Jump to content

    Using Plain Language (As explained by the U.S. Government)


    Holy cow....do you know the U.S. Government made a course about basic copywriting? They call this using "Plain Language."

    This course was created by the Federal Aviation Administration, the part of the government in charge of all civil aviation (if you've ever flown on a plane, much of your flight from air traffic control to safety procedures to maintenance standards have been dictated by the FAA).

    Because they deal in such a life-or-death industry, the FAA wants people to speak in PLAIN LANGUAGE that isn't confusing. This is similar to why people in marketing want to have "Plain Language" copywriting also. Our job isn't to impress people with how smart our language looks, it's to show someone why they should buy a product.

    You can see the full FAA course here:

    Federal Aviation Administration Plain Language Course.

    ...however, some browsers will have to download special plugins to view these videos, so we've reposted them here for the general public on YouTube (under Public Domain policy).




    Part 1: Intro – What is plain language?

    Dr. Bruce Corsino is in charge of making "Plain Language" readily available to all government agencies. Any government agency can contact him to make a special video course on how they can use Plain Language in their own agency.

    Objectives of this course:

    1. Define Plain Language.
    2. Plain vs. Non-Plain Language
    3. Laws and Policies
    4. Proofs
    5. Tools

    What is Plain Language?

    Plain Language is about helping your users with these 3 things:

    ▶ Find what they need.

    ▶ Understand what they find the FIRST time they read or hear it. 

    ▶ Use what they find to meet their needs.

    Plain Language is not about what you write, but what your reader understands.

    "Challenge Every Word."

    If you have 150 words, you probably don't need 50 of them. Get rid of them!




    Part 2: Why use plain language

    Even people from ancient history valued keeping things short. Plain Language is not a new idea.

    Why use Plain Language? Because it:

    ▶ Saves time, staff, and money.

    ▶ Improves compliance.

    ▶ Affects customer satisfaction.

    ▶ Prevents lawsuits.

    ▶ Saves lives.

    ▶ Policy, law, and a civil right

    Example of The Department of Veteran Affairs:

    They got over 1,000 calls from confused customers on a letter. With a new "Plain Language" re-written letter, they only got 192 calls.

    Example of Aviation Safety:

    In a study called "Language Errors in Aviation Maintenance" showed people in other countries were making mistakes on aviation maintenance, because the manual used too much confusing language.

    They found the average reading comprehension level across the world was only a 5th grade reading level. So they implemented a rule where they only use words from the World Wide Simplified Technical Standard which uses a total of only 800 common English words.

    Example of the Challenger Space Shuttle Explosion:

    NASA found the problem was caused by communication issues between engineering departments. One of the engineering teams knew the O-rings would fail under 32 degrees, but those notes and memos were so poorly communicated, that information never got to the right places.




    Part 3: Plain language law and tool kit

    2010 Federal Plain Writing Act:

    Signed into law October 16th, 2010. It states that:

    ▶ Every federal agency must train employees in the practice of writing in Plain Language.

    ▶ You must insure each document you issue or revise complies with the Federal Plain Language Guidelines.

    ▶ Every federal agency must make a Plain Language guide website.

    ▶ You must appoint a Plain Language official who can report on the progress of this effort.

    ▶ You must report every year to Congress what you've done to comply with the Federal Plain Writing Act.

    Government websites created for Plain Language:






    Part 4: Plain language format tools

    Common format tools to make things into Plain Language:

    • Headings: Clearly explain something in one heading.
    • Bullet Lists: Can make large amounts of text into easy to read bullet points.
    • Illustrations: Some things are easier to convey with an illustration.
    • Q&A Formats: Make an easy commonly asked questions section.
    • Blank Space: Don't needlessly fill up the page making it difficult to read.

    The United States Postal Service made an easy-to-read postcard to inform people of what suspicious mail looks like to avoid further anthrax attacks.

    Another common useful tool is tables. One agency turned this big and ugly and confusing block of text like this...


    ...into an easy table like this:


    Tables can help to clarify and organize lots of information.





    Part 5: Plain language word tools

    Word tools include:

    • Everyday words
    • Verbs
    • Pronouns
    • Contractions
    • Active voice sentences
    • "Must" vs "Shall"

    Everyday Words: Taking confusing phrases and making them easy, like this:

    "Due to the fact" = Because.

    "In the event of" = If.

    "Has the capability to" = Can.

    "Utilize" = Use.

    "Promulgate" = Issue.

    "Implement" = Start.

    Free Your Verbs: Just use easy verbs to replace phrases, like:

    "Give a description of" = Describe.

    "Provide assistance with" = Help.

    "Do the construction of" = Build.




    Part 6: Pronouns and Active Voice

    Pronouns: "We", "She", "It", "They."

    Using pronouns can make language easier. For example, here is a sentence without pronouns:


    Here's the same instructions with 5 pronouns, and much easier to understand:





    Part 7: Review and Games

    This video extensively (aka it's kinda boring) goes over some examples of using Active vs Passive pronouns.




    Part 8: Final exam part A


    No! It's too complex.


    Do you think THIS is Plain Language?


    No! It should be more like:

    "You must not use elevators if there is an emergency."




    Part 9: Final exam part B

    A test to see if we can make complex instructions easier to understand.

    Complex way:


    Plain Language way:


    Plain Language could have saved the Challenger Space Shuttle from exploding at launch if some crucial memo's were written in Plain Language:


    Hopefully these Plain Language writing techniques can help your audience understand things much better.




    FAA Plain Language PDF's


    When us marketers are using copywriting, it's often NOT a matter of life and death.

    But with government agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration, small miscommunications can result in huge disasters, and therefore Plain Language is extremely important. Hopefully this helps!


    Neville N. Medhora - Copywriting Course



    P.S. Here's some more writing resources:

    P.P.S. Please share this link with anyone who could benefit from this government writing course:


    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments

    Thank you for this, Neville!

    I have a habit of writing dramatically and I need to be reminded to keep copy short and to the point from time to time.

    Link to comment
    Guest Neville Medhora


    Oh yeah.....this little mini course will snap you out of that! He goes over some specific examples in Part 5 if you're interested in!
    Link to comment
    "ditto" - I agree with other comments, great information and will be very useful - Thanks
    Link to comment
    Guest Neville Medhora


    Glad you enjoyed it Gloria! Parts of this course are GREAT for showing to people in big companies that try to “impress” people with their words, rather than just get the point across.
    Link to comment
    Guest Felipe Trombini


    COMUNICATION. This is crucial in aviation.

    Everything is always tested and reviewed more than once.

    Difficult communication is the way to avoid fatal accidents.

    Link to comment
    Guest Neville Medhora


    Very true. In the video Dr. Bruce talks about the troubles the FAA had with their manuals being read by a wide variety of mechanics with VASTLY different reading skills, especially in other countries where English was not the first language.

    By cutting down on "fancy" words and phrases, they greatly improved safety for everyone.

    Link to comment

    Nev, thanks so much for relating this to copywriting. I work in the federal government and I have seen several iterations of courses like this. I have also done a lot in aviation. It's amazing to see how much fluff is in the reports I've seen (and written!) even immediately after receiving instruction on this stuff.

    You're a beast! Always a unique perspective. Thanks for bringing this out of the workplace (well, my workplace) and relating it to “real” life.

    Link to comment
    Guest Dan Ceballos


    The consummate teacher, once again Neville,you take a “confusing” topic and added clarity for the masses to consume.

    Tip of the hat to you sir!

    Link to comment
    Guest Susanna


    Thanks for sharing Neville. Since English isn't my first language the examples in part 7 was an Aha! for me. Now I know what to look for when editing my blog posts.
    Link to comment
    Guest Christoffer Baadsgaard


    Thank you for posting this, Neville! Looking forward to dig deeper into it!
    Link to comment
    Guest Neville Medhora


    Very welcome Christoffer! I watched all the videos and took notes, and it took less than an hour (and to be honest I only watched the first few minutes of Video #6 before it got a little repetitive).

    The rest I watched all the way through. Enjoy!!

    Link to comment
    Guest Neville Medhora


    Oh yeah this is great for non-native English speakers. In fact it was DESIGNED for a non-native English crowd. Very glad it was helpful!!
    Link to comment
    Guest Neville Medhora


    Awww why thank you Dan! Hopefully Dr. Bruce did the job for me this time :)
    Link to comment
    Guest Neville Medhora


    Oh wow, so this little mini course was literally right up your alley!

    Government documents are typically the worst (maybe only beat out by non-profit organization documents), so by letting everyone know they need to write in "Plain Language" is great....ESPECIALLY for the aviation industry where hundreds of lives are at stake each flight!

    Link to comment
    Neville, thank you for putting this together. A phenomenal resource. I went through last week and love it. Right up my alley for the teaching we do. Having the team go through this weekend. Cheers!
    Link to comment
    Guest Neville Medhora


    Why thank you very much Lovelli, glad you enjoyed it!
    Link to comment
    Guest Neville Medhora


    My pleasure Matt! It really is like a free copy course for total newbies, and is especially great for an office environment training!
    Link to comment
    Guest Brandon Dailey


    This mini course helped me understand that I do not need to use fancy or long words to impress or convey my point. I can use short and plain language words to achieve success. This will help me a lot as I begin my copywriting career! Thank you!
    Link to comment
    Guest Rimvydas


    This is my go-to page for tips, tricks and all the info I need at the beginning of my copywriting career :)

    Appreciate all you're sharing, Neville.

    Link to comment

    Create an account or sign in to comment

    You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

    Create an account

    Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

    Register a new account

    Sign in

    Already have an account? Sign in here.

    Sign In Now

    • Join 55,000+ people getting our newsletter

      nev-and-logo-going-into-email (3).gif

      - Get notified of new posts -
      - Get weekly S.W.I.P.E.S. Email -
      - Get a free masterclass in copy -
      - People love our emails, see testimonials -

    • Create New...