by Shelley Egan, Egan Editing
Shelley Egan is an editor and proofreader
who specializes in fiction and copy editing.
Before starting her own business, eganediting.com,
she edited Hansard transcripts and taught ESL.
The COVID-19 virus has caused global upheaval and uncertainty. Misinformation is widespread, and messaging changes as more is learned about the virus. For accurate and timely information, Canadians have been urged to consult the Government of Canada (GC) website, as well as provincial websites.1
The Canada.ca Content Style Guide requires the use of plain language for GC web content and notes, “Using plain language … makes critical information accessible and readable for everyone.”2 The reference to “everyone” is interesting because almost half of Canadians have “literacy challenges.”3
Web content assessment
As an editor and former ESL instructor, I wondered about the accessibility of the GC text. The sample I examined appears on a COVID-19 FAQ page, under “Preventing coronavirus.”4
I used one of many online plain-language checklists to examine the text. Kate Harrison Whiteside (PlainLanguageAcademy.com) notes, “Checklists are important in covering the many components that make a message clear.”
Regarding language, the sample is in active voice, and there is just one idea per paragraph. However, some sentences have more than 20 words. The vocabulary could be simplified by replacing “dispose of” with “throw away,” “waste basket” with “garbage,” and “avoid touching” with “before you touch,” for example. The writing is formal rather than friendly, and the second person ("you") could be used more often to address the reader directly: “You can help reduce the risk of infection…” and “When you cough or sneeze.…” The sample’s Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is at the post-secondary level: 42.2 or “difficult to read.”
In terms of organization, the heading “Hygiene” is one of four subheads under the heading “Preventing coronavirus.” The heading is followed by the main purpose, and a bulleted list groups the information, which is all required. However, the structure of the second bullet point —an introductory-phrase stem followed by main clauses in sub-bullets—could confuse. The use of all lower case and the lack of end punctuation also make it difficult to identify sentences.
With respect to accessibility, the font size is easy to read, and the white space is ample. The left margin is justified, and the right is ragged. However, black text, rather than grey, would be easier to read.
My analysis of the GC sample text revealed that many Canadians would have difficulty accessing this important information on COVID-19 because the reading level is too high, despite the Canada.ca Content Style Guide requirement that “content intended for general audiences” should be at “grade 8 or lower.”5 User testing may not have been carried out on the text sample, and the need to post information quickly is understandable. However, user feedback could have resulted in adjustments to the language and to the organization, making it more “accessible and readable for everyone.”
Health Canada – Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
Canada.ca Content Style Guide–Plain Language (from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat)
(accessed April 14, 2020)
/canada-content-style-guide.html (accessed April 8, 2020)
/canada-content-style-guide.html (accessed April 1, 2020)
/prevention-risks.html#p(accessed April 8, 2020)
5. /canada-content-style-guide.html (accessed April 15, 2020)
We often think content design only applies to the text sections of our website. But, as our language becomes more visual and we, as scanners and writers, want a graphic to partner with text, clarity and readability become even more important.
Icons were developed to simplify communication, to create a clear graphic that tells the story without the need for words. But, they are still a form of communication, and understanding is required for them to be accessible and usable. They do work better and are more user-friendly when combined with text.
The UK's National Health Service (NHS) has done research on icons. Yes, icons can help people understand, navigate and discover, but not all icons are universal. Their user research generated these important results:
Findings from Usertesting.com's Make Your Icons User-Friendly research are interesting. They found icon + text gets the best results.
"Our study results: labels vs. no labels
In our study, we found that for icons with labels, users were able to correctly predict what would happen when they tapped the icon 88% of the time.
For icons without labels, this number dropped to 60%.
And for unlabeled icons that are unique to the app, users correctly predicted what would happen when they tapped the icon only 34% of the time."
What about links?
Links are critical and require special planning around content and graphics. They get your audience to their destination. Click here is out: do not use it. Write text links, alone or within a graphic, that are clear and specific.
According to this online article, Why writing links well is so important, they help site visitors find what they want, contribute to SEO, draw in scanners and increase your site's credibility. However, they can also be distracting if not done well. Read the article for tips.
It’s important to view content in the big picture, content design. A picture with words can make the world of difference to your audience and your organization.
PlainLanguageAcademy.com courses to help you:
Clear Design Practices, with Flora Gordon, March 10, 2020
Creating Clear Online Content: start anytime.
by Nicole Watkins Campbell, www.watkinscampbell.com
In the 2020s, more and more new information will be created and published online and in print.
We will see:
Making your information stand out
This information exists in many places online and in printed documents, some well-written and others less so.
Good writing serves readers well if it:
The writer's role in clear communication
What do you, the writer or editor, know about what your readers need? Where are they when they read your document? Do they need to read twice to understand it and take action?
As a writer or editor of legal information, you can help your readers by learning more about them and then making your writing as clear as possible.
Learn about legal editing for clarity
My Academy course, Editing for Plainer Legal Writing, will help you make your writing more useful and more interesting. And, that will actually make you more trustworthy and likeable. This study of complex language explains how.
This course will guide you on how to edit information about the law—about people’s rights and responsibilities—to meet your clients' needs. You will learn to make these types of documents or content clearer for your readers, even if you are not a lawyer. In fact, the course is aimed at non-legal communicators who are tasked with presenting legal information.
Join me February 10, 2020 for Editing for Plainer Legal Writing. Reserve your place now.
You will sharpen your skills and win client appreciation.
By Romina Marazzato Sparano, LanguageCompass.com
Health literacy is defined as the ability to find, understand, and process information to make healthcare decisions. This definition is currently under review. The concern is that success in health communication does not only hinge upon an individual’s ability, but also on the accessibility, clarity, and actionability of health information and services offered.
New course Plain Language 2.0 and Health Literacy is coming March 2020. Find out more.
A wider understanding of health literacy sees it as a multidimensional construct that enables successful health communication. Health literacy is, then, the set of world and health knowledge, general intelligence and literacy, and social and communication skills that allow an individual to seek, obtain, understand, assess, and apply health information in daily life and health care contexts. This ability is mediated by:
Health communication includes patients, providers, and caregivers, and often takes place in distressing or time-sensitive situations. Plain language has a vital role to play in aligning audiences, providers, and situations to produce better health outcomes. Health care and health information providers have a responsibility to provide information in plain language, that is, in clear and accessible language.
This responsibility is also now promoted and even required through laws and regulations that “see” the benefits of plain language. One such regulation is the European Union Clinical Trials Regulation (EU CTR 536/2014) which includes a requirement for the submission of lay summaries to promote trust, partnership, and patient engagement. Another example: US hospitals now face financial penalties for high readmission rates, so they are turning to plain language in an effort to reduce re-hospitalization due to poor communication.
In the new March 2020 Academy Advanced course, Plain Language 2.0 and Health Literacy, we will explore health literacy and how it can be improved. Considering text production in the wider context of health communication, we will focus on plain language strategies for clarity and accessibility. We will distinguish between strategies for textuality and strategies for adequacy. Textuality refers to how grammar, cohesion, and coherence create meaning in technical and lay texts. Adequacy refers to how register, style, and design inform the suitability of the text for the purpose and audience at hand.
Looking forward to working with you.
Romina is launching the new Academy Advanced course,
Plain language offers benefits to writers, readers and organizations. With time and cost savings available for staff and happier clients, it makes sense to integrate it. We have great demands on our time, our minds and our budgets. Plain language is a great problem solver. Put plain language on your calendar for a clearer year ahead.
What problems can plain language solve?
If your clients, staff or volunteers aren't understanding your messages, then you have to spend time repeating instructions, clarifying procedures and answering questions. All these are unnecessary, if your original message meets these plain language guidelines:
1. is easy to understand
2. can be quickly navigated to find what is wanted
3. is clear so it can be effectively acted on.
Ask these of all your communications and see where you stand. Ask your readers for feedback.
Why integrate plain language?
Plain language is a simple process that when integrated into your writing tasks brings these benefits:
1. 50% less time spent writing
2. 40-60% less time spent reviewing
3. 50% fewer drafts needed
When you compare that to the reduced costs associated with producing information, it speaks savings. Check out our first blog of the year "Integrating clear visuals" for a closer look at how to be creative and clear at the same time.
How do I spread the word?
Plain language is a process and is best achieved with a team. You need to persuade or have a trainer or consultant sell your management team on the benefits of plain language. When the organization is ready to make the commitment, then consider a pilot project. Bringing in a trainer is helpful in developing staff skills and knowledge. It's also a great team builder. Integrate plain language practices into your style guide.
Plain language is for everyone: management, staff and clients. It works for internal and external messages. Research shows no one likes to or wants to have to read information they can't easily understand. Take the lead. Choose this year to introduce, expand or celebrate your plain language program.
Many organizations are making the commitment to plain language. This means all
staff need the tools to make it happen. One route to success is to integrate plain
language guidelines into your existing style guide or build an organizational style
guide around one. Supporting this with training ensures staff have the skills and
knowledge to put it into practice.
Style documents explained
So, how does plain language fit in?
Plain language style
Plain language is a communication process that covers:
These foundations are integrated into style guides ensuring plain language is an integral part of your communication style.
I have found supporting plain language style guide integration with training sessions is a great staff-strengthening and team building investment.
Communication trends for 2019 strongly focus on visuals and clear communication. These are both key components of the plain language process. Committing to integrating clear visuals with plain text will help you succeed in meeting these new directions and your clients’ needs. Whether it’s headings, graphics or videos, 2019 is the year to use visuals to get your message across.
Put people first
HR Trend Institutecites 2019 as the year for more listening and less messaging; more talking to each other; improved personalization; increased ability to act quickly; and, more visuals, less text. The focus is on connecting better with people and plain language puts people first.
Help readers skim
Skimming is how today’s readers absorb information—in print and online. Previously, it was primarily the style of online readers only. Check that your information provides visual cues to help readers find and re-find information easily and quickly, regardless of the media. Make this part of your 2019 plain language checklist.
Integrate clear visuals
Plain language writing and editing are well-established processes for helping clients understand. However, ensuring visuals, design and layout contribute to clear information—in print and online—can be challenging.
Michelle Boulton, Clear Communication Strategist at 3cpublications.ca, specializes in this field and shares advice.
In documents, visuals are often the elements that draw a reader in and make information easy to understand. Most people remember only 10% of what they hear and 30% of what they read, but about 80% of what they see. So, the combined use of visuals and text is said to be six times more effective than the use of text-based communication alone.
Visuals can express ideas and convey information in ways that words alone cannot. They communicate by:
Get a clear picture of your audience’s needs. Use the power of visuals and text working together to send out clearer messages. Make 2019 your year to put people first.
Thanks Michelle. 3cpublications.ca
Visit PlainLanguageAcademy.com Calendar to register for upcoming courses.
Check out Clear Design Practices with Flora Gordon.
Plain language reaches across all languages, all sectors and all tasks. But, in this Forbes magazine article by Kate Harrison (not me), the link between virtual communication and clear emotions points out another dimension of plain language.
Virtual communication's emotional side effects
Kate’s article is a review of Nick Morgan’s new book, Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World looking at the conflict between our volume of virtual communication and increase in feelings of isolation and even depression. This less than satisfactory communication does not meet the plain language focus on audience awareness. So, what’s the cure?
Know your audience
Communicating clearly involves body language, not just words and pictures. As conference calls, webinars and smartphone video calls increase in popularity, we need to increase our audience awareness, a key part of the plain language process. We need to keep our emotional language clear. We need to integrate empathy. It’s all about humanizing the technology we rely on.
Being an empathetic communicator
Author Nick Morgan recommends storytelling as a great cure for this problem.
exTalks article Incredible Tips for Effective Online Communication recommends using personas that communicate empathy and competence.
In their zendesk relate post, Leaders, use empathetic language when talking to remote workers, Sarah Stealey and Rebecca Huval examine how to manage technology and talking virtually.
Empathy Business CEO Belinda Parmar says empathy is what today’s leaders and organizations need to survive.
The Centre for Plain Language identified this issue some time ago in their Empathy: The Forgotten Element in Successful Plain Language Communicationarticle by Deborah S. Bosley. She reminds us of the plain language focus on understanding and being understood.
Put empathy on your plain language checklist
So, the next time you are communicating via technology and want to achieve clear or plain language, check that empathy is on your list.
Take the PlainLanguageAcademy.com Audience Awareness course. Starts Feb 1 and May 1. Sign up now.
The link between clear communication and better organizational results has been made by Kimberly A. Whitler in a recent Forbes magazine article How Workplace Simplicity Impacts Company Results. But she's not alone in providing proof.
Whitler explains how a confusing presentation on a complex sales strategy lost employees’ attention and commitment. A year later, a new sales leader, a new approach: a simple presentation that used clear language, audience-friendly concepts and the sheer simplicity resulted in sector growth.
Siegel+Gale support power of simplicity
Last year Siegel+Gale did a study on how simple workplaces improve employee engagement and commitment. They found that organizations who commit to clear communication tend to be simpler from top to bottom, and show increased workplace effectiveness and employee commitment.
Their research found 95% of employees were more likely to trust leaders in a clear culture. Plain language will be a key part of this environment.
Plain language for the people
The province of British Columbia supports plain language in government. They ask Why Should I Care About Plain Language? on their website. The answer: it reduces time, misunderstandings, client calls and increases accessibility and confidence in content.
The bottom of line, plain language can positively affect profits, people and processes.
Plain language has become a global movement. Writers, editors, designers, testers, trainers, leaders are all connecting, sharing and benefitting. I presented on Trends in Plain Language to the Editors Canada 2018 Conference and the SA Professional Editors' Guild workshop. Here's the video highlights courtesy of SA PEG group.
Watch on our Plain Language Academy Youtube Channel
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