The interruption wasn’t gentle: “I’ve practiced law for 40 years and couldn’t begin to tell you what those damn public notices are trying to say!”  There I was, making the case for what became to a friend who, in turn, shared his “best advice” about the idea.  He’s in the advice giving business – and charging nearly $1,500 per hour.  So over breakfast there it was, the plain but brutal truth.

Using plain language works for just about everyone.  Politicians use it while campaigning then often seem to forget how to after they’re elected.  Deep down, I knew my friend was right.  Using plain language was at the heart of his and my success in courtrooms across America.  If your aim is to inform or persuade, be plain spoken.

Compelling evidence is there.  Plain language plainly works – because when people understand, they call less often.  In 2006 the Arizona Department of Revenue rewrote many of its standard letters into plain language.  Phone calls went down so much that in 2007, workers were able to process about 30,000 more claims for unclaimed property than they had in the previous year.  When one office of the Veterans Administration rewrote a standard letter send to veterans, phone calls dropped from an average of 1.5 calls for each letter, to .27 calls.  In a nutshell, it saves agencies time and money, freeing workers to assist customers in other ways.

Important public notices are lost on Americans everyday in a sea of unnecessary legal jargon and scientific terminology.  As Americans embrace public notices online, making them understandable is imperative.

While this is no definitive guide on the use of plain language, George Orwell’s “never use a long word where a short one will do,” and “never use the passive where you can use the active” is a good starting point.

For our part, began #FedFeed, a weekly blog of clear summaries of pending federal notices that may impact you.  So as agencies seek public input, let’s first demand a common understanding, at a minimum.


By: John W. Davis, II, JD
CEO and Founder, N&C, Inc.