Plain English, put plainly

In December the Assisted Digital team hosted a plain English workshop at the National Library as a follow up to our Assisted Digital Summit.

We designed the afternoon to hear about plain English from three perspectives: a customer, a team in government grappling with plain English every day, and an organisation able to offer an all-of-government perspective.

In our context as government service providers, plain English can be defined as: information audiences can understand the first time when reading it. If we want people to use and stay in the digital channel, we need to communicate in ways they can understand. So we brought together 40 public sector content writers, editors and communications professionals to hear from three speakers and think about how we could build plain English capability.

We started out with a game in which everyone was given a piece of paper with a phrase on it, and had to find the matching phrase in its plain English or jargon equivalent:

The delegated authority commenced with an endeavour, wherein each participant was issued a memorandum, and henceforth charged with the duty of discovering its equivalent in jargon or common parlance.

Half the fun was in trying to figure out exactly what the complicated phrases meant, and the rest came from watching people’s embarrassed half-laughs as they pondered whether their own writing is guilty of such hideous crimes.

Then it was time to learn from the experts…

The importance of language when you don’t have hearing

Our first speaker offered us the customer perspective. Erica explained why government use of plain English is important for her. Erica is Deaf* and says technology is integral to communication in her daily life. She told us about how when she recently moved back from Australia, she needed to contact Work and Income about her entitlements but couldn’t find what she needed on their website.

* The word Deaf is capitalised in this context as it refers to a specific, self-defined community, rather than a lack of hearing.

When New Zealand Relay wasn’t available, she tried sending a text message to WINZ but didn’t receive a reply.

I ended up sending a text to my mother asking her to call on my behalf. Luckily WINZ had a record that I had made my mother my agent, but I was already feeling a reduction in independence.

Technology can enable Erica to be on an equal standing with her hearing counterparts.

Online they do not see my deafness, or on behalf of my community, our deafnesses.

However, the lesson here is that when we don’t use plain English on our sites, we are making life extra difficult for those who cannot easily phone us or come to see us in person. “Therefore," Erica says, "having a person with knowledge of plain English though a Deaf background is crucial to the maximisation of accessibility for a very broad spectrum of people.”

How Govt.nz does plain English

The next presenter was Aimee Whitcroft from Govt.nz. You may remember Aimee from such blog posts as “Opening Government Data". She opened with the gentle understatement, “People find interacting with government…difficult” which is unfortunate, but not really surprising. Her following points are equally worth sharing:

  • Government language – like all technical jargon – is very difficult for the public to understand.
  • Often, the people who use government services most are also those with lowest digital literacy and least access to technology.
  • Everyone in a democracy has the right to understand what government is doing and how. Plain English helps achieve this.

Govt.nz has its own style guide, which sets out how they write content. They encourage sharing, using and adapting the guide, so it might be an excellent starting point for your organisation. She also talked about some of the banned words and phrases in their office like:

  • Deliver - pizza and services are delivered, not abstract concepts like improvements or priorities.
  • Key - unless it unlocks something, it’s probably just important.
  • Utilise - why not just say use instead?

Then Aimee talked us through how Govt.nz writes its content:

Essentially, we first figure out whether the content really needs to be written, and at what depth. Then we go through several rounds of drafting and review. Next, we read it aloud to colleagues and make any changes necessary. After that, it is mocked up and sent to the relevant agency or agencies for checking, and either reworked or published. This process can take weeks, or longer.

Aimee encouraged us to share horror stories and left us with something to think about:

The more people in government who use plain English, the more normal it will become.

Hear, hear!

Challenges for government when it comes to plain English.

Helen Wise from Write Limited was the last speaker and she brought the themes of the day together. As a plain English professional Helen talked about the challenge for the public sector of replicating face-to-face conversations in the digital environment. Customers are increasingly accessing our sites from different locations and on different devices. How can we ensure we offer the same quality to someone checking their eligibility for a service on a smartphone on the waterfront during their lunch break, as someone sitting behind their laptop at home at night? She had the following tips for us:

  1. Be clear on your purpose and outcome.
  2. Place main messages at the beginning.
  3. Keep sentences concise; aim for an average of 9 to 12 words.
  4. Use precise language that is familiar to your customer.

I was particularly taken with her suggestion that when we think about replicating print content online, we should think of the content as recipe cards, rather than recipe books. Chances are people just want to (metaphorically) find out for how long to boil an egg, rather than read one hundred ways on how to cook an egg with pages of beautiful illustrations.

Even more tips!

Between the sessions participants wrote down one tip that resonated with them. A selection of the best is below:

  • Think about your audience - some people are happy with complicated or academic language ie economic research or scientific language. But the general public isn't and won’t be able to understand jargon.
  • Don't include content that's not needed on your site.
  • Choose active voice over passive, so the communication is more direct and friendly.
  • Listen to your users. Start simple and iterate. Ask for help.
  • Own you online content with regular reviews, updates and user-testing.
  • Get someone else to read it too.
  • Plain English writers should be involved from the start, rather than having content created solely by subject matter experts then 'translated' into plain English later.
  • If you have content, you should have a content strategy. Plain English standards should be part of that strategy.

What happens next?

After the workshop we surveyed participants to ask what they would like to happen next. Results were split between having a community of practice to hold events like December’s workshop, and having guidelines or standards. We’ll keep you updated through this blog of any developments.

What are your pet jargon peeves? Or do you have a plain English success story or tips to share with us? Use the comment section below.

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