Why plain language may not be the key to easy communication

In 2010, the US government passed the Plain Writing Act, which requires federal communications to be written in the clearest language possible, as opposed to jargon, legalese, or obscure vocabulary.

As anyone who’s turned in a paper at school probably knows, English-speakers are often encouraged, implicitly or more subtly, to use big words and flowery language when discussing important matters. This has been so drilled into us that the Center for Plain Language is still monitoring progress in government communiqués. This year’s “report card” shows that while some government agencies have improved their use of plain language, others are still struggling.

Plain language is becoming more encouraged and common in other fields, as well, including healthcare. Ideally, this means that all important communications will be easy for users to understand, hopefully sooner rather than later. But a recent article in Language Magazine looks at the issue from a different and troubling angle.

Author Katherine Moran muses that no matter how simple the language we use, our message can still be confusing or even incomprehensible if we don’t understand the people we’re trying to reach.

For instance, Moran talks about school boards that not only simplify English communications directed at parents and caregivers, but even translate some information into other languages that might be spoken in the community. And yet, all of this effort is for nothing if schools, writers, and translators don’t understand the backgrounds of those they’re addressing. A person may now be able to read communication material from the school district in their native language, but depending on their culture, they may not understand concepts like school dances, bake sales, and dress code rules.

The same issue can arise in other fields, including healthcare. For instance, imagine that the instructions for a medical device are now written in a simpler way. If a patient doesn’t understand why the device is needed or certain aspects of its use, the simpler language isn’t going to change much.

Moran believes this issue hasn’t been addressed because plain language itself is often seen as a concession. She writes:

[A]ssuming that dense, specialized language used in public-facing communication is acceptable …puts the onus on the user to change, rather than the language of the communication.

For Moran, truly fulfilling plain language’s promise of accessibility would involve two major changes.

First, instead of considering those who need material written in plain language to be powerless, it’s communication that can’t be widely understood that has no power:

if the user cannot understand or effectively use the communication, then the communication must change.

Once this is acknowledged, Moran writes that organizations can work with their audience to understand how they experience the material that’s being produced.

She cites a recent example from The Hague. Information and infographics related to the COVID-19 pandemic were shown to a test panel of residents from a wide range of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Changes were then made based on the panel’s feedback before the information was published city-wide.

This technique was such a success that now The Hague allows residents to share their thoughts on various kinds of messaging via the city’s official website. The feedback then contributes to improving future communication material.

It is true that vetting written material through a panel - or, in the case of The Hague, potentially the entire population of a city - may have a few setbacks, including the time it takes. But it may be the only way to truly create written material that’s understandable to everyone.

Moran suggests a method for other organizations to implement this practice.

To start, she suggests taking a small step by trying this process out with a single document. After the document is chosen, an organization should find a varied group of participants (they may be able to do this through social media or by personally asking patients or customers) to give feedback.

The process isn’t just about evaluating the document; it’s also a way to understand members’ backgrounds and needs. This information, along with their feedback, will allow the organization to make changes to the document and ultimately create something that will “speak” to the largest number of people.

If the document has been translated into different languages, this technique should ideally be repeated for each version. Organizations should ensure that they can easily communicate with the translator regarding any possible questions or any changes that might need to be made.

Another strategy for translations is to hire a translator who also works in localization - that is, adapting content linguistically as well as culturally. This can help to make material more culturally relevant from the start.

When the document is released (in all of its versions), organizations can also follow up by asking a few new volunteers to complete a task or answer questions related to it. Additionally, Moran suggests that organizations post a questionnaire about the document on their website to gain additional feedback.

Although this technique requires work and time, it can be an excellent investment, not only helping to create material that’s truly understood by a target audience, but also by making that audience see an organization as one that listens, rather than just spitting out supposedly simplified information.




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