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Plain Writing = better ROI – Internationally

July 5, 2011 Leave a comment

My recent trip to the Plain 2011 conference in Stockholm, Sweden was very worthwhile. And that’s saying a lot – as I covered my costs for this three day international conference.  I attended because the USA now has a Plain Writing Act which requires all federal agencies’ public facing published content, especially online, to be written in Plain Language as of October 2011.  I wanted to learn what other countries have learned from their experience with Plain Writing laws. The sessions I enjoyed the most were:

Annette Cheek (USA), plainlanguage.gov, presentation – Google docs

Annette gave an insightful and amusing history of Plain Language and an overview of how a small group of people decided to make a federal law and how they did it. That alone was worth the trip across the Atlantic. I asked how will agencies be measured if their websites are written in Plain Language? Maybe the ACSI survey could ask users to rate the simplicity of the writing? Maybe it will 🙂

Helena Haapio (Finland) – Communicating Contracts – when text alone is not enough.

Because so many of my agency’s staff are contracting officers, I was eager to learn more. Helen’s handout had many tips on using tables, illustrations, and examples of succinct and simply written phrases. She also talked about the well known example of The Comma That Costs 1 Million Dollars (Canadian).  Rogers Communications and Aliant had a contract dispute over a contract containing  a sentence with 45 words, with a comma that a court interpreted as meaning that Aliant could renegotiate it’s five year contract after only one year.   My contracting officer coworkers have found it useful and intesting.

Thomas Mueller (Germany),  of Siegel + Gale, the cost of complexity

This presentation stated that brands who provide customers with simple communications and processes have great ROI.  Also available is the 2010 Global Brand Simplicity Index: United States.  An alternative title could be – if you aren’t writing in plain language and providing excellent usability to your customers you could be leaving money on the table. The lowest ranking brands for simplicity were utilities and financial institutions. If you invested your own money in companies rated highest in providing simplicity in their communications and interactions, your investment would outperform all others. Siegel+Gale has a blog with entries on simplicity – worth reading.

Sue Owen (Australia) , Using plain language in emergency warnings.

Sue spoke of how – tragically – many people did not understand that they should evacuate due to bushfires and floods in the Victoria province and subsequently lost their lives. A hearing determined that the warnings were written in dense, unclear, and ambiguous terms. Afterwards new guidance was issued requiring disaster warnings issued in Victoria to use clear language, avoid euphemisms, and contain specific information in relation to:
• the severity, location, predicted direction and likely time of impact of bushfires on specific communities and locations; and
• the predicted severity of impact of the bushfire and whether a specific fire poses a threat to human life.

The warnings must address and answer these questions:

  • where is the threat?
  • when will it be here?
  • how bad will it be?
  • what they can/should do

Cathy Baskerfield (Australia) – A synopsis of research when writing for people with limited literacy skills. Her presentation covered research on how to better reach the population with low literacy.  Much of any country in the world has at least 20% of its population coping with low literacy (immigrants, disabled, the elderly, indigeneous) . She postulates that Plain Language and information design is inherently interdisciplinary. Slides 26 – 33 show that combining good graphics with text:

• Can improve comprehension
• Support relationship among ideas
• Show spatial relationship
• Change adherence to information, for example, taking prescription tablets