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August 2019

Why plain English is more persuasive than legalese

Every decent book on legal writing or writing in general advises you to strive for simplicity: short words, easy-to-follow sentence structure, coherent paragraphs, etc. Today, most lawyers probably know that plain language fosters effective communication: the reader is more likely to understand what the writer is trying to say. If the only thing that writing in plain language did were to make the message easier to understand, that would be reason enough to write plainly.

But for lawyers whose business is persuasion, the importance of plain language is more profound. Readers judge the character and intelligence of the lawyers themselves by the quality of their writing. They associate plain language with intelligence and credibility, and they associate foggy, needlessly complicated writing with a lack of intelligence and credibility.

This fact was shown years ago in a study by Robert W. Benson and Joan KesslerLegalese v. Plain English: An Empirical Study of Persuasion and Credibility in Appellate Brief Writing, 20 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 301 (1987). In their study, they asked judges and court staff attorneys to rate two versions of the same paragraph: one in legalese and the other in plain English. The readers tended to rate the legalese version as unconvincing and unpersuasive. They also tended to rate the authors of the legalese passages as being ineffective advocates from non-prestigious law firms. In other words, they formed opinions about not only the writing, but about the credibility of the author.

A 2006 study by psychologist Daniel M. Oppenheimer confirmed that readers tend to negatively evaluate the authors of needlessly complicating text. Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly, 20 Applied Cognitive Psychology 139 (2006). In this study, groups of readers were given different versions of various writings, one in simple language and the other in more complicated language. The readers consistently rated the writers of the more complicated version as less intelligent. Oppenheimer’s conclusion: “write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent.”

Why are plain-language writers thought of more highly than writers of needlessly complicated language? Oppenheimer’s study suggests that the answer is in “processing fluency. Simpler writing is easier to process, and studies have demonstrated that processing fluency is associated with a variety of positive dimensions,” including truth, confidence, and liking. Daniel Kahneman describes the same idea as “cognitive ease,” as opposed to “cognitive strain.” (See my last post.) According to Kahneman, anything that contributes to cognitive ease makes the reader more likely to believe the message and trust the messenger. One thing that can contribute to cognitive ease is plain, simple language. Complicated language has the opposite effect, causing the reader to experience cognitive strain, making the reader more vigilant and suspicious of the message and the messenger.

There’s a link between these modern psychological studies and the ancient writings of Aristotle on persuasion. According to Aristotle, ethos—the character of the speaker—is critical to persuasion. The speaker (or today, the writer) gains the audience’s trust by creating the impression that he or she is a person of intelligence and truthfulness. This impression can be made through the argument itself. E.g., Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student 19 (4th ed. 1999). The modern-day psychological studies show that plain language builds ethos; it makes the writer appear more intelligent and credible. This, in turn, makes the reader more disposed to accept the argument.

Fonts are more important for persuasion than you think.

Everyone should know that an attractive, highly legible font makes a good impression on the reader. But can font selection work on a deeper level, making your brief either more or less persuasive? It can.

This insight comes from a book I’ve been reading by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In one chapter, Kahneman describes the concepts of cognitive ease versus cognitive strain. Cognitive ease describes the reader’s state when the reader feels that the message is familiar, easy to accept, and true. Cognitive strain describes the opposite state, when the reader feels that the message is unfamiliar and more difficult to accept. As Kahneman describes it, “When you are in a state of cognitive ease, you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions, and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar.” On the other hand, “[w]hen you feel strained, you are more likely to be vigilant and suspicious ....”

Many factors can contribute to the reader’s cognitive ease, including the reader’s good mood, sense of familiarity (the feeling, “I knew that”), and having been primed. Another factor is clear display: a message printed in a clear font on high-quality paper. Anything that you do to foster cognitive ease and reduce cognitive strain will make your message more persuasive.

One way to foster cognitive ease is to make the writing as legible as possible. This means using the highest quality, most legible font available, printed in an easily readable size on high-quality paper. Experiments have shown that a sentence printed in a highly readable font is more likely to be believed than the same sentence written in a less legible font.

That’s what Kahneman suggests. Here’s my additional suggestion: For first drafts, use an ugly, less legible font (such as Courier); wait for the final draft before converting to a gorgeous font. Why? Because when you are editing a first draft, you don’t want cognitive ease; you want cognitive strain. You want to induce skepticism and vigilance in your editors (including yourself). 

Kahneman describes an experiment where subject were given a set of three brain teasers to solve. Half of the subjects got the puzzles in a legible font; the other half got the same puzzles in a small font with poor contrast. The difference in the error rates was striking: 90% of subjects who got the puzzles in a legible font made at least one mistake; the error rate dropped to 35% when the font was barely legible.

So if you want your editors to read your drafts with a critical eye, don’t make the drafts impossible to read, but do make them a little harder to read than the final product. Put them in Courier. After the draft has been thoroughly edited, convert it to the best font available before finalizing.


p.s. (30 Aug. 2019): Several years ago, I wrote an article suggesting the use of ugly fonts for early drafts. Here’s a link to the PDF.