Writing for people, not businesses

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As an enterprise agency, our role is to support economic development, and this includes offering support and information to businesses in Scotland. This sometimes results in the misconception that our users are simply ‘businesses’.

But that’s not strictly the case. Even though our services are aimed at businesses, it’s still individual people that read our content, navigate application forms or contact our experts. They could be business owners, CEOs, accountants, finance directors, department heads, or any other individual within an organisation. And, being real people, there are a whole range of different needs and situations we need to consider when writing for them.

For example, they might:

  • Be busy people who don’t want their time wasted
  • Have no previous business experience or business education
  • Have settled here from another country, so English may not be their first language
  • Be using a screen reader or other assistive technology
  • Have a disability that makes it difficult to read or understand written text. In fact, there’s a good chance of this for our audience – research shows that around 20% of entrepreneurs in the UK are dyslexic
  • Be accessing our services on a train, in a busy office, or while trying to feed the kids

So what does that mean for the way we write content on our sites and services? Well, it means we need to write human-centred content, that’s easy to understand and accessible to everyone. Here’s how we try do that.

Writing in plain English

We aim to write all our content in plain English. This includes everything from service descriptions and business guides, to emails and application forms. Plain English is about writing clearly, concisely, and in everyday language. It includes:

  • Avoiding jargon and acronyms. If we need to use them, we’ll always explain what they mean first
  • Avoiding unnecessarily corporate or formal language. Instead of ‘Upon completion’, we would just say ‘When you’re finished’. Instead of ‘Applicants will receive communication by…’, we’ll just say ‘We’ll let you know by…’
  • Aiming to use the simplest version of a word. Why say ‘Obtain’ when we could just say ‘Get’?

Plain English makes it easier for everyone to read and understand our content. In fact, research shows that even highly educated experts prefer plain English. This means we don’t need to worry about putting off our users who may be highly experienced in business.

The Plain English Campaign has some really useful guides if you want to find out more about plain English.

Talking to people like they’re people

We try not to refer to our users as ‘businesses’ or ‘applicants’, but instead just say ‘you’. So instead of phrases like ‘Businesses can get support to’ , we’ll say ‘You can get support to’. And instead of ‘Applicants must upload evidence of’, we’ll say ‘You must upload evidence of’.

Using ‘you’ also helps to avoid passive sentences, which can come across as cold and corporate.

Keeping sentences short and to the point

We try to keep our sentences short, and make sure they only cover one or two points. Long, trailing sentences that jump from point to point are difficult to scan and understand quickly. And for dyslexic users, users who don’t speak English as their first language, or users who are distracted and struggling to focus, they can be a real barrier.

But this can be a tricky one to get right. Shorter sentences are easier to read and understand, but too many short sentences together can feel like a robotic list of statements. We’re always aiming to get a good balance between short, simple sentences, and content that has good flow and rhythm.

Bullet points are also a great way to break up long sentences or chunks of text.

Structuring and organising content

Human-centred content isn’t just about the words you use, but about how you structure and organise the information you’re giving.

We aim to structure content in a logical way, putting the user and their journey first. Good structure considers:

  • How information is organised on a page. This could include using clear, descriptive headings, making use of design components like accordions, or following the inverted pyramid method
  • How content is organised across multiple pages or steps in a journey

It’s about delivering the right information at the right time. We don’t want to overwhelm users with every piece of information all at once.

Well-structured content doesn’t just make a simpler journey for our users – it also helps users who are using assistive technology. People using screen readers might skip through each heading to understand what the page is about and find something of interest. If our headings are unclear or not labelled correctly, these users might struggle to navigate the page.

Researching and testing

Writing for people means knowing what those people need, want and expect from us. To make sure our words are doing their job properly, we make sure to carefully research the people we’re writing for, and test what we’ve written with them.

This research and testing can come in lots of forms, including:

  • Reviewing enquiries to understand what people are asking us about and what kind of language they use. Keep an eye out for a further blog post on this later!
  • Checking page analytics to understand which services users access the most and how they interact with them
  • Analysing search terms and volumes to understand what people are looking for and interested in
  • Speaking directly to current customers to understand what they like and don’t like about our services
  • Conducting and reviewing surveys, usability tests, card sorts or tree tests with an online panel of potential users
  • A/B testing to test different versions of content with real users

Before we even start writing, we aim to do as much research as possible to make sure we create something that’s suitable for our users. And once we’ve started, we test and iterate along the way too.

A work in progress

Our goal is for every piece of user-facing writing across our whole organisation to be human centred and free from jargon. Whether our users and customers are reading a business guide or service description, completing an application form, or reading an email from our enquiry team or appraisal team, they should always feel like they’re being spoken to like a real human, in a language that they understand.

But as anyone who works in content will tell you, sticking to these principles 100% of the time is a real challenge. Between meeting tight deadlines, working around technical restrictions, meeting business needs and facing pressure from stakeholders or legal teams to word things a certain way or include specific information, sometimes less than optimum content slips through the cracks. And while our digital and marketing teams benefit from the expertise of content designers and UX writers, not every team in our organisation has these skills available.

We’ve got a long way to go until we reach this goal, but it’s something we’ll continue working towards for the benefit of all our users.

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