Communication Convergence 2014

Plain language advocates Cheryl Stephens and Katherine McManus teamed up with the Society for Technical Communication’s Autumn Jonssen and EAC-BC’s Amy Haagsma to organize the first Communication Convergence mini-conference as part of the Vancouver celebrations of International Plain Language Day, October 13. Because IPL Day coincides with Thanksgiving this year, we celebrated one weekend earlier, on October 5.

The afternoon included a networking buffet lunch, followed by three panel discussions. I was a panellist on the first, which explored the tendency for different communication fields to apply a common range of methods. Joining me were:

Frances Peck moderated.

The second panel looked at the real-world demand on communicators and featured

Katherine McManus moderated.

The third panel, hosted by

  • Lisa Mighton, director of communications and community liaison at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC
  • Paula LaBrie, marketing communications specialist;
  • and Cheryl Stephens, who moderated,

was more of an open discussion asking where we—as a community of communicators dedicated to plain language—go from here.

We had eleven speakers and three moderators, as well as plenty of comments and questions from the floor, so although the format made for invigorating discussion, I couldn’t capture everything that everyone said in my notes. Not pretending to do all of the participants justice, I’ll just give an overview of my impressions and the points I found most interesting. Because there was a lot of overlap among the three sessions, I’ll focus on the day’s themes rather than the specifics from each panel. (Find photos of the Communication Convergence event on IPL Day’s Twitter.)

Writing and editing for the audience (sometimes easier said than done)

We all agreed that the audience is paramount when we craft our communications. Joe Goodwill pointed out the importance of considering the audience’s cultural context, which can be very different from our own.

What can get especially tricky is when your work has to go through several layers of approval, said Heidi Turner. Frances Peck agreed: often at each of those levels managers and directors reintroduce jargon and officialese and undo all of the work you’ve done to make that text accessible. Turner always tries to advocate for plain language, telling those clients for whom she writes grants that “A funder won’t want to give you money just because you use big words,” but from a business standpoint she ultimately has to give her clients what they want, and sometimes they don’t have a very good idea of who their readers are.

How do you write for disparate audiences? Sometimes you have to create more than one document, and Stephens reminded us that there will always be some people we can’t reach with our writing. But if your hands are tied, Elizabeth Rains said to “use the plainest language possible that will satisfy your readers’ needs.” She firmly believes that “no matter what type of information you have, it can be explained simply. And you may find that you can use that same language to explain concepts to very, very different audiences.”

Tools and resources

Pam Drucker’s work as a technical communicator has evolved over the years; today, she no longer works on large manuals but instead writes individual articles or topics. Her most consulted resources include the

She also uses structured writing techniques (e.g., Information Mapping).

Plain language as a right

Beyond the arguments that clear communication is more efficient and will get better results, what motivates many advocates of plain language is that we feel it’s a human rights issue. Information can be life altering, sometimes life saving. Citizens need to understand their government’s legislation to participate in a democracy. People with health issues deserve to understand their treatment options to achieve the best health outcomes. What can we do get people the information they need?

Christabelle Kux-Kardos works with immigrants and seniors, among others, to help them access community and government services. Her approach is to do what she calls a literacy audit: she tries to step back and try to see the world through the lens of a new client. This process has shown her that some services, even essential ones, have poor signage and are hard to find, particularly if you don’t know the language well or aren’t comfortable with technology. She sees it as her responsibility to point out to those services what they could be doing better. A lot of her work, she said, involves talking with her clients to tease out the right questions. What don’t they know that they need to know? Often they don’t know what they don’t know.

Nicholson reminds us that for some people, there is value in misrepresentation. “There are circumstances in which people are vested in obfuscating,” she said. “We have to be loud enough to cut through the clutter.”

Beyond comprehension to persuasion

Did the audience understand the message? Achieving understanding is always the communicator’s goal, but should it stop there? How do we persuade people to act on that information?

Hompoth, an image consultant, said that we are judged on

  • how we look,
  • what we do,
  • what we say, and
  • how we say it.

What we say accounts for 7 percent of the message, but how we say it counts for 13 percent (with other non-verbal communication making up the balance). In other words, our delivery is more important than our content.

That reality certainly jibes with health and science communications. How best to achieve persuasion is an unanswered question from a knowledge translation point of view: we can present people with evidence that smoking harms health, but evidence alone isn’t enough to convince some smokers to quit. Whether our message spurs change depends on the audience’s level of motivation.

As much as some of us may shy away from marketing, if we really want to effect change, we may have to study it. Will a course in psychology eventually be a required part of communications training?

Communication in and from academia

Those who know me know that one of my life’s missions is to try to eradicate turgid writing from academia. Academese is unnecessary, it hinders understanding and collaboration, and, because research is mostly taxpayer funded, it is undemocratic. Part of my research in knowledge translation involves finding alternative means of communicating research so that stakeholders beyond a researcher’s own colleagues can find and use it. Journal articles haven’t fundamentally changed in sixty years: if you print one out, it will still be in tiny type, packed onto a page with no space to breathe.

But we are making some gains. Many journals, North American ones, especially, are more accepting now than ever of first-person pronouns in journal articles. The style can be more conversational, and as research necessarily gets more interdisciplinary, researchers are beginning to recognize that they need a lingua franca to work together, and that lingua franca is plain language. We still have a long way to go, but we can celebrate these small victories.

Jandciu’s programs at UBC try to tackle the problem earlier, with communications courses designed specifically for science students. Although the Faculty of Science had always acknowledged that its students needed to develop communication skills, it usually left that training to first-year English courses. Feedback from graduating students, though, showed that those courses weren’t adequately preparing them to write reports and scientific articles or prepare and give presentations. Now the Faculty of Science offers a first-year course that integrates communication into science training and helps students develop scientific arguments. A third-year course has students interview researchers and develop videos and podcasts. Even funders, said Jandciu, are wanting researchers to do more outreach using social media, videos, and multimedia. Research communication can no longer be just text based.

He occasionally still hears students say, “But I’m in science because I don’t like to write,” or “I can’t do presentations,” but after the courses they realize the value of being able to communicate their scientific expertise. They begin to grasp that a lot of legislation hinges on policy makers getting sound information, and right now scientists aren’t doing a good enough job getting it out to them or to the public. “We need science students to stop thinking of communication as separate from their science,” said Jandciu.

Jeff Richmond, a journalist, responded that a lot of blame is put on “the media” for distorting research. And although it’s true that some stories can get sensationalized, if you talk to individual journalists, they typically have the sincerest of intentions. How does the distortion happen, and how we can express ideas in plain language without altering the facts?

Increasing awareness and uptake of plain language

We were all preaching to the converted at Communication Convergence—we all understand the value of plain language. But not everyone thinks the way we do. Nicholson said that we know that clear communication is the ethical choice, but when it comes to convincing others, some people and organizations simply won’t respond unless you show them the economic benefits.

And Stephens said that although professional legal associations support plain language, there’s still a culture of resistance among practising lawyers. I believe the key is in subtle shifts—a kind of quiet rebellion. There are several tacks to plain language; do what you can within the bounds of the culture, but start gathering evidence that what you are doing is producing results.

Does the public at large realize what they’re missing when communication isn’t clear? How can we raise awareness of plain language?

Paula LaBrie suggested that we all find a way to celebrate International Plain Language Day at our workplaces and spread the word about it. Lisa Mighton said we should always look for opportunities to turn our work into a media story.

The ideas from the crowd reinforced the community’s need for a central repository of plain language information: research, case studies, history. I urged everyone to join the Clear Communication Wiki and start contributing to it. It has the potential to become a valuable resource, but it needs a critical mass of participation.


My key takeaway from Communication Convergence is that being able to say “I don’t understand” is a privilege. The most disenfranchised among us may not realize that there’s an alternative to confusing communication or may feel that revealing their lack of comprehension might make them look ignorant, compromising their position.

We communicators need to acknowledge our privilege and use it to push for change. “By not calling people on their poor communication practices,” said McManus, “we’re making people—maybe generations of people—put up with a lack of information. It becomes the responsibility of communicators not to just throw up our hands and give up.”

Stephens and McManus hope to make Communication Convergence an annual event. If you have ideas for session topics or speakers, get in touch via LinkedIn or Twitter.

Hitting the books: Professional development tips (EAC-BC meeting)

EAC-BC held its first meeting of the 2014–2015 season yesterday evening, and, along with wine and cheese, we got a dose of professional development. Programs chair Roma Ilnyckyj and committee member Frances Peck asked us to share our favourite resources. Here’s a rundown of what people mentioned:


Websites or blogs

Twitter accounts

On top of the ones already mentioned, members of our group suggested following:

Workshops or classes

Beyond EAC-BC’s excellent professional development seminars and EAC’s annual conference, here are some workshops or classes that attendees have found useful:

Upcoming professional development events include:

  • Word Vancouver, September 24 to 28, which will host a series of free workshops on everything from making chapbooks to creating a publishing roadmap to digital publishing.
  • Communication Convergence, October 5, which explores “the tendency for different communication fields over time to apply a common range of methods.” Frances Peck will moderate a panel (of which I will be a member). Tickets here. (STC and EAC-BC members get a discount, and students get a special rate.)


This list is by no means exhaustive, of course—it includes only what people mentioned at the meeting. Add your favourites in the comments.

If you found this list helpful, you may also be interested in the results of last year’s season-launching audience-participation meeting: Editors’ show and tell: time-saving tips and tricks.

STC networking event, November 20

At Wednesday’s EAC-BC meeting, Mellissa Ruryk, president of the Society for Technical Communication’s Canada West Coast Chapter, invited all of us to attend a session featuring a panel of recruitment specialists discussing networking, followed by about thirty minutes of speed networking. The event will take begin at 7 pm on November 20 at the YWCA on Hornby Street. More information here.

Stopping amnesia

Volunteer-run organizations like the Editors’ Association of Canada, the Society for Technical Communication, and the Indexing Society of Canada provide tremendous opportunities to connect with fellow professionals, find work, and develop professionally. But one particular affliction seems to plague these kinds of groups: a lack of memory.

Given that these organizations exist largely because of donated time and energy, it really is amazing that they, for the most part, function so well. But with an executive that changes every year and demanding committee work that sees volunteers drift in and out according to their fluctuating time constraints, it’s no wonder that there can sometimes be a lack in continuity in their programs. Add in complexities like nation- or continent-wide chapters and, without a robust, well-thought-out system to transmit information to a central archive, legacies can be easily lost.

I recently volunteered for a task force to research and develop a specific document; at one of the early conference calls, it became clear that a similar task force had been struck only three years earlier, with exactly the same objective. Who were these people? What did they discuss? Why did they disband? Nobody knew. In another case, one group working on a procedural document knew that a related policy document had been created at some point in the past, but nobody had access to it. This kind of inefficiency does little to serve the organization’s members, not to mention the volunteers offering their time. What’s more damaging in the long term than having a new group reinvent the wheel is that members could feel less inclined to volunteer in the future, no matter how well-intentioned the organization’s mandate. What’s the point, when hard work just gets funnelled into some sink hole?

The saviour is none other than the superhero from last week’s post: the information scientist. I think that all volunteer-run nonprofits with high volunteer and staff turnover—not only those in editing and communication professions—would benefit from soliciting the services of a trained information specialist to

  • digitize all archives in a way that allows them all to be searchable
  • develop a method of indexing the archived material for efficient retrieval (because often it’s not that the information doesn’t exist—it just can’t be found)
  • identify circumstances under which new documents should be created and/or regularly revised (e.g., procedural documents for regularly occurring activities)
  • implement a system for archiving and indexing newly created material

With the ready availability of open-source content management systems today, the excuses not to make these changes just don’t hold water.

If an accredited consultant is too much for the nonprofit to afford, maybe it could consider contacting one of the many schools offering a Master of Library and Information Science program. My understanding is that all students in that program have to complete several units of experiential learning, and partnering with a student who is familiar with the theory of information organization and retrieval could be beneficial to both parties.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of working on the fifiteth-anniversary edition of the Varsity Outdoor Club‘s annual journal, which documents, in text and photos, members’ activities of the past year. Because it was a landmark issue, we devoted half of the almost six-hundred pages to submissions from alumni, as well as notable images and articles from the club’s archives. Discovering the truly fascinating, often hilarious, stories from past members was one of the highlights of the project and gave me a new perspective on the club as a whole—it had depth, history, purpose. (Part of why we were able to find so many high-quality pieces was that the organization recognized early on the importance of keeping records—”archivist” is one of the club’s executive positions—and recent archivists were forward-thinking in their initiatives to index all past issues of the journal.) So for organizations like the EAC, STC, and ISC, it’s not just that a solid archival system and comprehensive records will help volunteers accomplish more and better serve the membership—it’s also that the organization’s very history can be brought forth for current and future members to understand and appreciate.

Writing for translation

“I once translated an instruction manual where the French actually ended up being shorter than the English, exactly because there was a lot of redundancy and unnecessary material. I didn’t, for example, translate the first step, which said, ‘Take the product out of the box.’ My client asked, ‘Where’s number one?’ and I said, ‘French people know to take it out of the box!’ ” —Anthony Michael, when asked whether he stylistically edits poorly written English before translating into French.

Last night I attended the Society for Technical Communication Canada West Coast Chapter’s November meeting, where Anthony Michael of Le Mot Juste Translations gave a talk about writing for translation. Here are some highlights:

  • The translation process is often considered an afterthought, but if you know a document will have to be translated, it’s best to take it into consideration from the outset, both so that enough time can be allowed in the schedule and so that the text in the source language can be written to facilitate translation, especially in the case of technical documentation.
  • Be aware that plays on words such as puns are virtually impossible to translate, and metaphors can be culturally specific (he gave an example of having to eliminate or rethink the baseball metaphors—step up to the plate, cover all bases, out in left field—in a business report destined for France). Keeping the sentences in the source language short and unambiguous (not to mention grammatically correct) will facilitate translation and may even make machine translation possible.
  • Despite the prevalence of poor machine translators, good ones do exist. For example, Xerox in the 1980s had a machine translator that did a decent job on its technical documentation. The final product must still be edited by translators, of course.
  • Source and target texts will often differ in length (e.g., French is usually 10 to 15 per cent longer than English); this is a consideration when planning document design. How will the text be presented? How will it flow around visual elements? Other considerations include the effects of target languages that use a different character set or a different direction of text. Michael gave an example of an ad for a brand of laundry detergent that showed, from left to right, dirty clothes, the detergent, a washing machine, and clean clothes. Because the ad consisted only of images and no text, the company thought it had escaped translation issues but didn’t take into account that in Semitic languages, text is read right to left, and in the Middle East, the ad had exactly the opposite meaning to what was intended.
  • In addition to unilingual and bilingual dictionaries, many of which are now online, translators also use specialized dictionaries for particular subjects and grammar references. Other tools of the trade include terminological databases, such as the one on Termium Plus, as well as translation memories, which are essentially concordance databases. An example is Linguee. Translation memories allow you to search existing translations to see how a particular term or phrase was translated in the past. The search results include snippets of text around the term to give the proper context. Software programs often used to create translation memories are MultiTrans and Trados.
  • Don’t forget about confidentiality issues or other legal matters, including copyright ownership and potential for libel, when sending text out for translation. It’s best to have these spelled out in your contract with your translator.
  • Context is everything. Provide as much context as possible to your translator, either in your source text or in an accompanying document. Spell out or explain all acronyms, provide reference material, if possible (e.g., if you have a set of previously translate documents on similar subject matter). Indicate the gender of people where necessary, because that person’s professional title, for example, will have to take on the masculine or feminine in some other languages like French.