Plain Language Review
Shelly is engaging, cheerful, amusing and doesn’t take herself too seriously. I first heard her speak at TechCommNZ’s Collaborate conference and was delighted to find her webinars just as engaging, fast-paced and liberally peppered with pop-culture references.
Shelly’s Plain Language webinars were aimed at all levels, from Plain English Padawan to Jedi Master. The webinar series introduced tips and exercises for those new to plain language and reinforced what we already know for the plain English converts, with advice for how to get others on side, demonstrate the benefit and make the most of it.
Shelly even showed us that Plain English can be applied in ways you never thought of – down to something as simple as an email to a colleague.
What did I take away from these webinars?
Sometimes you have to swallow your professional pride and just say “poo”
The more naturally, the more authentically we speak, the more likely we are to get the results we’re after. Shelly’s most memorable example is The World Health Organisation. WHO transmits information to the public and other organisations that is literally life and death… and that's why, in health communications to the public, we might use the words “poos and wees”. If you want to get someone to get their bowel or prostate checked, these are the words that get the message across. It flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught about writing professionally but most people don’t use medical jargon in everyday conversation.
We’re unique, just like everybody else…
Lots of research has gone into Plain English over the last 50 years – interestingly, when polled our technical writers answered much the same as those questioned in the research. You can see Shelly’s sources here. Shelly asked us three key questions, and the top answers showed that we really don’t differ from our readers. In short, if you find it boring or hard to read, everyone else will too.
1. What puts you off reading a document?
1.Paragraphs too long
2.Sentences too complicated (have to reread them to understand)
3.Heavy text, too little white space, long documents
4.Old fashioned language or unfamiliar words
We’re not special in our reader behaviour – if you disengage or put it off when something is too hard to read, then other readers will too.
1. As a reader, what are you looking for first when you open a document?
1.Stuff I can scan through, i.e. headings, bullets
2.Bottom line or overarching key message
As a writer you don’t want to just come out and blurt out what you want or need because it feels abrupt or aggressive. But as a reader, you look for the bottom line, read it, and then decide whether you’re going to read the rest of it.
When you are reading something that is asking you to take an action, you want to know what is relevant to you. Write like a reader!
2. If I want to sound professional when I write, I have to…?
1.be clear and easy to understand.
2.use perfect spelling and punctuation.
It’s true that readers make judgements about you based on what you write. As Shelly said: “Some people interpret errors in spelling and grammar as errors in fact. Clean text with no errors creates a good impression.” But you can be a really good writer and still not be perfect at spelling and punctuation – you can mitigate these things with apps, proofreaders etc. Most of us will never be experts, but you can still be an excellent writer and professional.
Likewise, jargon, complex grammar devices and long paragraphs are more likely to stand out to a reader, and not in a good way. Many new Zealanders don’t realise that we’re surrounded by plain language. It becomes invisible when it does its job properly.
The drivers behind our writing will stop us from being as clear to understand as we can be, i.e. fear of sounding abrupt, grammar conventions, jargon and so on. If you follow the guidelines to a tee, e.g. short sentences and no jargon, it can sound abrupt or patronising. Shelly’s advice is to read it out loud. If you sound condescending or childish when reading aloud, change some of the vocab or sentences. Let yourself hear your own tone. If unsure, test it out by reading to other people.
The biggest pushback is the legal aspect – a stylistic expectation that documents have to “pass” as a legal document. What Shelly has found is that documents written in plain language are more legally binding and spend less time in court because there is less room for interpretation. Remember that emails, texts and social media are used as evidence in court and none of those are in “legalese”.
Sometimes rules are more like guidelines
Shelly normally spends a lot of time helping people reframe from the way university teaches us to write.
Plain language can be scary because it’s effectively the opposite of what we’re told is “good writing” and even some of the “rules” of grammar. But there is a difference between rules (necessary to understanding) and conventions of grammar. So much of “good writing” follows the conventions of academic writing, which are taken on as ‘rules’ but aren’t.
When it comes to writing something, there is no such thing as perfection. It’s too subjective. You could spend an hour sculpting a piece of writing, send it out to ten writers, and they’d all have different ideas of how to improve or change it. It’s better to use plain language principles and write in a more natural way, and be prepared for feedback, knowing that feedback isn’t personal critique but stylistic preference. It’s a big deal when it comes to confidence!
Shelly summed it up as: “More people have been defeated by the ‘rules’ of punctuation than have ever been helped by them. So, use punctuation devices sparingly.
Watch your tone, young lad(y)!
Passive language looks like butt-covering – i.e. “Mistakes were made” – or else like making a wish to the universe. It also makes you sound like Yoda. There is no call to action in the phrase “Lights must be turned off at the end of the day”. Who must turn off the lights? The universe?
Active language feels like its “speaking to us directly” and holds someone accountable for the action, for example: “Please turn off the lights”.
Plain language is conversational – that doesn’t mean being casual in a way that’s inappropriate (you can have a professional conversation) but it does mean using phrasing and structures in a way that is active and up front. Conversational tone has a lot of room to move between very casual and polite. What’s the difference between polite and corporate? They’re shades of grey, but for Shelly “polite conversational” is how you’d speak to someone in a job interview – it’s still professional, but active, positive and personal. “Corporate” tends to be impersonal, old-fashioned…another word might be “bureaucratically”… highly generic and full of buzzwords.
Shelly even brought up an old gem from Winston Churchill encouraging his cabinet to swap “the flint surface of officialese jargon” for “the discipline of setting out the real points concisely”.
Aside from changing to a less harsh sans serif font and using numbers or bullets instead of roman numerals, Winston’s memo is still relevant today. Take the man’s advice!
I am not a robot…and neither are you
Using a plain language email structure might be outside what you thought you were getting in this webinar but it reinforces the plain language state of mind for you and your reader.
So how do you apply plain language to an email? Use all the same things you would in a document:
- Use white space – make it easy to scan! You want the reader’s brain to go: “got that, next” as they go through idea by idea.
- Start with a greeting that is natural to you, preferably whatever you would say to them in a normal conversation.
- Follow that with a connecting statement. Don’t just leap in to what you need, take a moment to say “hey human, I too am human”. You’re a human and no matter who the recipient is, they’re human too. And if humans communicate with other humans as humans, you’re likely to get a much better response.
- Announce up front what the bottom line is: your BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front). If you’re not sure, think about what you want to happen as a result of this email and spell it out right at the start.
- Organise the rest of the email under headings that answer the questions that will pop into the reader’s mind when they read your BLUF. Things like:
- Why are you asking me?
- What do you need me to do?
- Where can I get the information I need?
- And under those, bullet the key bits of information.
Plain language reduces the cognitive load…or in plain English, makes it easy for the recipient to understand what you want and what you need them to do. This helps us both write the email and receive the email with our logical brain, not our emotional one, which incidentally also solves that old problem of “sounding abrupt”. Text creates emotions – as the writer, you have the power to decide what emotions to engender in the reader. Plain language ensures the content is received in the right manner, and there are few places where that is as important as in communications with your colleagues.
Still in doubt?
Shelly’s workbooks come with a free poster that you can cut out and pin up in your office/cubicle/shrine to technical communication. I’ll be sticking mine to the window behind my desk, at least until Shelly’s next webinar – Māori Cultural Competency for technical communicators.