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.
Start with an interesting experience
How do you take your life's work and experiences and turn them into a short story? Start by selecting an interesting aspect that your readers can relate to and will be interested in. If they like travelling, select a personal travel story that can help them understand you better.
When I first travelled overseas, I met many people in their 40s and older backpacking on their own. It inspired me to be independent and try new things—forever.
Get up close and personal
Be honest, sincere and personal (write it the first person). But, create a conversation that is more 'about' them, than you. Write less of a resume and more a profile to remember. People remember stories more than details.
Have you ever met someone who changed your life? I've been so lucky to meet great people, like my English prof who got me into journalism, a colleague who got me into training, and a friend who's kept me going.
Write in plain language
Plain language and storytelling were meant for each other. Writing informally, concisely and connecting through words people can understand, that's storytelling, that's plain language.
Before: I have over 25 years of experience as a consultant in the government, private, and non-profit sectors.
After: I love variety. We may even have crossed paths at a public office, a corporate launch or a fund-raising event. Don't you find you can always learn something new, or meet someone with an idea, or get motivated when you're out and about?
Here are some great storytelling ideas for your About section from Susan Greene, Copywriter and The Storyoftelling.
Let me know how it goes.
Plain language is your client service advantage
Plain language, the process of ensuring information meets readers’ needs, is quickly becoming a top skill for freelance writers and editors. Our clients are faced with increased competition and the need to stand out. Plain language benefits for editors include clarity checklists for writing, ways to strengthen the connection between content and clients, and design guidelines for readability. Benefits for your clients include being more effective and efficient at communicating, solving their clients’ problems quickly, and improving staff skills. Words take time, and time is money. So, where do you begin?
How to explain what plain language is?
It is important to understand what plain language is, where to fit it into your services, and how you can promote it to your clients. You may be confronted with the question “What is plain language?” Plain language, or clear communication, is the process of creating print information or online content that meets readers’ needs. We know that organizations struggle to get and keep a client’s attention in today’s competitive marketplace. Following the plain language process helps ensure clients can:
Read the full blog Plain Language is the Editor's Key to Reaching Readers on Indiacopyeditors
What really works?
Regardless of which guidelines you use, what the project focus is, or how much time is available, plain language professionals always put their audience first. As freelance editor Christa Bedwin states in her book, if our audience doesn’t understand what we’ve presented, then we didn’t communicate effectively. Read her Forum blog The Joys of Teaching Engineers to Write to see how plain language can effectively cross borders, professions, and topics. It knows no boundaries. It is a great way to enhance your skills, scope, and services.
Interested in enhancing your skills? Sign up for an online PlainLanguageAcademy.com course.
Are you, your colleagues, or your clients still unclear about just what plain language is and how to explain it? I still get asked, and expect I always will. It's a process, and that takes a strategic approach to explaining. The basic answer is next.
Plain language is a process of creating information that meets the audience's needs to:
How to show the importance of audience
Audience is the heart and soul of plain language. They determine direction. They should guide you with feedback throughout the process. Their satisfaction should be your ultimate goal. I always start a project by working with my client to get a clear picture of the audience. We create a persona—a picture (yes we draw)—of who we are talking to, connecting with, It's important to make sure everyone involved in plain language projects understands the role your audience plays and supports the processes for involving them.
Joel Solomon, Amazon content strategist, explains in his Gathercontent.com video Four Principles of Creating Helpful Content, “You answer the question asked." That is where the plain language writing plan begins.
How to write in plain language
So, you have a general description of plain language—the 'what'. You have committed to putting your audience first— the 'who'. But, how do you write in plain language?
Yes plain language is a process that involves a number of steps to complete. But, writing clearly and concisely are a good places to start. I recommend building a file of your before and after examples to help you sell others on the benefits of investing time in the true plain language process. Let them see the benefits with familiar information. This show and tell will help you clearly explain how plain language writing can better connect with your audience and help achieve the key plain language goals.
Here is Iain Broome's Gathercontent.com video Five plain English tips for writing better everything to help you form a strong base for beginning to write in plain language.
You now have the basics to get started. If you want to learn more, check out the PlainLanguageAcademy.com series of online courses, including Plain Language Basics, Plain Language Writing and Editing, Audience Awareness and Plain Language Design. All are open for registration. More courses are coming.
The theme for this year's International Plain Language Day Oct 13 #IPlainDay is Show and Tell. We need to use the work we do and the successes we make to spread the word about the benefits of plain language. A picture is worth a 1,000 words: seeing the before and after examples of a plain language project can have a huge impact.
Here are this year's 13 shares #plainshare2016 leading up to IPlainDay.
1. #plainshare2016 #plainlanguage improves business processes. Leads to happier clients. Plain Language in Plain English @CherylStephens www.lulu.com/spotlight/email1058
2. #plainshare2016 Ever been frustrated by confusing website links? #Plainlanguage creates client-centred links. http://bit.ly/2dnDlKv
3. #plainshare2016 #plainlanguage is critical to people's well being. Health industry embracing it. Patients demand it.
4. #plainshare2016 Information design impacts online content. Six global experts recommend guidelines. @firstwren
5. #plainshare2016 Legal professionals see #plainlanguage benefits. Like the Consumer Protection Act. bit.ly/2ctCPgs
6. #plainshare2016 Research shows #plainlanguage improves employee and org performance. Reduces time and money.
7. #plainshare2016 From happier customers, to less litigation, #plainlanguage can save time and money. http://bit.ly/2cXvKEg
8. #plainshare2016 Great return on investment. Check out this 9900% ROI on #plainlanguage by Neil James, PLAIN.
9. #plainshare2016 Nearly half of Canadians have literacy levels making reading difficult. #plainlanguage bridges gap.
10. #plainshare2016 #plainlanguage improves brand by making you known for 'accessibility' and being user-friendly.
11. #plainshare2016 #plainlanguage content translates better. @CherylStephens Best Practice: Plain Language article.
12. #plainshare2016 #Health and Safety info is healthier in clear language. US org reduces, removes and rewrites in #plainlanguage http://bit.ly/2dNkOqB
13. #plainshare2016. #plainlanguage learning can be fun! #Shakespeare! Why not? http://bbc.in/2dSBPk1
Use the hashtag #plainshare2016 to find out more.
Last year's International Association Business Communicators (ABC) Toronto and IPLainDay co-hosted Tweet-up was so successful, it is happening again this year. The theme is Show and Tell. The Tweet-up takes place from noon-1 pm Toronto-time (EDT) using the hashtag #plainshare2016. Use this hashtag for any IPlainDay tweets.
When was the last time you publically celebrated your writing or editing? Often writers don't get recognition, publicity or accolades for their work. But, plain language achievements definitely merit celebrating, and that's what International Plain Language Day Oct 13 is all about.
Cheryl Stephens, Plain Language Wizardry, and Kate Harrison Whiteside, Key Advice and the Plain Language Academy, co-founded the first professional organization, now PLAIN. But, with the continued growth in the field, they wanted to celebrate the great work going on globally. Five years ago they launched International Plain Language Day October 13 (the date US government introduced plain language laws).
The IPlainDay 2016 theme is Show and Tell, to encourage writers and designers to inspire others by sharing examples—on bulletin boards, in e-newsletters, at local libraries, during events and on social media.
"So much plain language progress is being made behind the scenes," said Kate Harrison Whiteside. "It is so important that you share your progress and celebrate—it doesn't matter where, when or how, just that you share."
Here are five ways to celebrate the 5th International Plain Language Day Oct 13:
Plain language professionals and marketers know the importance of connecting with audiences in messages they can relate to. But, how do you present those messages in the most meaningful way? You tell a story. The is the marketing focus of the future. It is here to stay. So, how do you adapt your style?
Why is storytelling important?
Echostories.com points to marketing leader Michael Brenner, Newscred, saying storytelling would be the future's number one way to connect with clients. Readers and writers are noting the need to speak directly to people, and connect with them about their interests. This is a cultural change away from delivering the "I want you to buy my goods now, because our stuff is great.' message. It has to be turned around to say: 'You love holidays. Where ever you go, good luggage can make the difference. Let us help you have a smooth, secure journey.' There isn't an 'I', 'my', 'our' in the second examples. Many may find this a hard habit to break. But, the checklist to successful story writing are straightforward.
Storytelling six-point checklist
The first rule is to let your clients lead the way: it's there story, not yours. That's a tough one. But, once you've done it a few times, and had their responses, you'll see its strengths. The second rule is that it that the focus should be on benefits —60% of what you write! Most importantly your story needs:
1. context—reader relevant angle
2. curiosity factor—gets their attention
3. characters—readers relate to
4. conversational style—talk with them, not at them
5. conflict and resolution—problem-solution; question-answer; before-after
6. conclusion that calls for action—set a challenge.
Plain language storytelling
Plain language is all about connecting with your audience. Writing in words they understand. In Business2Community blog on storytelling, 'crisp' is identified as a key writing trait. Is your writing crisp? clear? concise? These are all important factors in plain language ad connecting with readers. And, that's what this story is all about.
TED Talks on storytelling - great stories about storytelling
PlainLanguageAcademy.com - online courses
Social media can be a lonely job for the solo publicist for an organization. This is very true for entrepreneurs, charities and small-to-medium enterprises (SME). Whether you are a leader or a follower—or both—social media is a key part of your marketing activities. If you have to go it alone, planning, time management and tech support tools, and making it a truly social experience are all going to lead to success.
I am often asked to help SMEs with their social media—from coaching, to planning, to doing it. The sagest advice I received on social media (over a decade ago) is not to do other people's. Although in reality that isn't always practical, or possible, there is some truth to it. No one can tell their story (and we know story-telling is the next big marketing push) better than the story-tellers themselves. It's all about relationships. You need to have a close relationship with your client (internal or external), and they with you, to give your social media messages powerful meaning.
Successful solo social media messaging
If you are in charge of social media messaging for your or someone else's organization, here are some helpful ideas from Communication Consultant Amy-Louise Tracey. It's all about being prepared, taking time and making technology work for you.
Give your social media plan depth. Think big—the whole calendar year—and identify dates, events and activities to promote. I always plan backwards from the key date. Zoom in on each key time period, identify the messages, and select the media. Blog? Tweet? Post? Then do your micro plan—assign and create messages for key dates. Now sit back and admire your planning skills. The next year will be busy.
Make Hubspot, Hootsuite or your web platform's social media plug in–or all of these–your best friends. They were designed to help people just like you, who have a lot to do and not enough time. Also use bulit-in features, like sharing plug-ins, to spread the word. Share an older post or blog you think engaged followers may like. Look for other people's posts on the same or a similar topic to widen the experience. You don't have to be three places at once: but, you can make it look like you are all over the social media map.
Create a virtual team
Everyone is busy. But, it only takes a minute to ask someone to help support your/their campaign. In fact, build that into your plan. When the messages are about new products, get the product development team involved. They will have established networks, be on different platforms and can add a new dimension to your messages. The support you get may be a surprise.
For last year's International Plain Language Day Oct 13 Twitter campaign, #30plainwords, I started about mid-summer. Hootsuite—just one of those helpful social media management platforms—allowed me to create, schedule and track each tweet. The campaign also generated content for a blog post, updates for my Facebook Page and LinkedIn conversations. I let key people know what was coming and asked them to spread the word. It was so fun, and successful, that I am doing it again this year. Planning your content and your delivery well in advance, and getting tech and a virtual team involved, are key to the solo social media messenger's secret strategy.
Presented at the Editors' Association of Canada Conference, Vancovuer, June, 2016
Make sure your project is a shared vision: not double vision. Invest the time before you even pick up your pen, or open a new file, to find out exactly what your client and what your audience wants. Remember: the audience is number one in plain language projects.
2. Gather Resources
Each project—no matter how big or small, whether within your organization or virtual, full on or just a quick sketch—requires resources.
3. Make a Plan
Start with a bare plain language canvas. Then, bring your talents, team expertise and tools together to create a masterful work of art. Yes, the final version will be the 'show and tell'. But, ask any artists: the real results come from the pain staking planning upfront.
4. Tools and Supplies
Plain language uses many tools. But the important ones are unmasking your audience's personal needs and your information's true depth.
Readability tests—the early backbone of plain language—can only supply broad strokes to the canvas: you need to go deeper. Don't forget to blend in user testing at each stage: it can add real visual power to your next version.
You are starting with a blank canvas for each project. Always keep the doors to communication open. Start with gusto, but work with your client along the way. Go step-by-step: resist the temptation to throw all your creative and concept skills at the canvas in one go. Be prepared for tantrums—yours and theirs.
6. Build a Foundation
Whether the project is one document, or a whole group of documents, or a mix of media, create a style guide. Consistency is a huge part of plain language: using first person instead of third; upper and lower case titles instead of screaming bold caps; not underlining copy (readers think it's a hyperlink). Do it for your sanity and to create your signature.
7. Dip In Paint
So, you've done your preparation, planning, and the canvas is ready. Go wild—'dip it in paint'. Go for the test, the rewrite, and the edit. Create! Paint a clear picture of the top changes and share. Training staff has always been a key part of my projects: it can make plain language the universal language of the organization.
8. Professional Secrets
Each and every one of you has unique skills, talents, knowledge and experience that will be transferable to any plain language project. The key is the audience. Use all the plain language tools to get, use and measure the impact of the audience's needs, interests, and expectations. It will make the final project so much more stunning.
9. Glue It Down
Put on the final touches—proofread, check against style guide and checklists, review audience feedback. Get someone else to take a close-up look. Give it to the users for final review. Finish it. Stand back and admire. Then, on with the show.
10. Unveil Your Work of Art
Make a big deal of the final project unveiling. Encourage your team to celebrate. This is a big accomplishment and deserves a 'gallery opening' style event.
Ask for samples. Some huge successes can be made, and you'll want a limited edition version for yourself. Gather them for your next gallery showing!
Where an artist works primarily alone, plain language is all about collaboration. This may feel awkward at first – but it is the best way to get the 'oohs' and 'ahs' when the unveiling happens. Plain language is hard work and you must be proud of your creations.
Best of luck with your next work of art!
Slide show features art project by Cheryl Stephens.
Kate Harrison Whiteside has over 25 years experience in plain language, writing/editing, training and consulting.