Insurers, Police, Lawyers, Government and Plain English

The arrival of our home insurance renewal stuff sparked a chord, like it always does. It reminded me of the time I spent knocking myself out, more or less driving myself nuts, trying to persuade insurance companies to communicate properly. But they’re not the only sinners… 

The insurance industry – Still rubbish at communicating with buyers

A couple of decades ago there was a massive fuss about general and life insurance documentation. It was more or less impossible to understand, there was mountains of it and punters deserved better.
Yesterday I got our home insurance renewal documentation through. It was almost impossible to understand, there was mountains of it and as a punter, I still deserve better.
I was working in insurance direct marketing when the regulators clamped down, and I saw the process unfold. I spent years – literally – trying to get plain English policy documentation past insurance company compliance, technical and legal teams. And I failed. We all did. Marketers were sidelined, the technical folk took over, and the end result is what we see today: a perfect storm of dense paperwork written in impossible language, endless small print and policy documents that’re as impenetrable as ever.
Is it OK for insurance companies to take jargon, small print and corporate nonsense to the max? No, it is not. There’s no excuse. It’s about time they joined the 21st century and put buyers first. But until the government and regulators take another pop at them, there’s no chance.

Law sector fail

The legal sector is also infamous for its ridiculous communication style, and it has no excuses. It is important for the ‘man on the street’ to understand the law, but the peculiar terms in which it’s expressed make it very hard to grasp unless you’re a lawyer. The legal sector operates in a closed shop of utter bollocks, and the language they use is about as far from inclusive as it gets.
Where else would it be OK to leave out all the punctuation and render communications meaningless? To scatter capital letters throughout the middle of sentences? To use the most complex words available when there are plenty of simple alternatives? To forget about sentences and paragraphs altogether?

The ultimate irony

The government is at it, too. They don’t have an excuse, either. It’s ironic that the 1977 Unfair Contract Terms Act, which is supposed to protect transactions between businesses, is written in such mad language. I defy anyone outside the legal sector to understand it. Here’s just one sentence from the government’s legislation pages. It describes the Act as:

“An Act to impose further limits on the extent to which under the law of England and Wales and Northern Ireland civil liability for breach of contract, of for negligence or other breach of duty, can be avoided by means of contract terms and otherwise, and under the law of Scotland civil liability can be avoided by means of contract terms.”

Eh? I rest my case…

What about police-speak?

It’s horrible. Police-speak breaks almost every plain English rule going. But unlike insurance companies, lawyers and the government, there’s a good reason for framing police communications in that weird, cold, official way: “The suspect was observed proceeding towards the A13” rather than “I saw the suspect escape towards the A3”.
The police use their own brand of anti-English because it’s a whole lot less emotive than plain language. Police work isn’t about recording an individual policeman’s opinions and feelings, it’s about paring it right down, taking all the emotion out of the message. The antithesis of personal communications if you like. Police-speak is not emotive. It’s wholly factual, expressed from the perspective of the organisation rather than an individual policeman or woman.
If you’re accused of a crime, or you’re a victim, this type of emotion-neutral language goes a long way towards enabling fair and impartial treatment.

Any more plain English fails with a cause?

Insurers and lawyers are the worst offenders. Financial corporates still do it, as does the Public Sector and government. But, aside from the police, I can’t think of another industry in which a less-than-perfectly plain communication style is a good idea.

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