Technical Communications: Plain Language for Clear Communications

“One of the things that sets an organization up for failure is to assume that plain language happens after everything else is done; instead, think about it right at the beginning.” – Christa Ptatschek

The most recent session of Communitech’s Technical Communications Peer-to-Peer group focused on the importance and impact of clear communications:

Small changes and easy metrics can make a big impact in any organization. Focusing on small, easily understood changes in writing habits creates a climate that nurtures the growth of plain language best practices with minimal effort. It also makes plain language a habit that everyone practices, instead of something that adds extra effort. Doing it right the first time is good for business. This presentation is filled with examples and practical advice that you can start using right away.

Our presenter, Christa Ptatschek, did a great job showing us some simple habits that can make a big impact, and pointing us to useful, practical resources.

[Related: check out the previous Technical Communications P2P, Technical Communications: Documentation, UX, and Cohesive Brand Experiences]

Clear Communications: Small Changes, Big Impacts

In Christa’s introductory remarks, she touched on the reality that most information about clear communications tends to be geared towards formally trained writers, and the result is that what’s supposed to be useful can actually be overwhelming and impractical – especially if you try to introduce many changes all at once.

For our session, she used a presentation that she had delivered in her role at Manulife; this presentation is meant as a starting point for how to begin to introduce plain language into your organization. We were getting something akin to a Director’s Cut: Christa was using the same slides, but was walking us through them and their intent (“the metadata around the slides”) rather than presenting them to us (I’ve used this same approach on many occasions – it’s an effective way to get people understanding the what and the why of your presentation).

Christa explained that, “One of the things that sets an organization up for failure is to assume that plain language happens after everything else is done; instead, think about it right at the beginning.”

There’s some powerful, practical advice right at the beginning.

Christa continued, “Plain language really can’t happen without having the whole organization shift to thinking about writing clearly…but that’s 2-3 years out, so the best we can do is to start small, and create the success conditions.”

“Plain language really can’t happen without having the whole organization shift to thinking about writing clearly…but that’s 2-3 years out, so the best we can do is to start small, and create the success conditions.”

What is Plain Language?

We started into the meat of the session with the definition of plain language espoused by International Plan Language Working Group:

“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”

One key thing to note is that plain language isn’t just focused on language and words; rather, we also have to show regard for the structure and design.

Practically, Christa’s advice is to start with the words (you often have more control over this aspect), and then move onto structure and design, for which you will likely need involvement from branding, graphic design, etc.

Note also that this definition doesn’t exclude people who aren’t writers – everyone can contribute to the plain language revolution (meet in the square at noon on Saturday!).

And, finally, see how the definition talks about, “the intended readers”? It’s important that we keep our audience (and not necessarily all audiences) in mind.

OK, now that we know what plain language is, why should we give a darn?

Why Clear Communications?

First up, the capitalists among us will be happy to hear that plain language affect the bottom line: by saving time and resources, and perhaps even contributing to brand differentiation, clear communications serves your customers and your business well.

Beyond that, though, and likely further contributing to those benefits, plain language:

  • Creates consistency and a common voice, which makes your communications easier to read and contributes to a clearer brand identity
  • Addresses English-as-a-second-language (ESL) audiences (both internal and external to your organization), accessibility requirements (e.g., AODA), and other special needs
  • Improves communications efficiency at every level (and between levels) of your organization

Working at an international organization that serves international customers, you automatically keep in mind that your writing has to be understood by prospects and customers for whom English is not a first language.

But how often do we stop to consider our coworkers? I can walk around just our Waterloo HQ and hear conversations in a half-dozen languages, and I’ve got colleagues in something like 40 countries worldwide, so Christa’s point about being mindful of internal audiences rings true.

Clear communications is a good business practice.

Getting Started

To get practicing, Christa advocates a test-and-assess approach, with four guidelines and two metrics.

This approach gives people small pieces that are manageable, and that are more likely to be adopted and embraced by the organization; plus, these simple steps build positivity and acceptance by everyone – and remember, clear communications is an ‘everyone’ initiative.

Furthermore, this strategy is easy to implement and can deliver immediate impact.

Christa also advises against giving people rules, and for giving people guidelines. Rules become too rigid, and people try to apply them in all situations, no matter how varied. Guidelines, on the other hand, preserve the opportunity to exercise creativity, and let people own their work (rather than feeling too restricted to bring any individuality).

I love this distinction, and its one I use regularly in all sorts of matters.

But how will you measure the impact of your plain language initiatives? It’s not always easy, but with some thinking and creativity you can come up with some ideas. Maybe your email campaigns generate more responses, or maybe you receive fewer requests for clarification..or maybe docuement delivery timelines shrink. Give it some thought in advance!

Rules become too rigid, and people try to apply them in all situations, no matter how varied. Guidelines, on the other hand, preserve the opportunity to exercise creativity, and let people own their work.

The Guidelines

Here are Christa’s four guidelines for getting started:

  • Use the active voice: make it clear who’s doing what, and be honest in your communications (passive voice can hide or obscure)
  • Use simple sentence structure: you’re not dumbing things down – you’re saying the same thing, but making it more accessible
  • Get rid of “this is” type constructions: following this guideline forces us to think about what it is that we’re trying to communication; do a search in your documents and you’ll probably see it pop up all over the place (applies to “this/that/it is” and “here/there are”)
  • Get rid of “will”: most of the time, there’s no reason for the future tense, and in some communications it could be construed to imply a promise or certainty that might be unintended (I’ve had this point come up in press release reviews)

I won’t repeat Christa’s examples, but she had plenty to illustrate the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of implementing these easy changes.

Regarding the third guideline: I recall I had an English teacher in high school who just outright said, “Never use ‘this’ without following it with a noun!” That rule has stuck with me all these years, and filling in the blank in “this _____ is” forces me to create clarity. To this day, that rule runs through my mind whenever I write.

And something to keep in mind (especially in preparation for a pretty common point of criticism) is that plain language isn’t about shortening your content or dumbing it down; rather, it’s about making the same content much more widely accessible. Sometimes that means it’s going to be longer.

The Metrics

Two straightforward ways to track your progress are the Flesch Reading Ease score and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

And look, before you go, “RAAAR!!! Those have flaws and limitations!!!”, Christa agrees with “a fair bit” of the criticisms, but – used appropriately – they’re still valuable tools. As Christa says, “They give you a nice target, and can take some of the subjectivity out of it…letting you push back, in a pretty objective manner.”

Resources

Christa pointed us to a number of related resources, because, “There’s no need for any of us to reinvent the wheel”:

Christa also noted that you can find many more, just by Googling “plain language”. Finally, she advises against using Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, because “the style stuff isn’t bad, but the grammar stuff is wrong.”

My final few comments:

  • The EU booklet is great (after reading it I sent it to the entire marketing department), and it’s filled with straightforward examples and practical advice
  • During the discussion at the session, George Orwell’s famous guide was brought up (I wrote about in Language lessons from George Orwell)
  • If you want a fun example plain language, then check out Randall Munroe’s Up Goer Five, and the book it inspired, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words (I own a copy, and it’s great)

Key Take-Aways

From my perspective, a few things stood out:

  • Plain language starts with you, but the whole organization benefits (as do your external audiences)
  • Start simple: a few guidelines (not rules!) go a long way
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel

My thanks to Christa, to Communitech, and to my fellow P2Pers!

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