How to make small print and terms and conditions readable

Leigh James

Letter Press | freelance creative copywriter | South Wales | Devon

Small print and niggly terms and conditions are the one part of user experience and writing that really, really sucks. And it crops up in most products and services.

It’s safe to assume people don’t really read terms and conditions. Most people tick the box online on autopilot, because we have to. Paper versions often ignored. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for making them unreadable.

Small print is letting the side down

Terms are important, they’re the bit of the conversation that explains where we stand, what we’re signing up to. If people do read them, they’re often left baffled, frustrated and bored.

So, here are my tips to stop us turning into legal robots when it comes to terms and conditions:

1. Have a consistent tone of voice in everything you do

Of course, some things like legal disclaimers in heavily regulated industries have specific meanings. Try to make the language as natural as possible, especially when it’s a tough message. Here’s an example from British Gas who gave free energy on a Saturday or Sunday:

“Fair’s fair though – we’ll contact you if we think you’re using an unreasonably large amount of electricity on your free day. Like if you start doing washing for the whole street, or set up a restaurant in your living room. And we may have to take you off the tariff if we think you’re using it unfairly.”

Instead of a mundane message around capping the energy use at x kwh from midnight to 11:59, it makes an emotional connection.

2. Build the trust*

There’s nothing like an asterisk to undo a benefit or promise, especially in a headline. We immediately think there’s a catch. Try weaving the clauses into your copy so you don’t end up with a long list of ***, and revert to obscure symbols, like these ±‡†, when the number of caveats is longer than your arm.

3. Think about your structure

Break up chunks of text. Add subheadings – they help us skim read and give a gist of the detail that sits below them. Carefully consider what you really need to say, what you can cut or put somewhere else.

4. Do you need words?

Could graphics do some of the heavy lifting for you? Monzo, a digital, mobile-only bank, has stood out by adding emojis to complement their words (not replace them) – even in their terms and conditions. It’s not for everyone, but there’s some truth in the phrase ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’.

There’s no need to cover your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears and act like small print isn’t really there. Changing your words is relatively cheap, and easy to do. Give me a shout if you need a helping hand with your small print.

*There’s no caveat.

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