We’re advised to tailor our writing to our audiences. But what if our intended audience is very diverse? What can we do to write as clearly as possible?
In today’s interconnected world, many of us write for audiences with a wide range of comfort levels with English and who come from diverse backgrounds. To make your text accessible to as wide an audience as possible, try using some of these plain language techniques.
A reminder: Our audience is diverse
Without an audience, our writing is nothing.
If you’re writing for an international audience, your readers will be different not only in their comfort level with English but in the languages they know, countries and cultures they’ve experienced, socioeconomic backgrounds, age, disabilities, identities, and so on.
Even temporary conditions like injuries and stress levels matter because they affect how the readers understand and engage with your writing.
Why is it important to write for diversity?
So why do we care that we’re tailoring our writing to this diverse audience?
Well, we want our readers to feel that they are valuable to us and that they can fully take part in whatever we are offering. When readers feel that we are speaking to them, they will be more likely to read what we’ve written, understand what we’re saying, and trust us.
To speak to our diverse audience, then, clear, plain English is a powerful tool.
Tips for writing clear English for diverse audiences
So! Here are some things you can keep in mind. (And yes, it’s all part of plain language.)
1. Be aware of your word choice
⯈ Avoid slang, figures of speech, cultural references
Slang, figures of speech, and cultural references make it harder for your diverse audiences to understand you. It can leave them confused and even feeling excluded.
In slang and figures of speech, the literal meaning of the words is different from the intended meaning—so it’s not clear to a wide audience.
Examples of slang/figures of speech
- “I chickened out” (got scared and didn’t do something).
- “It’s so whitebread” (plain).
- “He wears his heart on his sleeve” (shows his intimate emotions honestly).
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Also watch out for cultural references. That means referring to TV shows and films, sports, fashion trends, celebrities, and music, as well as politics and even history and religion. Not everyone watches European football or American basketball or Netflix or is familiar with what Easter is about.
We often use slang and cultural references to signal that we’re members of the same group. But it also means it excludes those of us who don’t understand the reference, making us feel like we are outsiders.
⯈ Avoid jargon & acronyms – if you must use them, EXPLAIN
Avoiding jargon and acronyms is especially important for researchers and specialists who are trying to reach a wider audience. We can get so accustomed to using certain words in our professional lives that we forget: not everyone knows what those words mean.
Try your best to avoid using unnecessary jargon and abbreviations. And if you must use technical words, have the courtesy to explain them the first time you mention them.
(Of course you can use technical words if they are widely understood and familiar to your audience. But just remember that there may also be some readers who aren’t familiar with those words. Do you want them to understand what you’re saying too?)
When defining those words the first time, try to give simple definitions. Formal definitions can often be too technical for laypersons, so choose something that will let your audience easily understand the meaning and remember it.
“Gender budgeting” may be immediately clear to a gender specialist working in the United Nations but not much to someone else—even a colleague who works in, say, disaster management—who wants to learn how to better take gender into account.
The OECD definition is:
Integrating a clear gender perspective within the overall context of the budgetary process through special processes and analytical tools with a view to promoting gender responsive policies (OECD 2016)
Hmm. Compare that to:
Gender budgeting is a way of analysing the budget for its effect on gender equality. (Women’s Budget Group)
Which can you understand more easily?
And once you’ve defined the words, remind people what those words mean from time to time.
2. Focus on the action
⯈ Say WHO is doing WHAT
When writing in English, make sure you make it clear WHO is doing WHAT. That often (but not always) means you should use the active voice.
PASSIVE: The challenges were acknowledged (by zombies?).
ACTIVE: We acknowledged the challenges.
If you can add “by zombies” at the end, that may mean it’s in passive voice 🙂
In passive voice, WHO is doing the action can get easily hidden, which can make it harder for us to follow the meaning. (But this doesn’t mean the passive voice is wrong. If the WHO is unimportant, obvious, or unknown, the passive voice is more appropriate.)
⯈ Keep the WHO & the WHAT close
Following from the above point, you also should try to keep that WHO and the WHAT close to each other in the sentence. It will help readers from getting lost.
Compare the following two:
People from across cultures as well as corporations, small businesses, international schools, relocation services, diplomatic corps, non-profits, academia, media and the arts come to this conference.
In this example, by the time you get to the WHAT (“come”), you’ve forgotten about the WHO (“people”).
People come to this conference from across many cultures. Participants represent corporations, small businesses, international schools, relocation services, diplomatic corps, non-profits, academia, media and the arts.
Here, it’s easier to read because the WHO and the WHAT are close to each other. You can always split sentences into smaller pieces if necessary.
⯈ Rescue the action
Often, we “smother” (hide) the action by changing verbs into (static) nouns. On this, see this post: 3 ways to cut the clutter from your writing > Find the verb.
3. Keep it short
Remember that everyone’s attention is limited. Especially on a website or if they’re reading on an app (this page is not a great example, I admit!), the text needs to be kept short and to the point.
- Stick to one key message per slide, per sentence. (If you’re presenting, you don’t want what’s on the slide to compete with what you’re saying)
- Use short sentences, no more than 15-20 words long (on average—for variety, have some shorter and some longer). It makes the sentences easier to read and understand.
Finally (and perhaps needless to say), remember that being respectful is important.
If you don’t know who’s in your audience, it may be better to take a politer tone than you might otherwise.
Where’s the fun? Finding your voice
I feel like a killjoy (someone who sucks the fun out of activities) with all these “do NOT”s. How—you may wonder—can anyone write interesting and lively text with all these restrictions?
In the end, it’s a balancing act. Your challenge is to find a voice that matches the purpose of your writing and communicates well with your intended audience. I’m still working on that too 😉
- Be aware of your word choice. Avoid slang, figures of speech, and cultural references. Avoid jargon and abbreviations.
- Focus on the action. Say WHO is doing WHAT, and keep those close. Rescue the “smothered” verbs.
- Keep it short.
- Inclusion Guideline: How to Write Inclusive Copy
- Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks
* Many thanks to Sarah Black, Athru Communications, for the inclusion resources.