Plain Language In The Time of COVID-19


There are few moments in history that stop the world.

The global spread of COVID-19 in 2020 was one of those moments. Society, businesses, and individuals pivoted amidst waves of panic and unrest to find a new normal. What does the new normal look like? How long does it linger? Will society ever return to the status quo? These are questions that businesses had to address internally and externally as operations shifted to remote conditions.

Businesses Respond To COVID-19

There was a constant that remained in the face of chaos, the importance of clear communication. Across the world, every business from small business to enterprise level had to issue a response to COVID-19. Whether a press release or a company policy, the businesses needed to relate a message to the consumer of safety and continuity in unprecedented conditions.

The power of plain language in such communications was evident. For example, New York governor Andrew Cuomo was praised by the press for his action-oriented message to the constituents. He used short sentences that contained one thought per sentences. He was concise in his delivery of a grim reality.

 He used plain language.

Plain Language Effective In Time of Crisis 

Plain language has become instrumental in communication. In fact, in 2010 President Obama signed the Plain Language Act into law requiring a standard of communication for government agencies. The premise behind standardizing communication is the accessibility and clear message of plain language. Short sentences that contain one thought. An 8th grade readability that reduces barriers to understanding. The average American reads at an 8th grade level. A fact that is vital to consider when communicating messages with instructions for safety or to an audience that is multitasking during a crisis.

Power Of Plain Language 

Plain language uses active voice instead of passive. Sentences that use active voice are clear in who is taking the action. The shift may be subtle however in a time of crisis there is no room for ambiguity. “You must use hand sanitizer after every meal” is more commanding than “Hand sanitizer must be used after every meal”.     

The choice of words is important for plain language. Messaging that is most effective uses everyday language. During crisis, the goal is to simplify and unify language. For example, COVID- 19 has been referred to in different ways in the press: “COVID”, “coronavirus”, “corona”, “SARS-CoV-2”. Such inconsistency confuses the reader and reduces the emphasis behind the message.

While plain language is the standard for clear communication, there is more to messaging than sentence structure, voice, and syntax. A message, especially in a time of crisis carries an emotional component to the audience. Given the impact and severity of COVID-19, businesses are learning the nuance of emotional crisis messaging. For every business that delivers a cut and dry press release, there is a business that innovates by including notes of empathy in the message.

Emotional Crisis Messaging 

Empathy is showing the humanity behind the communications and it works beautifully with plain language to soothe the reader. Even Governor Cuomo is his grim address of certainty to New York had a tone of conviction and leadership that comforted the distressed state with a gentle hand.

Plain language in times of crisis gives the reader trust and clarity in response to uncertainty. In a historical moment for the world, that’s a lot to give. 

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