Readability and trust

In Verity White’s Secrets of Productive Contracts she says:

The easier your contract is to read, the more trustworthy you and your company seem

But is it true?

Where’s the evidence?

My contract tips [sign up] have reviewed some of the issues:

Easier to read = easier to use

People are more likely to engage in a given behaviour the less effort it requires… People misread the ease of processing instructions as bearing on the ease of executing the described behaviour.’ [Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz, If its Hard to read, It’s Hard to Do]. This 2008 study concluded that easy to read, means easier to use, which does not necessarily relate to trust. However, if what you are seeking is contracts which are easier to use then you should follow their advice which is to create documents which make it easier to process the information – including sans serif fonts and simpler vocabulary.

Fine print = lower trust

‘Fine print is also the dark corner where deception can hide behind legal-sounding words and complex sentence structures.’ [Barbra Kingsley, Clarity Journal 75]

Parties to a relationship may form their legal obligations based on the level of trust they have in each other. Where trust is low, the parties enhance it by specifying their rights and obligations in minute detail.’ [Anthony Bellia, Promises Trust and Contract Law] This reinforces the first quote, as Bellia argues that fine print is an indicator of low trust (that does not mean we can infer than lack of fine print is an indicator of high trust).

Plain language = higher trust

[Lawyers] were significantly more likely to agree that a plain [legal] writer was trustworthy than a traditional [legal] writer.’ [Straub, Clement, Cheek & Mahaffey, Plain Language Increases Lawyers’ Credibility, Clarity Journal 74] When the language used in a legal document was written in plain language, then the lawyer was deemed more trustworthy by other lawyers. Strangely, trust from a client does not improve…

Readers trust clarity and shun opaque content. They’re losing patience with unclear language and they object to legalese. Legalese has famously been described as a ‘fog’ and a barrier to trust.‘ [Lynda Harris, From legalese to reader ease, Clarity Journal 75]

84% said they were more likely to trust and do business with a company who communicates in clear jargon-free language.‘ [Bill Lutz, Clarity Journal 62, citing a study by Siegel + Gale]

easier-to-read contracts bolster trust‘ [Van Boom, Desmet & Van Dam, If it’s Easy to Read, It’s Easy to Claim]

These last few quotes provide the clearest support for Verity’s statement.

What should we do?

In 2002, RICS research into construction contracts [Will Hughes and Yasuyoshi Maeda] found that 45% thought contracts that relied on trust were ambiguous and 35% thought the opposite! However, statements relating to contracts being clear and precise received almost universal approval (above 90%).

As clarity and precision are highly-rated in the construction industry, focus on accuracy and clarity even if you can’t get to brevity!


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