The plain language movement is maturing - and along with this comes established plain language policies and procedures. They are the leaders of this long trek to integrating clear communications. Literacy, transparency and economic development depend on plain language - so having some road maps on how to achieve this is an advantage to meeting goals.
Governments - national and local - are slowly joining the parade and finding benefits in their plain language policy investments. But, just as - or perhaps more - important is that their audiences can achieve more, understand more and participate more.
Change fear into a challenge
Although many of you may feel fear hearing the words 'policies and procedures' - change that to a challenge to move forward with confidence. Your organization may be experiencing repetitive problems, dissatisfied clients, and employees complaining of 'too much information'. Have you considered how plain language policy might be a solution to all these?
Research plain language policies
The first step is to research others' plain language policies and procedures to get insights into how you can introduce yours. Build in a training component - as the power that comes with knowing how to apply plain language will go a long way to building commitment to this change in culture. And, use a communal approach to creating your guidelines.
I recently did a plain language edit and re-write of an SME's policies and procedures manual. It had originally been drafted to satisfy a regulatory body. But, the owners saw value in editing it for the intended audience - their staff. With half the words, half the size - including adding a table of contents to lead readers to the increased number of headings and subheadings - the new document was user-oriented.
So no matter what your challenge, what size your organization, or what your priority is - a plain language policy or an organizational policy written in plain language can have far-reaching, long-lasting benefits you can be proud of and develop over time. There will always be skeptics: but, in my experience, it is just as easy to collect positive feedback.
Plain language policy examples
Public Works and Government Services Canada Translation Bureau - Plain Language Guide
Government of Canada - Language Portal - Tools for Writers - Plain Language
CBC Video Interview - City of Calgary Plain Language Policy
Howto.gov - Plain Language Regulations Webinar
US Dept of Health - Nat'l Institutes of Health - Clear Communication: An NIH Health Literacy Initiative
Plain Language Wiki
Share your plain language policy resources by commenting here.
Register for PLAIN2013 - find out more at plain2013.org
This is the time for innovation. As demand rises for skills, government funding shrinks and talent enters today's workforce, old models of workplace learning need to be replaced. But, one thing that needs to stay is a focus on strong communications - and that means literacy, essential skills and plain language need to play on the same team.
These three have been in the same arena for some time. But, now they must be given equal opportunity to be integrated into learning - and create a strong based for learner-centred training from the beginning.
NALD's recent feature - 'Thinking about the Embedding of Essential Skills - Especially for 21st Century Learners', by
Find out more at the PLAIN2013.org Conference plenary session on integrating plain language.
The State of the Literacy and Essential Skills Field Pan- Canadian Report is the Canadian Literacy and Learning Network's latest 'environmental scan' of Canada's literacy and essential skills status. It's a broad view of where we are and plain language does get a mention. But, only a small one. How can plain language play a bigger role?
The report highlights youth, seniors, immigrants and aboriginals as key players in the future of our growth (GDP) and economic development as a nation. One thing many of these key sector members share is language skill diversity. Like all workers, skill development is the glue that will strengthen their roles in the workplace, and hold our economy together as we face future challenges. But, for people with literacy or essential skill challenges, acquiring, using and enhancing skills is directly linked to comprehension. Plain language is the key to ensuring training - particularly materials - meet their needs.
Yet, still the new kid on the block, plain language's mention comes as a report recommendation for governments:
"1. Implement a plain language policy for all print materials in all languages." Page 70.
This is just the tip of the plain language discussion iceberg. We need to strengthen our ties with literacy and essential skills fields. We need plain language to be a key player, not just a mention, in studies. Now is the time.
Come to PLAIN 2013 Conference in Vancouver, Oct 10 -13. An exciting panel discussion is planned with representatives from literacy, essential skills, training and plain language fields. The panel will take the pulse of this key topic and see if there is a future for a healthy relationship.
Too often content comes at the bottom of the communication or website planning list. In fact, over half of website launches are delayed due to content issues coming up at the end of the process, instead of at the beginning. And, a lot of time is wasted re-writing print content, because defining the 'who' and asking for audience input was left out or left too late. At the Literacy and Learning Symposium 2012, Terri Peters and I presented "The Power of Plain Language – telling the story straight". She dealt with the print side, and, I looked at plain language website tips. Here are some key points we shared.
Always start with the 5 Ws: who, why, what, where, when. Spend time carefully, and deeply analyzing your audience (who) and purpose (why). All content decisions should be made based on these two key points.
Website audiences can be categorized as user who are skimmers - on a mission to find something, fast. Website users scan in an F pattern, seeking headings, subheadings and links. Readers scan also. Are you giving your readers and visitors what they want? The best way is to ask and involve them. See the links below for some tips.
Plain language is all about accessibility. Print design is about being reader-friendly. And websites are all about usability. Putting print and web design together with plain language can deliver powerful results.
Today's audiences are media savvy. They want visual and audio options, as well as text. Give them video, podcasts, galleries. Satisfy their hunger. But, don't over do it. The easyread.drugabuse.gov site is a great example of the blending of written and visual elements. And, in print - use simple and realistic graphics, supported by a readable font, and a design that uses lots of white space.
With the help of an experienced assessor, carry out usability testing before you go live or go to print. You'll be glad you did.
Put your readers first; put content at the beginning the communications plan; and follow plain language guidelines from start to finish. The results will be satisfying – for you and your users.
Here are more helpful links:
Power of Plain Language Bibliography
Usability testing sites:
read-able.com (web content)
Sample plain language websites:
If this looks like the kind of presentation you'd like for your organization, please contact me, Kate Harrison Whiteside at
firstname.lastname@example.org or Terri Peters, TLP Training at, email@example.com
Mark Your Calendars for Plain Language Association International's PLAIN2013 Conference in Vancouver - Oct 10-13, 2013. Celebrate with us...Keep searching for PLAIN2013. The website is coming soon.
In the last week I have had the brilliant opportunity to participate in two community awareness and fundraising events. One was local to BC, the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy (CBAL) and Black Press Reach-A-Reader Day literacy campaign. The other was International Plain Language Day Oct 13, iplday.org, a virtual, global celebration. They may seem worlds apart - but really they are very close in many ways - and we can all learn from them.
CBAL's local literacy awareness and fundraising campaign involved partnerships, promotions, and people - volunteering time to shout about it on street corners in their towns. They raised funds that stay in their communities - by taking donations and handing out local newspapers. It was energizing to see the support live. And, the results will be felt in these communities as the funds stay with them to support local programs.
International Plain Language Day, Oct 13 celebrations involved the global community - Canada, US, UK, South Africa, New Zealand, and more - supporting this cause with local meetings; a virtual conference using YouTube, SlideShare, their website; and, social media - LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook. Donated presentations made up the content, volunteers promoted it, and hundreds watched, listened, posted and tweeted about plain language. It was motivating to be part of it. And, the results wil be felt far and wide, as the plain language global community opens its doors and invites everyone in.
These two events may seem totally unrelated - but they both had common themes: increasing people's access to and understanding of - education opportunities; health and legal information and services; workplace training and learning opportunities; community support and participation. They were both led by passionate professionals and supported by committed volunteers - and followed on an idea someone felt was important. There is a lot of powerful energy that comes from these types of events. Harness it, learn from it, and put it to work in your community.
Kate Harrison Whiteside has over 25 years experience in plain language, writing and editing, training and consulting.