My newsfeed often identifies stories with 'Plain Language' in the title. I don't know how the author got to that claim, but it is usually obvious they have tried to take a complex topic and make it simpler. However, plain language is a process that involves steps, reader feedback, visual design standards and writing guidelines. One of today's toughest topics to explain clearly is climate change—now called climate crisis.
Climate crisis in plain language
Lexicology recently posted a piece with the title Climate change - a plain language guide for business. It was well organized. It may have met its primary audience's needs. However, jargon clouded the issue. Terms like 'global stocktake' (which showed up as a spelling error for me), 'ratchet mechanism', 'material fiscal risks', 'acute catastrophic' and 'gradual onset' detracted from the message. I have a business. I am concerned. But, the jargon didn't persuade me to read on or take action.
The science of it all in plain language
Scientific America published an article that is clear, well-organized, concise and targeted. Scientists need to communicate their findings in plain language so planners can look ahead, not use old standards. It was a good read. How to Talk Global Warming in Plain English, even though it is from 2016, shows how applying plain language guidelines can help get the message across.
From climate change to climate crisis
The UK's Guardian newspaper lead the way in changing the lexicon of climate reporting. Their readers' editor highlighted the publishers' new initiative by defining the words and phrases they would now use. For example, global warming will now be global heating, as is it a more accurate description. The article highlights climate change's need for a "robust new language to describe it". I like the sections, definitions and explanations designed to answer questions and feedback the public gave them. The involvement of their audience in crafting a response is a key component of the plain language process.
The next time you craft a blog, opinion piece, organizational directive, why not search the Internet for the topic adding the words 'plain language'. I hope you are pleasantly surprised.
There’s no project more in need of a style guide than a web site update or creation. Unlike print documents, they usually have multiple contributors, specific design requirements and unique audience needs. It might also be the first time your team has integrated plain language. So, where do you start?
Launching your style guide
Your style guide needs to work with your project’s goals. Even if you have an existing one, you will want to tailor the guide to your project, contributors and audiences. This may mean starting from the beginning or simply updating or adding some new content. Remember the guide is there to help and the clearer it is the more effective it will be. Plain language should either have its own section or be integrated. Ultimately, the entire guide should meet clear writing standards. Set clear project and style guide goals to succeed in creating clear content.
Designing and planning a style guide
Gathercontent.com recently shared the University of Dundee’s Content style guide. Check out how simple and clear it is. Four sections cover what most content creators need: the content principles; how to write in the best tone and voice; general web writing guidelines; and a searchable content reference guide, for things like grammar, quotations, acronyms and abbreviations.
Style guides come in all shapes and sizes, but their purpose is to help contributors. Everyone benefits from uniform, helpful and accessible content.
Creating a plain language style guide
Before you start with your creation or update, ask people what they need in a guide. They may not all be familiar with plain language, online content style, proofreading and editing. This guide can make their, and your, job easier. Consistency plays a big role in communicating effectively in plain language and online. The guide can be the foundation for a great end product.
A style guide is the ounce of prevention that is worth a pound of cure. In plain language, it is the pre-planning that saves loads of time and money reworking content later.
Need help with yours? I’m here.
The truly collaborative, universal, inclusive content Readability Guideline project is now drawing conclusions. It will create a style guide that includes plain language recommendations. Content Design London is leading the project using Slack and Wikidot. As we are often challenged to create or follow a style guide, having one with this kind of solid research, global input and varied expertise behind it is invaluable.
Focus on accessibility
Plain language is all about accessibility and this is a critical factor in online content. The project’s Beta phase discussions focused on 15 topics. Under plain language their recommendations include:
Plain language readability guidelines
Their public wiki activity identified these readability guidelines supported by evidence:
Where to next?
They will continue to usability test important readability questions. Topics are still open for discussion and people with relevant data should share it.
Support this initiative by using #readabilityguidelines, providing any research-supported readability data you have collected or donating funds.
Thanks to Rob Mills at Gather Content for his blog share.
Another great resource is the online, searchable UK Government Style Guide.
Their mission was clear. Their methods tested. Their results excellent.
I like the statement plain language is for everyone. But, I would add: plain language is for all communication. This year I did three completely different projects, in three different sectors, with three different audiences. But, the results were singular: plain language practices work for all types of information.
As I worked through all these projects, I was motivated by the solutions and opportunities plain language offered, regardless of the challenge.
Project 1: International Development Organization
This client was committed to implementing clear communication, particularly for their clients applying for project funding and reporting results. We took applications, instructions and the reporting templates and set our goals on clarity, conciseness and convenient use. The final documents met these goals. Over time, they can evaluate with users, look at changes in processes, such as time required to complete, read or decide on applications. Setting clear goals leads to easier evaluating.
Project 2: University Research Project
Motivation to turn this research, which would be distributed to a specific target group but also be available to the public, came from two angles. The authors were committed to making their complex data as clear and simple as possible for their audience, because they wanted readers to understand, share and act on it. Also, one of their funders had plain language standards they wanted followed. We combined my basic plain language checklist with the funder’s and the final draft was approved. We also consulted a clear design specialist to ensure presentation would meet accessibility and usability guidelines. The proof of success will be the feedback they get from their readers. But, plain language writing, editing and design will play a big part in this.
Project 3: FireSmart Demonstration Forest Signage
I am committed to FireSmart and all the work they do to help people protect their homes, neighbourhoods and communities from wildfires. This was my first work as a plain language editor for signage. Working from content that came with academic and public-sector influences, we ‘whittled’ away at the words until we had content that was concise, educational and would help readers navigate the site. Images were selected to support the content. For accessibility to information, we considered the size and position of the signs. Signs are basically instructions. But, they offer limited space. The project will be launched in the spring. People will certainly provide their feedback once the trails are open. We really did make every word count and plain language helped us achieve this.
As I worked through all these projects, I was motivated by the solutions and opportunities plain language offered, regardless of the challenge.
The days of businesses saying, ‘I am the best’, ‘You must have my product’, ‘This is all you need’ are gone. People want a conversation, a connection problem solved. If your customers are meeting you online for the first time, or catching up on the latest news, turn your About page into a story that will connect, create interest and build commitment. Tell them your story. It’s seen as the number one way to market. But, like any great marketing writing, you have to have a plan that focuses on your audience. Here are some tips and examples to get you going.
Making a connection
This Forbes magazine article highlights how storytelling is the best marketing tool to make an “emotional connection”, which is what many clients want, after more than two decades of virtual buying and selling. Top takeaway tip is to ‘be authentic’. Be honest. Be respectful.
Focus on audience
Today’s audiences are well-informed, well-traveled (including virtually) and focused. They know what they want, or at least what questions they want answered. And, they are interested in being entertained. Ask yourself what your clients want, why this story matters to them. As I share in my Writing Your Business Story workshop, it’s your client’s story, not yours. And, you want it to be so memorable so they share it with others.
Take a look at the image and content on Lamplighter Brewery’s About page. Doesn’t it make you want to work there, hang out there, buy their product? I’m sure those were their goals. Another key part of writing your business story is having clear goals, linking stories to your mission statement and tracking results.
Focus on emotions
Check out how Toms shoes took a one-off in-house event,
One Day Without Shoes, and turned it into a global story. Can you just imagine it? They used people, an activity everyone could participate in, and got to the ‘soul’ of it. The visual use of social media, and easy inclusivity, helped take this story, and the charity, to the world.
On a global level, Dove’s Mission: Care video tackling the issue of men who miss their families is extreme, storytelling, with emotion, lots of emotion.
You can do it too. Critical components: real people, relatable situations, making connections. It shows you can go outside of your core market, you can target fringe interest and create new connections, all through storytelling. But, you don’t have to be a global business to have success.
Focus on local
BC’s Kootenay based Elevation Industries has an About page that will make any outdoor enthusiast want to go in and see what’s there for themselves. They are very motivational, connect with target audience’s emotions, and use humour. These are all key components of great story-telling.
Nelson-based Kootenay Mountain Culture takes you on the journey of their successful magazine and website. They don’t tell you what they do: they weave an image of their passion to sharing their environment, the people who influence them and their connection to the adventure and culture. If you didn’t know who they were when you visited their site, you’ll know when you leave.
Whether your local is a few feet from your office, or an online social community or a global initiative or enterprise, narrow down your story’s scope. Know your audience profiles, so you can talk directly to them. Global is accessible, but making your business local is powerful. Always make your ending come alive. The best way to do that is to collaborate with your audience from the start to the finish of telling your—I mean ‘their’—story.
Read the earlier Key Advice Blog on Getting Attention with Your About Web
Do you have a great business story to share?
Gregory Younging's new book, Elements of Indigenous Style–A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples, published by Brush, is unique, tenacious and timely. It arrived just as I received an enquiry about plain language editing for an Indigenous project. I was curious about Indigenous style and in need of a strong resource. I was also intrigued about a potential relationship between plain language and Indigenous style. Younging's book exceeded my expectations but also raised many challenges.
Younging, an author, the publisher at Theytus Books and a teacher of Indigenous Studies at University of British Columbia Okanagan, is also a brilliant storyteller.
He is a member of Opaskawayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, has an MA, a MPub and a PhD. Sharing this style guide is just the tip of his expertise iceberg.
A style guide offering urgently needed solutions
In Elements of Indigenous Style, Younging takes the time to explain why this guide is needed. He blends in the literary history of Indigenous Peoples, highlights rights, addresses culturally appropriate publishing practices, provides a terminology guide and introduces specific editorial issues and strategies. Principle 1: The Purpose of Indigenous Style points out the need to reflect the reality of Indigenous Peoples, be truthful in content and be respectful of culture. This is just one of 22 style points presented.
If a style guide is the backbone of the writer’s trade, Younging's guide is the heart and soul of Indigenous publishing. But beware: you will most likely need to give your own style guide a revamp.
New style guide for an old problem
Younging explains how, to date, literature on Indigenous Peoples has focused on information about them rather than from their perspective. Writers need to replace historic styles with new ones that incorporate the Indigenous Voice and incorporate oral, traditional and cultural experiences. He acknowledges that many of us want to do it right but don't know how. This style guide is presented as part of the solution. It will definitely require integrating into existing style guides or use as a stand-alone resource for us to be successful.
"Working in an appropriate way begins with a clear understanding of how Indigenous Peoples perceive and contextualize their contemporary cultural realities." (Pg 17). It is important not to become overwhelmed with all the in-depth instruction but, like acquiring any new skill, go step by step.
I have to agree with Younging on the importance of recognizing and respecting Indigenous cultural property. Principle 3: Indigenous Literature and Canlit states Indigenous literature is its own category, not a subgroup. Non-Indigenous authors do not have the same artistic license as the unique one of Indigenous authors.
This goes much deeper than words. Collaboration (Principle 6) is critical to success: such as working with Elders. Messages need to be created together.
Indigenous writing insights
Younging clearly outlines what not to do. Inappropriate terminology (Principle 11) to never be used includes brave, red Indian, band, folklore, native, primitive and other terms with an explorer, missionary or anthropology influence. But he also tells us which terms are acceptable.
Principle 18: Inappropriate Possessives lists common offensive phrases we should all avoid: Canada's Indigenous Peoples or the First Peoples of Canada. They imply ownership. A style guide is often a reference tool. But this is more of a cultural, practical, must-do resource.
Indigenous and plain language styles can definitely learn from each other. There's just no arguing: we need them and we must strive to follow them. As we move forward, clarity, collaboration and cultural sensitivity must be our top priorities.
Plain Language and Indigenous Style
As I began my exploration of Indigenous style principles, I was inspired to find a key plain language—Indigenous style connection: focus on and sensitivity to the audience. Plain language is communication that audiences can easily understand, efficiently navigate and effectively act on. But Younging takes it a step further.
Plain language is a process: simply creating grade six reading level content does not make a document plain language. You need audience awareness, reader-sensitive content and clear design, supported by user testing. Younging gets right to the point on rules of Indigenous style and aims for no exceptions. For some, this change in how things are done might seem difficult. But I recommend sticking with it for the rewards, as following the plain language process has given us proven results.
Where plain language and Indigenous style also cross paths is the need for updating style guides, training and processes. Plain language strives to be an accepted and integrated priority but can often be a last–minute addition. Younging takes a much stronger approach, stating if there is a difference between a traditional style guide and Indigenous style, the latter is the only acceptable form.
I look forward to future collaboration between plain language and Indigenous communicators.
How to make Indigenous style work
It may seem overwhelming, as many of us will be learning, or discovering for the first time, a new way to write. With this style guide, you can make much needed changes and become an Indigenous style champion in your organization. But be prepared to commit to a process which will take time and require patience. This guide opens the door to Indigenous writing and publishing standards. Hopefully Younging will open more of these style guide doors for us.
by Kate Harrison Whiteside
Plain Language consultant
Gregory Younging is presenting at the Editors Canada Conference: Bridging Communities. Saskatoon, SK. May 25-27, 2018. Indigenous and Plain Language presentation streams run both days.
Special thanks to Michelle Shaw for proofreading.
Register for supported, online training courses at PlainLanguageAcademy.com.
I’ve been asked to write a feature for a magazine in subhead format. As a web-journalist and editor I welcomed this refresher. They are critical to getting, keeping and entertaining readers, so I thought I’d share these tips.
Do blogs really need subheads?
Yes. Readers like, are used to and expect small chunks of information on the web, particularly in blogs. It is our responsibility as writers to help lead our readers through our stories, and subheads are important signposts. Search engines also like them, although filling them with keywords is not recommended. Subheads help you target information, promote benefits and inspire action. Hubspot has a great overview.
How do I grab readers' attention with subheads?
With less than 10 seconds to grab the attention of most web readers, it’s important to make subheads work. Smartblogger lists these three tips:
Before: Becoming a freelance writer
After: Why becoming a freelancer was a great idea
The ‘before’ example is simply a regurgitation of the topic that follows.
The ‘after’ example raises interest, makes the reader curious, has readability.
What are the secret ingredients of cooking up great subheads?
Pay attention to the subheads in blogs you enjoyed reading. Look for common characteristics like:
I enjoyed this refresher, and hope you did too.
Plain language editing is the process of making information readable, accessible and actionable by the readers. Plain language editors use clear writing guidelines and user-friendly design criteria to ensure the message really connects with the audience. But sometimes it is challenging to know where to start a plain language edit. Here are some ideas on how to focus on plain language.
Substantive Editing: Organize for the reader
Reduces review time by 40-60%* --Plain language writing and editing leads to less review time. Organizing for easy reading plays a big role.
Decreases production time by 50%*—Focus on conciseness. Train everyone contributing on how to write and edit for less volume. Use a plain language checklist.
Show others how to improve their sentence structure. Most likely they’ve been taught how to write lengthy, descriptive sentence. Explain the benefits of active voice.
Proofreading: Choose the best words
Reduces word count by 40%*--focus on how to get rid of jargon, empty phrases, passive voice, repetition.
You are aiming to create a message that audiences can easily understand, efficiently navigate and effectively act on. So, you need to speak their language, clearly. At the proofreading stage, check for:
Set goals and track progress: Keep data
Increases customer satisfaction by 50%*—research shows clear communications means happy clients
As you go through the editing process, remember to get feedback from real readers, especially at the beginning and end. Track the feedback data for future projects. Save your before and after examples. Plain language is an investment, make sure you get a great return.
Integrating plain language editing guidelines into the style guide you already use is the easiest way to achieve success. The proof is in this plain language process.
Plain Language Association International: PLAIN.org
US Government Plain Language site: www.plainlanguage.gov
*Bold points are from PLAIN President Neil James, Plain English Foundation, Australia, PLAIN 2017 Conference presentation.
Plain language still evokes questions from many clients. What is it all about? How does it work? What benefits are there? You can simply answer the questions. Or, you can ask for some time to do a training exercise to bridge the knowledge gap. This can be anything from a short team training exercise, a learning at lunch program, presentation to key leaders or an event keynote talk. Of course, you can run a workshop. Here are five plain language training options that focus on involving people and integrating it into your communications.
1. Drawing Personas
Audience awareness plays a huge part in plain language. You need a detailed picture of your audience for your team to create, commit to and use throughout the project. Personas involve drawing pictures or creating profiles of your audience using research on their lifestyle, cultural, social, professional and personal activities and values. I find it a fun activity to open a training activity or for team building.
Usability.gov has an excellent description of how to do personas.
2. Develop plain language style guide
Integrating plain language guidelines into an existing style guide or creating a stand-alone guide is a great investment with a long shelf-life. Focus on jargon and simple words that can replace your organizations in-house jargon. Everyone appreciates a writing resource. They save time, create shared techniques, enhance peoples’ skills. Integrating it into an existing style guide increases its value and can be a great stepping stone to a learning event.
BC Government website shares content style guides.
3. Create a plain language checklist
Plain language checklists are available online. Most are very generic. Get your communications and plain language project team together to brainstorm a checklist specific to your task, audience or organization. This increases colleagues’ understanding of, skills for and commitment to plain language.
Plainlanguage.gov offers a checklist guide.
4. Carry out an audit
Without embarrassing or intimidating anyone, carry out a plain language audit. Gather a team and collect a variety of documents or information sources and measure against selected plain language guidelines. Share the findings and as a group come up with recommendations. You'll be coaching and training people throughout the whole process.
IABC (International Association of Business Communicators) shared this guide for audits.
5. Enter a project for an award
Awards offer several opportunities for learning and committing to plain language. It helps see what the standards are in the profession. If you are recognized, you have motivation to carry on with your plans.
PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational) offers members ($60/year) opportunities to be recognized at its conferences. Other organizations offer annual awards.
Integrating plain language from the top down is your best way to achieve success.
PlainLanguageAcademy.com has core and advanced courses that cover the whole process.
I recently saw an article stating we haven't made many, if any, major gains in the battle against jargon over the past 25 years. There was proof from all the big players in many sectors. I agree we have a big challenge ahead, but I also feel we can win the fight with a strategic approach that proves the benefits of plain language.
Three ways to win the battle for plain language
1. Show and tell
Build a diary or archive of bad examples made great with plain language writing, editing and design. A picture of plain language results can clearly show someone how to effectively use clear language and readable designs to really connect with clients.
Work closely with your designers, for print, visual and online products, to ensure they understand the techniques of clear design. We too often focus on the written components and forget about the creative.
Back up your claims with benefits.
Create a diverse team of clear communication champions. Identify client, staff or organizational opportunities to improve your communications and decrease time spent fixing problems. Be very open-minded about the membership. Solutions can come from anyone, anywhere. Someone not in a communications role may have excellent ideas, be a great problem-solver, and have unique insights. Plain language is most successful when multiple disciplines have a commitment.
3. Be in it for the long term
Plain language is a bit like starting a new exercise program. It can hurt at first. But, once you make the commitment, you start to see the benefits. You have to make a long term commitment to see the biggest gains.
Show and tell, teamwork and a long term commitment together can help you put, keep and enhance plain language on your organization's agenda. You can expect to meet resistance. You can expect to have lots of chats explaining the process. And, you can win people over by selling the benefits.
Kate Harrison Whiteside has over 25 years experience in plain language, writing and editing, training and consulting.