur’s way of communicating with customers. The best managers always write in plain language.
It’s not as easy as we would like to think.
We used to accept the official style of writing of bureaucrats such as lawyers, public officials and bank managers that was inefficient and often unfriendly. Many of these offenders are now putting things right by rewriting their documents clearly and training their employees in the art of plain language.
Plain language is:
- Faster to write
- Faster to read
You also get your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way.
2. Be human
Try to call the customer you, even if you are giving advice about what a group of people should do.
Instead of “Applicants must tell us…”, say “You must tell us…”
Instead of “We always write to customers before we…”, say “We will write to you before we…”
Instead of “Leaflets are available from…”, say “You can get a leaflet from…”
Avoid distancing yourself from the reader. Always call your organisation we. And there is nothing wrong with using we and I in the same letter or email.
- Do use “we”, “our”, “you”, and “I” to be more personal – not “the Company”, “the agency” or “the Authority”
- Do say “I am sorry”
- Do say “Our aims are”
- Do say “We try to provide…”
3. Be personal
Soften bad news and start with:
“I understand your position, however…”
“I sympathise with your point of view, but…”
Finish your “No” letters and emails on a positive note.
How to write a ‘No’ letter or email
- Open with a neutral statement
- Give the bad news
- Explain reasons
- Suggest other options if possible
- Close with a good will statement
Other ways to be personal:
- Address all the issues raised in the original correspondence – be inclusive rather than exclusive.
- If you deal with all the points, you are less likely to receive another letter, email or phone call in future.
- Picture your reader. Think about: where they live, are they young or old?
- Do they need help to understand your response?
- Think about the effect of your words. How would you feel if you got your reply?
4. Concentrate on the positive
Show that you understand your readers feelings
If you are writing an information letter or email:
- Open with clear statement to show that you are responding to their correspondence
- Give information in a logical sequence
- Give the source of information and contact name if possible
- Close with a goodwill statement
- Who you are communicating with
- Why you are communicating
- What you want to say
- What does the reader already know
- How can you best deliver your message
- When will the reader receive your response and when does the reader have to take action
Use relevant set paragraphs relating to legislation, regulations or policies – but make sure that they are appropriate.
Sometimes it is not appropriate to use set paragraphs, particularly when complaint is high level, or when it is very complex.
Writing a ‘yes’ letter or email
- Give the good news first
- Explain the news clearing up any queries
- Finish with a statement of good will
5. Make responses clear
- Use less than 25 words per sentence.
- Low sentence scores are a safe bet for better understanding.
- Keep your sentences short make only one main point per sentence and bear in mind that you may not.
- Need to justify every point.
- Break up long sentences when re-writing any correspondence or proof reading – cut out unnecessary words.
- Beware making sentences too short or your letter/email may become fragmented.
- Consider a glossary of terms.
- Use lists if necessary.
- Be direct – write- ‘we cannot improve the service’ instead of ‘the service cannot be improved by us’.
6. Choose words carefully
Choose every day words: use words like “try” instead of “endeavour”; “home” instead of “dwelling”; “about” rather than “with regard to”
Avoid lots of legal words: such as “at your earliest convenience”, “enclosed herein”, “your good selves”.
Try not to be sexist: avoid writing that carries a bias towards one gender or another
Avoid abbreviations: use “for example” instead of “e.g”.
Include in your response:
- A conclusion of the facts and findings- explain what you have found – give reasons
- A definition of the complaint: this shows the customer that you have understood his or her complaint
- A statement declaring the outcome yes we have/have not found fault
- Balance probability and precedent
If appropriate, you may also want to signpost the customer to the next stage of escalation:
- Service or product manager
- Chief Executive’s office or a Customer relations team
- External review (such as Ombudsman or independent arbitration)
7. Review what you have written
Your responses should always be proof read and revised.
Always read through your response (more than once!) and, if possible, someone else should look at it before it is sent out!!!
8. Follow a style
Some general style guidelines
- Use a strong, clear typeface: such as Arial
- Use a font size around point 12
- Separate paragraphs with a double line space
Never use full CAPITALISATION (unless you want your words to shout at your customer!)
- Use bold type to emphasise words
- Use open punctuation
- Use headings if the correspondence needs to be split into sections