Guiding Principles of Plain Talk

Before you submit your draft for review, remember these principles to help reduce complexity and improve the customer's experience.


4 principles to remember:

  1. Use language your audience can easily understand.
  2. Write in a conversational style, as if you were speaking.
  3. Organize content with your readers’ needs in mind. What does the member need to know?
  4. Use reader-friendly formatting so that your information looks easy to read.

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Strategies to help you stick to these principles:

These strategies can help you stick to these principles:

Check the reading level.

Aim to write at the 6th to 8th grade reading level. Choose a readability formula, but know that they all have limitations. Getting a “good score” is not a guarantee that your content is easy to read, but it will help you evaluate where additional editing can improve readability.

Choose common, everyday words.

Replace multi-syllable (or short but complex) words with simpler vocabulary. Aim to avoid using insurance or medical jargon. If you must use a complicated term, define it in plain language and give an example, an analogy, or a visual aid.

Use active voice.

The subject of your sentence should act, instead of being acted upon. “We will ask you questions about your health” is active, while “You will be asked questions about your health” is passive.

Write in the first-person.

Use pronouns, such as “I,” “we,” and “you.” This encourages the use of active voice and will be clearer and more engaging to the reader. Start letters with the member’s name (not “Dear Valued Member”).

Keep sentences short and to the point.

Break up sentences joined with conjunctions or semicolons. It’s okay to start a sentence with “And” or “But.”

Try to vary sentence length. Sentences should average 15 words or less. For web-based content, watch for character limits.

Limit paragraphs to one main idea.

Start with a clear and concise topic sentence. Remove or move details that do not relate to the main topic. A paragraph of one or two sentences is okay.

For digital content, stick to one idea per web page.

Use clear and descriptive headings. Make the document easy to scan.

Meaningful headings that describe the content of different sections will give your readers “road signs” and help them navigate your document more easily.

Use large font, bold, or other emphasis to make headings stand out. Use a text box for the key message or call to action.

Include only the facts that members need to know. Don't be wordy.

Use large font and/or age-appropriate or culturally-sensitive language to meet the needs of special populations like the elderly, children, minorities, or people with chronic health conditions.

Organize and format your document so that key information is clear and easy to find.

Lead with the most important information, and order the information in a clear order that members can easily follow. Use the inverted pyramid – leading with the biggest idea or point and then each fact after that supports the main idea.

Use bold, larger font, bullets, or graphics to point out critical information. Do not use justified margins or put entire sentences in all caps or italics.

Put long lists of items into bulleted lists when practical.

Use numerical lists when the items need to be understood or done in order. Use Question & Answer (FAQ) format.

For digital content, use bullets or lists as appropriate to make the content easiest to read and to skim. The FAQ format is best when questions come straight from members.

Use plenty of white space and margins. Use Arial 11-point font size or greater.

Break up dense copy by using plenty of white space between paragraphs and headings. Think about adding white space between paragraphs or by increasing the font size of headers or text. Documents should be 30% or more white space.

Avoid decreasing margins to force text to fit on one page. Top and bottom margins should be at least 1 inch, and side margins should be at least 1.25 inches. Use large font sizes.

Read your document aloud.

This is one of the best ways to find errors and test for flow and clarity when you proofread. It can also help you troubleshoot. When you get stuck, try just speaking your thoughts. Seek member input, including a diverse audience.

Ask others to read and edit the document.

Someone unfamiliar with the project is more likely to notice text that is hard to understand.

Use fresh eyes when you edit or proofread.

When possible, set the material aside for a day or two and proofread it again after taking a break. This step, along with reading your document out loud, is a good way to find errors that you may have overlooked before.

Double-check names and contact information.

Call all phone numbers and check all links and email addresses. Make sure that all names are spelled correctly and that all titles are correct. Don’t abbreviate titles or department names.

Make numbers easy to grasp.

  • Less is often more.
  • Keep tables clear. Minimize the number of tables used.
  • Make numbers relevant and meaningful.
  • Focus on one idea at a time.
  • Use numbers only when they are really needed.
  • Use pictures or physical representations of numbers.
  • Reduce inferences and calculations that members are required to make.

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Keep it simple! A guide to using Plain Talk at BCBSKS

Aim to write at the 6th - 8th grade level

  • Keep sentences short and to-the-point.
  • Avoid insurance and medical jargon, whenever possible.
  • Use common, everyday words.
  • Define terms your reader might not understand. Visit the corporate style section to find a glossary of health insurance terms commonly used at BCBSKS.
  • Spell out acronyms.
  • Write in a friendly tone, as if you were speaking to your reader (use the individual’s name rather than “Dear Member”).

Writing reminders checklist

  • Use the heading or subject line to get your reader’s attention.
  • Focus on one main message.
  • Put the most important information first.
  • Make the document easy to scan. Use white space, subheadings, short paragraphs, and bullets so it’s easy to read.
  • Include all the information your reader needs to take action.
  • Be concise. Avoid extra words.

Checking your Readability Score in Microsoft Word

On a PC:

  1. Within Microsoft Word, go to File > Options
  2. Select the Proofing tab.
  3. Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Word, make sure Mark grammar errors as you type is selected.
  4. Select Show readability statistics.
  5. Go to Review > Check Document to see readability stats.

    Important: You must correct or Ignore all errors found in the document before the readability statistics will display

On a Mac:

  1. Within the Word menu, click Review. You must have a document open.
  2. Select Spelling & Grammar.
  3. The Readability Statistics box will include details related to the Flesch- Kincaid Grade Level.

If your score is higher than 6th – 8th grade, continue making edits to the copy. Keep rechecking the score to ensure your edits are helping to improve the readability score.

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Think simple words

Instead of... Use this...
activation start
activation, effective date start date
advise tell
adjudicate process
ancillary provider nurse, pharmacist, lab technician
authorization approval
EOB explanation of benefits
facility hospital, clinic, lab
formulary medicine, medication list
fund account, money
group employer or business
inquire ask
insured customer, member
member liability how much you owe
out-of-pocket expenses amount you pay
preauthorization approval for hospital stay or medical procedure
premium bill, payment
primary care provider, PCP your doctor
prohibited not allowed
providers doctors, hospitals, dentists
reimburse pay
subscriber customer, member
sufficient enough
terminate end, cancel
utilize use