Write accessibly, or don't write at all

In marketing, accessibility has become a necessity. It’s no longer just a “nice-to-have” or a side project to leave half-finished. In order to be truly accessible, you’ll need a wholistic view of the experiences you create—and that means thinking about your writing. Your website might have good contrast between colours, or your video might be available with closed captioning. However, if the words you’re using are unnecessarily complex, then all that effort is wasted. Here are a couple reasons writing accessibly is worth it—and how ignoring accessibility in your writing can come back to bite you.

Ethics matter, no matter what

At the top of your accessible writing to-do list should be learning to avoid using language that’s harmful to marginalized people. There are some obvious words that most people know are inappropriate, but you may be surprised to find other, more commonplace, words and phrases have a history of being used to stereotype and exclude certain groups of people. This is an area where you can always be learning.


Do a little research up front to see if you might accidentally be using hurtful words.


If you ever find yourself wondering “Where does that saying come from?” don’t stop there—look it up! What you find may surprise you.


Don’t believe me? Start with this list of common words you might not know have roots in discrimination, assembled by dictonary.com.


Example: You send out an email to your contacts about an upcoming sale with the phrase “These prices are crazy!” in the subject line. Sounds harmless and fun, huh? Now imagine a loyal customer on your mailing list checks their inbox and sees your email. They could very likely be one of many people who struggle with their mental health, and have been dismissed, insulted, and belittled for years by people calling them “crazy.” Not only has your careless language hurt someone, you probably lost a customer.


Now more than ever, your customers want to support businesses that are operating ethically, and one of the easiest ways for them to evaluate ethical behaviour is to analyze what you have to say. If you’re using discriminatory words, you’ll have customers decide that they don’t want to support you, regardless of how great your product or service is. You may even find yourself at the centre of some bad press which can hurt your reputation even more.


Most importantly however, if you’re reckless with your language you could really hurt someone.


Using racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise, hateful language makes the world a worse place for all of us, so take the time to make sure your writing is inclusive before you share it.


Plain language is good for business


Most business owners have a pretty good understanding of their industry, and what makes their product or service stand out. Your customers on the other hand probably don’t have as much information as you. One of the most convincing ways to convert a stranger with a need into a customer, is to help them see what you see.


Example: A baker selling bread might have some secret recipes, but most of their customers will have encountered bread before. The baker and their customers can easily discuss different types of bread using common terms like sweet, soft, or crunchy. At the other end of the spectrum, a pharmacist helping someone pick out allergy medicine will have a much of more in-depth understanding of what goes into a pill, how it works, and what the side-effects might be than someone experiencing their first season of Hay Fever. The closer you are to this end of the complexity spectrum, the harder you’re going to have to work to share your knowledge with your customers.


It might seem impossible. Maybe you spent years at school to learn what you now know about your industry, how is a customer going to understand enough to make an informed decision in a couple minutes? This is where plain language saves the day. If you approach your industry from the perspective of someone who has a problem to solve, you can start to strip away the details and technicalities that aren’t relevant. Put yourself in your customers shoes. Instead of explaining the specific chemicals in the allergy pill and how they interact with human anatomy, just say which pill will help with itchy eyes and which will help with a runny nose.


From the perspective of a customer, solving their problem is more important than the correct terminology.


Using too much technical language will drive them to a competitor who can talk to them more respectfully.


Check out the Rocky Mountain Soap Company product page for shampoo. They explain how the shampoo will help with dry hair and go over the ingredients using language that shows a deep understanding of their product, without confusing the reader. Then, they break it down even further into an easy-to-read FAQ.

Accessible writing is more interesting

The truth is, content marketing only works when people actually read what you’ve written. If your writing is full of technical terms and jargon, it’s not going to be very interesting. Writing accessibly can be the difference between your customers forming a real, human connection with your brand and your blog becoming the next Terms & Conditions document no one reads. People are busy. They are not going to spend time trying to navigate confusing terminology if they don’t have to, just like you wouldn’t spend your time trying to read a blog post in a language you don’t know.


Example: Someone in your area is thinking of doing some home renovations. They’re not sure what they should do themselves and what they should leave to a professional. If your company makes cabinets and offers different options for installation, from complete DIY to totally hands-off, you might be the perfect company for this customer. Unfortunately, your website is filled with carpentry jargon and your potential customer finds it too boring to read. They jump on a competitor’s website who explains their options in simple terms. The customer quickly becomes loyal to your competitor for not only helping solve their problem but also making their home renovation fun again.


Writing in plain language brings your ideas and insights to more people.


Making a purchasing decision can be a fun and creative process. If you work in an industry where your customers seem to enjoy working with you and love to chat about their purchases, chances are they’re going to extend that enjoyment to the online world. Having a presence online that focuses on the emotional connections your customers have to your work can help create lasting relationships and loyal customers.

One company that’s done a great job of this is Ekolife, an environmentally friendly toy company in the UK. They’ve dedicated a page to the “why” of choosing cardboard over plastic. They could have gone deep into the science of pollution and used a bunch of scary, five-syllable words. Instead, they use simple language and easy to understand facts, keeping the tone fun and playful. Not only is this more appropriate for their industry, it will also appeal to their target market—parents who want to make sustainable choices, but also have young kids and probably not enough free time to do in-depth research.

You're excluding potential customers

Accessibility in writing is not just a favour you do for people. It’s the right way to accomplish your content marketing goals. Because the people you drive away when you’re not writing accessibly are potential life-long customers.


If you think that your industry is too technically complex and no one is going to want to learn about it, consider the opportunity you’re missing. The less the general public knows about what you do, the more likely they are to do a bit of research before spending their money. This is a chance for you to get your brand name out there with content marketing. If you can show someone you understand their problem—and how to solve it—in language they understand, then you’ll be rewarded with a boost of trust and probably a purchase.

There are lots of tips and tricks out there to help you improve your writing. One easy one is to ask someone outside your industry to read through your content before you share. This will help ensure that you haven’t accidentally used any words that potential customers don’t understand.

I keep my Oxford Guide to Plain English handy when I’m writing. It’s full of practical advice about sentence length, punctuation, and structure. Plus, there are tips that will help widen your perspective to consider more readers’ needs. I’m also a fan of http://www.hemingwayapp.com/. Here you can input your writing and receive notice of unnecessary complications. You’ll also get a grade level evaluation—this paragraph has Grade 6 readability. The lower the grade, the easier it is to understand. There are a lot of tools like this available, so get out there are start learning how to be a more accessible writer.

Want to learn more about expressing your brand purpose? Check out our helpful (free) webinar. 

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