Web-based research and commerce have granted unprecedented levels of choice to consumers seeking products and services.

It has also fostered a “do-it-yourself” attitude that — especially for financial- and health-related research — can overestimate the sophistication level of the general public.

How wide is this knowledge gap? Greater than many professionals in a consulting role might guess.

In the first-ever National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), a study of more than 19,000 individuals, the Department of Health and Human Services found that just 12 percent of U.S. adults could be considered “health literate.” The study found that otherwise-savvy college graduates may misunderstand medical terms, be unable to calculate risk levels, pursue or forego a treatment or be overwhelmed by the complexity of learning about and managing an illness.

Financial literacy, especially when it comes to health insurance, is also a challenge. According to an August 2013 survey commissioned by the American Institute of CPAs, when asked to explain basic insurance terms like “premium,” “deductible” and “copay,” fewer than half of respondents could define at least one of the words

How can financial planners help their clients make better informed decisions? Start by taking a cue from the federal government and use “plain language.”

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires that public information in print materials and on websites — such as the comprehensive sites for Medicare (medicare.gov) and the Health Insurance Marketplace (healthcare.gov) — use “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”

It takes commitment to move from traditional communication to plain language, especially in the jargon-rich financial services industry, according to Lauren Fleshler, owner of New York City-based Easily Said and Done Consulting. 

“Unfortunately, the practice of plain language writing and content development isn’t as simple or straightforward as replacing jargon with easy-to-understand language,” says Fleshler.

The basic principles, she explains, are to use short sentences, active verbs, stepped instructions and numbered and bulleted lists.

She also advises planners to avoid vague terms and concepts and use conversational styles — “you” and “we” — rather than the third-person “the investor” or “the client.”

“Don’t overwhelm your client with too much information at one time. Consider what your client must know to meet their needs and move forward in your work together,” Fleshler adds. “Put yourself in your client’s shoes. ‘Speak’ their language and understand that people process information differently. Present the same information multiple ways — in text, graphically and, especially, through story.”

As financial professionals revise their verbal, print and online language to fit plain language standards, they can test their progress with free tools that provide “readability scores,” a computer-calculated index that analyzes the education level necessary for a reader or listener to quickly and easily understand a snippet of text.

Readable.io is one popular option. The site invites users to paste copy into a window and receive immediate feedback on readability; letter, word and syllable counts; keyword density; and “sentiment analysis” — a score that rates the copy as positive, negative or neutral. 

Advisors who invest the time in learning plain language may find not only better collaboration with their clients, but also more empowerment to become better advocates for their own financial health.