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:
- Joe Goodwill, editor and technical publisher
- Heidi Turner, professional writer; and
- Pam Drucker, technical communicator.
Frances Peck moderated.
The second panel looked at the real-world demand on communicators and featured
- Elizabeth Rains, managing editor
- Eric Jandciu, strategist for teaching and learning initiatives in the Faculty of Science at UBC
- Maureen Nicholson, program head of professional communication at Douglas College,
- Eva Hompoth, image consultant; and
- Christabelle Kux-Kardos, information and referral coordinator for the Sunshine Coast Community Resource Centre.
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
- Microsoft Manual of Style
- Simplified Technical English (get a free copy here)
- The Art of Readable Writing by Rudolf Flesch
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.”