Lessons from legal content on how to define your audience

by Anna Fozzard

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Legal content is all about writing things in black and white. And while agreements and contracts are far from creative, we can all learn a thing or two about clarity from the legal sector.
Clarity is a communications must-have. The problem is, language doesn’t always lend itself to clarity. Words have meaning, but people will decide what the meaning is. And lots of us get it wrong, which is why legal content hits you with a glossary straight away to avoid any interpretations. As writers, it’s our job to steer readers towards the correct meaning. Knowing the pitfalls that readers fall into is vital, but how do you know which words all readers understand and which ones cause some ambiguity? It all comes down to experience. Over the years, we’ve written for lots of different sectors and picked up on which words resonate with various audiences. And we’re able to translate jargon and technical terms for a broad audience. Our experience has given us a fair few learnings along the way…

The pitfalls of ambiguity

Vague language is something that never fails to fascinate. Recently, YouGov asked the UK public to cast their votes on the meaning of ‘staycation.’ And we’ve already had a few debates on our team chat over whether it means a holiday based at your own home or one that involves staying within the UK. Absurd signs are always a talking point, too. Wording like “Turn left only at peak times” or “No parking violators will be towed” will get shared on social media for its senselessness. Recently, McKinsey drew our attention to the fact that the term ‘stakeholder’ has 435 different definitions. We’d also argue that ‘sustainability’ carries a variety of meanings. And even words like ‘innovative’ and ‘creative’ are open to interpretation. The problem with ambiguity is that it can make your content much less effective because it leaves your audience to fill in the gaps themselves. That’s why legal content is so clear-cut – because there isn’t room for error.

Take learnings from legal content

From our experience writing for a wide range of sectors, law firms are the ones that take clarity to the next level. Legal documents always start by providing a clear and exhaustive list of definitions. This structure creates an iron-clad understanding between everyone involved over who and what is begin referred to. Of course, readability does take a knock, but it is more important to leave no margin for error when it comes to legal content.

Creating clarity in your comms

A glossary of terms is only appropriate with legal documents. It would make writing a marketing email particularly difficult, not to mention dull to read. But we can take learnings from legal content onboard to bring more clarity to communications without the need for a glossary. Here are a few pointers.

Customer research – the best way to know if your customers will understand you is to really understand them. Yet, lots of companies miss out on the opportunity to conduct customer research. HubSpot found that only 17% of marketers use landing page A/B tests to improve conversion rates, meaning lots are skipping vital information on which words work best.

Avoiding the curse of knowledge – knowing too much can also be a hindrance. It’s very easy to assume that the acronyms and shorthand words you use are universal, but they might not be – especially in jargon-heavy sectors like financial services and tech. Take a step back. If these words aren’t used on websites for the masses, like Citizens Advice Bureau or Money Advice Service, they probably require insider knowledge.

Common-sense check – how often have you seen a comms fail and wondered how it got signed off? Last year, we were surprised to see smoothie brand Innocent fall into the approval trap when it released a joke about milk made from conkers, only to receive a barrage of complaints from confused customers. We know how easy it is to become unreceptive to obvious errors – it happens when you’re too involved in the process to see a different perspective. Our tip is to get an opinion from someone outside your production bubble to sense check before you make a costly blunder.

Establish a clear feedback loop – when you’re unsure whether your audience is picking up on all of your points, ask them. People are often happy to give you their opinion, especially if you ask specific questions, as this makes it quick for them to fill out the info. You could also give them an offer for giving you their feedback as extra encouragement. Just make sure you have a process in place to act upon their suggestions.

Balancing clarity with creativity

The need for clarity is only becoming more complex. As it gets easier to reach new markets and global audiences, language needs to be increasingly far-reaching. But that doesn’t mean you need to lose creativity or humour. As long as these have meaning to your entire audience, they should hit the mark. If you’d like our writers’ help in getting the balance just right, get in touch. We’d love to hear about your project – however complex it may be.

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