Writing in plain language—an Information Mapping webinar

David Singer of Information Mapping hosted a free webinar about writing in plain language. Much of the second half of the session was devoted to the Information Mapping method, covered in the Introduction to Information Mapping webinar that I wrote about earlier, but the first half focused on plain language itself.

Plain language defined

What is plain language? The Center for Plain Language in Washington, DC, uses the following definition:

A communication is in plain language if the people who are the audience for that communication can quickly and easily

  • find what they need
  • understand what they find, and
  • act appropriately on that understanding.

Singer likes this definition, noting that there’s no mention of “dumbing down” the information, which is not what plain language is about.

Plain Writing Act

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law: “The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” Interestingly, regulations were exempt from this requirement, although there’s since been a push to have regulations given in plain language as well.

Have the agencies made progress? Although some agencies have made an effort to implement plain language principles, the new law hasn’t made that much progress since it came into effect in 2011. The Center for Plain Language issued a report card in 2012 and found that out of the twelve agencies they looked at, only four scored a B or higher in complying with the basic requirements of the act. The Department of Homeland Security scored a D, and the Veterans Affairs Department scored an F.

Why were they having so much trouble?

  • The agencies were dealing with an unfunded mandate. Although the Plain Writing Act was signed into law, the agencies had no budget allowances to implement the training and changes to government documentation.
  • There was no specific yardstick to measure success. How do you define “clearer” or “easier to understand”?
  • There were no consequences for non-compliance.
  • There were no clear plans for implementation.

The effort to implement plain language faces a lot of barriers, including the fact that initial enthusiasm about the idea can fade and there is a lot of resistance to change. Technical folks may not believe that their communications can be made simpler or clearer, and attorneys and security people may not want their language to be easy to understand.

Telling people to use personal pronouns, active voice, and shorter sentences isn’t enough, argues Singer. You need a systematic method based on sound principles and a clear plan for implementation to work.

The Information Mapping method

Most of the challenges, says Singer, don’t involve grammar. Plain language’s chief concerns are about making complex information clear and accessible; writing for different audiences (how do you create a single document that meets the needs of many groups of people?); organizing large amounts of information; working with a team of writers (managing different styles, etc.); keeping up with changes; and finding a way to reuse content. Singer suggested the Information Mapping method as a way to achieve these objectives.

Some of the principles behind Information Mapping—chunking, relevance, and labelling—were covered in the Introduction to Information Mapping webinar. The method also has three other principles—consistency, integrated graphics, and accessible detail—which the Information Mapping crew covers only in the training sessions and not in these free webinars.

Singer presented case studies to show the benefits of applying the Information Mapping to business communication. In general, Information Mapping has found that its method leads to a

  • 32% increase in retrieval accuracy
  • 38% increase in usage of the documentation
  • 83% increase in initial learning during training
  • 90% decrease in questions to the supervisor
  • 83 % decrease in the time for a first draft
  • 75% decrease in the time to review the documentation
  • 54% decrease in error rates
  • 50% decrease in reading time
  • 30% decrease in the word count

By implementing a concrete plain language plan, such as the Information Mapping method, you may see the following benefits:

  • revenue growth—by reducing the time it takes to create content and shortening the time for products and their documentation to make it to market
  • cost reduction—by capturing employee knowledge, increasing operational efficiency, reducing support calls, and decreasing translation costs (owing to lower word counts and clearer content)
  • risk mitigation—by increasing safety and compliance

Resources on plain language

For more information about plain language, visit:

(or come to PLAIN 2013!)

An archive of this webinar, as well as more information about the Information Mapping system and training, can be found on the Information Mapping website.

Information Mapping: models, templates, and standards

Today I attended my second webinar by Information Mapping, and it dealt with content standards, templates, and models.

A corporate content standard is a set of guidelines for everyone in an organization to follow to ensure content is written, formatted, and stored in ways that make it easy to retrieve, understand, and repurpose. Content standards facilitate team authoring, updates and revisions, compliance (particularly if the content will have to be audited), and migration to content management systems.

A content standard forms the basis for templates and model documents. Templates outline the format and content requirements for a specific type of document (fill-in-the blank kinds of documents, good for simpler content), whereas models are basically prototype documents that serve as a standard for creating subsequent documents (good for more complex content, like engineering reports).

To create a content standard, you need to understand

  • your users (e.g., Who are they? What do they know? What do they need to know? How do they access information?),
  • your content (e.g., How complex is the content? Are there graphics involved? Do you need to include special warnings?), and
  • the technologies used to access the content (e.g., Will it be paper based or online?).

Once you’ve created the content standard, you need to deploy it. Training will be involved, at all levels of your organization, and you may have to overcome an institutional resistance to change. Encouraging the shift in mindset among writers from creating full manuals, say, to topic-based authoring will be key.

In the Information Mapping content standard, the content is modularized into blocks, which are separated visually with lines and white space. On paper, a two-column grid is used, where labels are set off to the left, allowing users to easily scan and find what they need. As a result, the lines of text are short, resulting in reduced eye fatigue. The standard makes use of bullets to highlight important information and tables to present structured information. Information Mapping’s FS Pro software is a Microsoft Word plug-in that helps authors create content to the Information Mapping standard.

We were shown some examples of documents using the Information Mapping standard—or some modification thereof. A major advantage of the standard is its flexibility and adaptability for different types of content and presentations. One example I particular liked was a set of job aid cards used to help workers troubleshoot problems on a light rail transit system. Each card guides the user through solving one problem and features an illustration and clear instructions. The cards are colour-coded for easy recognition and retrieval, and should a procedure change, a single card can be revised without having to replace the whole set.

This webinar reinforced many of the topics introduced in the last one I attended, and again, although it was essentially an infomercial, it offered a lot of solid suggestions for content creators and editors. What I appreciated about the notion of a content standard is that it’s more than a style guide for how to write text—it emphasizes the importance of uniformity in formatting and file naming and hierarchy for easy information retrieval. These are areas that have the capacity to vastly reduce redundancy in content creation, regardless of the size of your organization.

This webinar, along with others in the Information Mapping series, are archived on the company’s website.

Introduction to Information Mapping

On Tuesday I attended a free webinar led by David Singer, content development manager at Information Mapping. The company does clear communication consulting, training, and implementation—for a host of clients across different industries—based on a method developed by psychologist Robert E. Horn.

The method provides a systematic way for authors to create structured, modular content that’s easy for users to find and understand. Singer demonstrated, with a before-and-after exercise, how presenting information within a paragraph often buries it, whereas a table, for example, can make retrieval of certain kinds of information much more efficient.

Singer noted that although people think clear communication and plain language is all about lines, labels, and white space to break up information and make it easier to read and digest, the presentation aspect is really just the tip of the iceberg; before the information can be presented, it must be analyzed to ascertain the best way to organize it.

The Information Mapping method is a set of best practices with three major components. It uses

  • the theory of information types to allow you to analyze your material,
  • information management principles to help you organize your content in a modular and hierarchical way, and
  • units of information that allow you to present your content for quick retrieval and understanding.

Information types

Most information falls into one of six information types, as identified by Robert Horn:

  • procedure—e.g., instructions on how to do something
  • process—e.g., description of how something works
  • principle—e.g., description of a standard or a convention
  • concept—e.g., description of a new idea or object
  • structure—e.g., description of an object’s components
  • fact—e.g., empirical information

Using information types helps writers work efficiently, making it easy to see contradictions, redundancies, and gaps. Different information types are best presented in different ways, so by classifying content into information types, writers can easily decide how to present information, and users quickly recognize what they’re looking for.

Information management

Information management is based on three principles: chunking, relevance, and labelling.

  • Chunking: group information into small, manageable chunks.
  • Relevance: limit each group or “unit of information” to a single topic, purpose, or idea.
  • Labelling: give each unit of information a meaningful name.

Miller’s Law states that our short-term memory can typically store 7±2 items. By grouping information into smaller chunks and labelling each group, we can vastly increase recall. The label primes your user to expect and be receptive to the content.

Units of information

Singer demonstrated that for a lot of information out there—business information is a particular example—narrative paragraphs are inefficient at conveying an idea quickly. Information Mapping supports the notion of information blocks, each of which encompasses a single main idea. Each of these blocks might consist of sentences, a list, a table, a graphic, or multimedia, and they are labelled and visually separated from one another (by a horizontal rule, say).

These blocks are put together into an information map, maps are grouped into topics, and, finally, topics into documents. Having information in modular blocks allows for easy storage and quick retrieval; they are easy to revise and update.


Although this webinar was largely a marketing exercise for Information Mapping (the fact that the company refers to its technique as “The Method” did make me feel a bit like a cult recruit)—and, of course, I knew it wouldn’t be giving away the farm by divulging all of its secrets in a free session—there was a good deal of sensible information in it. We’ve been using narrative paragraphs for so much of our lives that it’s easy to forget they’re often not the best way to transmit information.

What I’m curious to learn more about is how each of those blocks of information is best indexed and stored for easy retrieval by writers hoping to reuse and repurpose content.

Information Mapping’s free webinars are archived here. In addition to the informational one that I attended, “Information Mapping: What Is It? How Can It Help Me?”, there are others addressing managing and reusing content and writing in plain language. Another free webinar will take place November 20, covering standards and templates.