Regardless of our industry, we all have a habit of talking about things in a way that makes sense to us. Most of the time, our team members, colleagues, and even some frequent customers understand our jargon and can interpret what we’re saying.

Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of people, including many of our customers or clients, wondering what we’re trying to say. This can create a significant amount of confusion, especially when our customers need our help the most.

For example, look at this screenshot from the Southwest Airlines app. (Note: this was taken in 2012. I don’t know if this has been updated since then, but I expect it has.)


A screen shot of a flight delay update with confusing text that doesn't not clearly tell customers what they need to do.

While there are multiple challenges with this content that I won’t try to deconstruct, I want to use this as an example of something that frustrates customers during a time when they need clarity.

There are three reasons this example is so frustrating:

  • It uses terms that customers won’t understand
  • It’s written at a grade level that’s hard to comprehend
  • It focuses on the company and not the customer

Today, I want to talk about these three mistakes and how they often prevent us from making good content.

Mistake #1: Using Words Your Customers Don’t

The following page is from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois website for individual and family insurance plans. These are the plans you buy on your own, without the financial help of your employer or the logistical help of a Human Resources team. It goes without saying that the people shopping here are like most of us. They probably know a little, but not much, about health insurance.


Image of three Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois health insurance plans describing the plans with jargon and confusing text that most people wouldn't understand. The plans use phrases like "provides most flexibility" without additional description or context.

Some of the phrases, such as “Plan Network” and “provides most flexibility” might be clear to the people who created it, but they’re less clear for people who don’t have the same background.

What is a plan network and what does it mean to the person buying this plan? Does it mean payments are flexible? Does a selection of doctors provide more flexibility? What does it have to do with doctors and hospitals in the link below?

The content under the “Prescription Benefits” label has the same problem. While most of us understand what generics are, do we know what a "Formulary" is? If the content creators had used plain language, or provided definitions of these words, they could have made the content much easier to understand.

Mistake #2:  Not Focusing on a Readable Grade Level

We all know web content needs to be simple. But how simple should it be?

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen recommends writing at a sixth-to-eighth grade reading level on the web. This sample policy document doesn’t make the cut:


Screen shot of a sample policy plan written at a tenth-grade reading level, which is close to a plain language level but could use improvement to reach the recommended sixth- to eighth-grade reading level.

This content has a tenth-grade reading level. While that’s a good start, there are still significant challenges in this content. Terms such as “benefits” and “network providers” are not common words, and they are not defined. These missing definitions keep a user from fully comprehending what they are reading. Using common words and shortening the length of sentences and paragraphs would simplify this content and make it more accessible to the average reader.

Mistake #3: Not Focusing on Your Customer

Another common mistake is not focusing enough on the needs of your customer. Here’s an example that was on the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas homepage in January 2016.


Screen shot of a press release from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas that focused too much on the company versus the customer. This type of writing does not make the value clear for the customer.

When this press release was posted to the site, the company was trying to do the right thing and let customers know about an approaching deadline. However, it’s clear these good intentions did not work out.


Screen shot of the Customer Focus Calculator, revealing a customer focus of 26.09% and a self focus of 73.91% for the Blue Cross Blue Shield press release.

After I ran this article through the Customer Focus Calculator, it became clear this page focuses too much on the company and not enough on the customer, decreasing the usefulness of its content. If I’m a customer of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, how do you think it makes me feel to only be addressed 26% of the time? It’s like talking to a narcissist at a party! Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas’ customers would pay more attention if the company focused on them and spoke in a language that directly addressed their needs.

Vocabulary Is Just One Piece of Successful Content

As you’re designing the strategy for your organization’s content, make sure your writers have access to helpful style guidelines. Encourage them to use common words with more customer focus. In addition, make sure they have access to content evaluation tools that can test and monitor both the quality and consistency of your content.

About the Author

Jeff Greer is an Associate Director of Content Strategy at MRM//McCann Detroit. He’s also Corporate Secretary of the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit advocacy group that helps organizations create better, more effective content.


Take the first step to writing more clear, concise content. Download our Readability Checklist: How to Write Readable Content to get ideas on how to write more clearly for your audience.


Download the Readability Checklist: How to Write Readable Content