scrabble tiles spelling out: "it's simple" (without the apostrophe because Scrabble doesn't have punctuation)
PHOTO: Amanda Jones

I can’t escape it: COVID-19 content. Everywhere I turn, there’s a news article, social media post or video sneaking into view. And so often, the way the content is delivered makes me cringe. Full of jargon and vague, scary terms. Way too many links. Dense blocks of text I have to wade through.

Marketers need to remember the golden rule of plain language: Complexity does not communicate authority. Let this principle guide you, especially now, when audiences are overwhelmed with coronavirus content.

Hone Your Plan Language Skills

Now is the perfect time to hone plain language skills:

  1. DO replace unfamiliar terms with plain language or include an explanation: We need to use the clearest language possible to help people make the right decisions for their health. For example, if you use the term “novel strain,” explain what it means: “Coronaviruses have been around for centuries, but COVID-19 is a novel strain, or a new type of the virus.”
  2. DON’T create link farms with your coronavirus resources: If you have a list of links, briefly explain what someone will find when they click. Avoid posting content that doesn’t explain the full picture. What actions should the reader take? Never use “click here.”
  3. DO make your content available in multiple languages: What languages do your users speak? Some state government websites, like the state of Maine, are doing a great job connecting with their audiences. Maine gives people direct links to COVID-19 content in a variety of languages spoken in their state.
  4. DON’T put your important COVID-19 information into PDFs: PDFs are not mobile-friendly and they hinder your search performance. But if you need to use them, mark your links as [PDF], so users know it will download a file and open in a new window. This is a standard usability best practice. Give people a heads up so they know what to expect before clicking.
  5. DO make it clear what will happen before people invest in an action: Don’t be afraid to repeat information, so audiences know they’re in the right place. Even if it feels redundant, it’s OK to reinforce your most important points. For example, explain what will happen when people use a drive-up evaluation for COVID-19. What should they expect? How can they best prepare?
  6. DON’T give people a wall of words: Use bullets, lists, subheads and icons to break up words and guide people to the information they need. This approach also improves the user experience by making content easy to skim. The COVID-19 topic is already overwhelming — don’t make it worse with overpowering text.
  7. DO remember that each audience niche is asking different questions: Your COVID-19 communication is reaching multiple audiences, each one with different questions, needs and priorities. For example, millennial moms are concerned about their children’s safety, while people with pre-existing conditions are worried about their own risk. Try to answer any questions and provide helpful information — no matter who’s looking for it.

Plain language is one of the foundations of excellent web writing. When things feel uncertain, our audiences need clear, concise messaging. And the straightforward, helpful brands are the ones who will stand out.

Related Article: Why Marketing in the Current Climate Requires Empathy and Deep Content Analysis