Legal Copy Corner: A Call for Humanese

Estimated reading time: 6 minute(s)

Contracts. Employee handbooks. Demand letters. Training manuals. All are instruments that express a policy, define a relationship, or direct a particular course of action. Chances are, they were also penned and approved by non-marketers.

The structure and wording of a legal document impacts what happens, and that’s critical to business. A lawyer-turned-startup founder, I’ve reviewed hundreds of legal docs, and applaud the ones that nail their complex architecture, identifying key concepts in ways that cover a broad swath of contingencies. Bravo to the fine lawyers and operational specialists behind them.

By and large, these authors are less concerned—if at all—with things like brand tone, brevity, culture, and access. By definition, legalese is not humanese. But! I don’t see why not.

Humanized content, of course, is the trade of a talented content writer. The trick is to ensure that the instrument remains in full legal effect, while gaining expansive reach and impact. The latter makes it a pleasure to absorb, understand, and remember, thereby ensuring that it will get read, not ignored, misunderstood, or—worst of all—tossed in the trash (a fate endured by so many employee handbooks).

Last year, MarketSmiths rewrote an employee manual on behalf of a Fortune 500 company. The VP of Human Resources was a visionary who realized that the relevant subsidiary—a thriving hospitality chain—was expressing a disconnect between the fun and empowerment of its employee base and the tedium of a straight policy document. Here’s what we did:

  • Restructured the handbook to make sections clear, non-redundant, and easy to find.
  • Converted literalness into delight, capturing the fun professionalism cultivated among staff and management.
  • Pruned structural and wording redundancies, ensuring that we stated things powerfully the first time…and then never again.
  • Eliminated exhaustive lists, which add tedium without value.

The handbook that emerged was a breeze to read, without compromising mission, impact, or purpose.

The next time you’re putting together a legal doc, consider whether it’ll get read, or shelved.

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Jean Tang

A champion of high-end content, Jean is a living tribute to copywriting for humans. In 2012, at a TEDx talk, she declared her now widely viewed “War Against Bland.” The visionary founder of MarketSmiths, Jean leads her growing team to captivate, inspire, and motivate readers. She has helped thousands of global clients generate revenue from words (up to 12,000% ROI), and transformed the writing of hundreds of seminar attendees at the SXSW Interactive Festival (2014 and 2015), SXSW V2V (2014), the Small Business Summit (2014, NYC), and other venues.

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