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Making contracts and T&Cs easier to understand

When it comes to writing contracts and T&Cs (terms and conditions), many businesses ignore the needs of their customers, and produce content which is off-putting and difficult to understand. This is particularly true within the so called ‘small print’ in contract documents.

To make life easier for your customers, follow these five tips for making your contracts and T&Cs more accessible.

Provide a clear ‘upfront’ summary
The vast majority of customers will not be interested in trawling through lengthy documents in order to gain an understanding of the key features of a contract. To make life easier for them, you should summarise and list the core features in an upfront summary at the beginning of the document.

This upfront summary should summarise the key features and terms of the contract in an easy to digest list. By providing this at the start of the document, you’re able to signpost the reader to the exact point where the item is explained in full detail.

This method is often shunned by legal contract experts, but if done right, and the summary is followed by a fully detailed version, it can be extremely useful for customers.

Keep sentences short
Many contract and T&C documents are made unnecessarily complicated by lengthy copy. When writing contract documents, you should only use as many words as you need, for example, ‘Your attention is drawn to clause four paragraph three’ would be better written as ‘See clause 4 paragraph 3’. When it comes to proofreading your contract documents, you should check specifically for any redundant words and remove them accordingly.

Use plain language
You should always avoid using jargon and stick to words that the everyday reader will understand. Think about an everyday conversation, and what words you might use, for example, ‘This contract commences’ would be better written as ‘This contract starts’, and ‘The law states that’ may be better explained as ‘The law says’.

That said, there are sometimes situations where jargon is unavoidable, as often legal requirements dictate that a specific word or phrase must be used. Two common examples of this are ‘third party’ and ‘annuity’. In such cases where an alternative term is not available you should provide a glossary at the end of the document, explaining the terms in plain English.

Use vertical lists
Contracts and T&Cs often contain lists, such as a list of actions that the customer must do or not do for the contract to be valid. Expressed in long sentences, this information is cluttered and hard to understand, for example:

‘We must have access to install, repair or replace your meter, read, test, or inspect the meter, cut-off or reconnect your supply.’

Whereas vertical lists are much easier to digest:

‘We must have access to:

  • Install, repair or replace your meter,
  • Read, test, or inspect your meter,
  • Cut-off or reconnect your supply.’

Keep the content structure consistent
Whilst language is important, it also pays  to consider the way in which your copy is divided up into parts and sections. You should use large and/or bold titles within each section for structuring text, and as a way of signposting readers to key content areas.

For more complex text, more heading levels will be required. However, heading levels should not exceed four, as any more may cause the reader to lose track of where they are.

Using decimally numbered paragraphs and headings is useful for cross referring readers to specific content, however anything beyond three levels, such as 2.4.15 may prove too complicated.

Contract documents and terms and conditions are a necessary evil – no one likes reading them, but they’re an essential part of business. While there’s little you can do to change this, you can improve your customer communications by using clear language and a consistent structure throughout your documentation.

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