Live from Austin, Texas — Why Plain Language Matters, and Why You Should Care

BY KORTNEY NORDRUM —
June 2, 2014

SCCEThe Higher Education Compliance Conference got off to a great state this morning with Dr. Deborah Bosley imploring the hundreds of us in the general session to “keep it simple.” Through the use of comics and real-life examples, Deborah illustrated the importance of using plain language in our communications. While applicable to everything we write, Deborah’s speech was particularly relevant to compliance professionals, since you’re often the ones writing (or approving the language of) policies and procedures.

We’ve all encountered giant blocks of text, filled with jargon and way too many commas. No one wants to read that. If you’re like me, you skim it for bold or italics, and any key words that jump out.Before I even dig in, I know that reading that giant paragraph that by the end, I’m going to be frustrated, tired, and no more informed than I was before. Deborah’s goal is to get all of us to stop writing like that, so we can stop pretending to read things that are written like that.

While learning what plain language means, we had to learn what it doesn’t mean. Importantly, plain language does not mean “dumbing down” or oversimplifying information. It seems backwards, but it’s easy to be complex, and it’s difficult to be simple.

Deborah implored us to keep in mind the 4 concepts of plain language:

  • Citizens
    • Keeping in mind the audience you’re writing for
  • Communication
    • Communicate unto others as they would communicate to themselves
  • Clarity
    • Keep it simple, even though it may be difficult
  • Comprehension
    • Disclosure does not equal comprehension
    • Information does not equal communication
    • Facts & accuracy do not equal understanding

These 4 concepts will help you keep in mind the goal of your writing – to let your readers know what you need from them.

Deborah also gave us some great actionable tips for plain, clear writing:

  • Organize your writing logically
  • Use active voice and use pronouns
  • The easiest sentences to read have 15-18 words
  • The most comprehended paragraphs have 3-5 sentences
  • If there are steps or a process – use headings and lists (3-5 per page)
  • Don’t use jargon, legalese, or tech-speak
  • If you have numbers or data, always use visuals – people like pictures
  • Conduct usability tests – ask people to read your work and comment

All in all, in a single hour, hundreds of us are now much more equipped to communicate clearly and in an accessible manner, benefiting compliance programs nationwide.

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