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Talk Like a Human

by Ann Allsopp

Let’s say you’re meeting a coworker for coffee. How would you start the conversation?

Assuming you want to stay on good terms, you probably wouldn’t launch into legal philosophies and statutes the minute your coffee mate walks through the door. Yet many companies make that mistake in their compliance content.

Think about it: Does your Code of Conduct feel like a conversation? Or does it read more like a life insurance policy?

Plain language doesn’t just feel better for your audience—it’s also proven to be more effective. In the SCCE webinar “Using Modern Communication Techniques to Write a Better Code of Conduct,” Kirsten Liston and Meghan Daniels discussed two key reasons why plain language works:

  1. It’s more engaging. Just as we visually engage with faces, we’re primed to engage when someone talks to us like another person.
  2. The fluency heuristic. This is the fancy term psychologists use to say that when something is easy to process, we value it more. Humans are swayed by ease and palatability.

When we process information quickly and effortlessly, we like and trust it more. Conversely, when written language is complex and formal, it’s more work to read, and readers tune out.

But it’s easy to say, “Talk like a human.” The question is: how do we work plain language into our compliance content?

In his blog post “Write Like You Talk,” Paul Graham offers this solution:

Write your first draft the way you usually would, then afterward look at each sentence and ask "Is this the way I'd say this if I were talking to a friend?" If it isn't, imagine what you would say, and use that instead.

One of my favorite techniques as a writer is to read the content out loud. If the words feel unnatural to you as you speak, chances are they’ll feel unnatural for your audience too.

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