Plain Language vs. Legalese in Business Contracts


What was your reaction the last time you were presented with terms and conditions - for anything? Did your eyes sort of glaze over at the amount of tiny words you needed to read? Did you start reading, get bored and instead skim through realizing that no matter how hard you focused you weren't going to understand it anyway? It’s ok, this happens to most people (unless you’re a lawyer of course). Terms and conditions are all over the place and are traditionally hard for the average person to comprehend.

Here’s the thing: it doesn't have to be this way! There's a trend towards plain language terms and conditions because companies are realizing that making things hard to understand does not benefit either party. If you haven't documented something in a way people can understand, your “legalese” is not protecting your brand, it’s actually hurting it.

How Legalese Can Hurt Your Brand

Legalese and formal language just plain scares people. When presented with it, most people feel uncomfortable and unsure. That strategy used to work back in the days where you wanted to seem busy and important, but in today’s market, authenticity and clear communication wins. The last thing you want as a brand is to give people that uncomfortable or cautious feeling when interacting with you.

In essence, the foundation of consumer trust has changed. Before consumers were connected in any meaningful way, companies were in control of the message. They didn't need to be held accountable, so they could have as much corporate babble clutter as they wanted in their organization, and still sell their products. Today, customers are demanding transparency. One way to visualize this is with an opacity slider you see in photo-editing software. It’s almost as if consumers have their collective hands on the opacity slider that controls the walls of your business and they’re pushing the slider to a more and more transparent state each year. There's a trend today to align purchases with values and show consumers your authenticity as a brand. Legalese is the opposite of authenticity. If you want to show your values, you've got to be consistent throughout your messaging - this includes your Terms and Conditions.

In fact, not using plain language in your terms and conditions can also harm your consistency as a brand. If you put yourself forward as an authentic, engaging brand but your terms and conditions are hard to understand, it can negate the trust you've worked so hard to build.

Many lawyers I talk to are advocates for clear language, but many feel threatened by this new shift in culture. Mark Cohen, an attorney based in Colorado who specializes in creating plain English contracts, believes the use of plain English in business contracts “lowers costs, improves productivity, increases credibility and reduces misunderstandings.”

With all legal agreements, the goal is to keep risk at a minimum. The law often demands precise language, but that doesn't mean an entire agreement needs to be confusing. As transparency replaces obfuscation as the measure of trust, the companies who choose plain language in all of their communications, including departments like legal and finance, are becoming the clear winners in the market.

How Facebook Lost Credibility

Take a look at the launch of Facebook’s messenger app. Facebook recently notified users that if they wanted to continue using their messaging function, they would have to download their Messenger app. The uproar came when Android users tried downloading the new app and were given a long list of scary permissions without an explanation to what they meant. According to Facebook, Android does not allow app developers to write their own permissions, they write it for them. The language that popped up when users downloaded the app was convoluted and did not reflect the way the Messenger app (and other apps for that matter) use the listed permissions. This caused claims that the Facebook Messenger app would start doing things like taking over your phone, calling people on your behalf, using your camera without permission, etc. Rumors started flying and people started deleting - or not downloading the app at all.

Because of the confusion and nervousness, Facebook lost a lot of credibility. If you look at the ratings in iTunes for Facebook Messenger, it’s currently averaging 1.5 stars with lots of angry reviews. Not good.


Do you see now why plain language is so important? Just for reference, here is a Facebook blog post that explains the permissions - in plain language.  

Why Plain Language Is Worth The Effort

Blaise Pascal once said, "I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter." Keep that quote in mind when you go about writing your terms and conditions. Creating contracts that are both legally viable and easy to understand takes extra effort, but it's worth it in the long run. Why? Because when people understand your terms and conditions they don’t feel nervous or confused about doing business with you, or downloading your app. You don’t lose credibility like Facebook did, you gain it because you gain trust through transparency.

Using plain language is worth it in the long run because it avoids potential PR problems or legal repercussions like lawsuits because of misinterpretations or misunderstandings.

Layers and layers of management and a seemingly faceless corporation no longer equals brand trust. If you want consumers to trust you nowadays, you need to develop a personality that consumers can connect with, provide customer service that people rave about, and most importantly, you need to be transparent. This includes your legal and financial content. It’s just another piece of nooks and crannies content that people look at, and it makes a huge difference when they understand it.

Squarespace is an excellent example of a brand that uses plain language in their terms of service. Look at the screen grab below of the first paragraph in their terms of service. The highlighted line in particular just shows that they tried write their terms of service as plain and easy to understand as possible.


If you go on to read their terms of service you’ll find that they are, in fact, easy to understand.

For more examples of plain language, here are two great articles to use as resources:

Top 10 Phrases Not to Use in a Contract—A Lesson from Dr. Frankenstein

Freelance Contracts That Anyone Can Understand

If you are a small company, now is a great time to take a look at your legal documents before you become overrun by legalese and corporate babble. If you are a large company, maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Train your legal staff about the benefits of plain language and push back if the terms and conditions aren't clear.

Do you know of a brand who maintains transparency and uses plain language in their terms and conditions? I’d love to hear about them! Leave a comment.