Plain language still evokes many questions. What is it all about? How does it work? What benefits are there? You can simply answer the questions. Or, you can ask for some time to do a training exercise to bridge the knowledge gap. This can be anything from a short team training exercise, a learning-at-lunch program, presentation to key leaders or an event keynote presentation. Of course, you can run a workshop. So, what are some of your options?
Audience awareness plays a huge part in plain language. You need a detailed picture of your audience for your team to create, commit to and use throughout the project. Personas involve drawing pictures or creating profiles of your audience using research on their lifestyle, cultural, social, professional and personal activities and values. Usability.gov has an excellent description of how to do personas. I find it a fun activity to open a training activity or for team building.
Develop content for a style guide
Integrating plain language guidelines into an existing style guide or creating a stand-alone guide is a great investment with a long shelf life. Focus on jargon and simple words that can replace your organizations in-house language. Everyone appreciates a writing resource. They save time, create shared techniques, enhance peoples’ skills. Integrating it into an existing style guide increases its value and can be a great stepping stone to a learning event.
Create a plain language checklist
Plain language checklists are available online. Most are very generic. Get your communications and plain language project teams together to brainstorm a checklist specific to your task, your audience or organization. This increases colleagues’ understanding of, skills for and commit to plain language.
Carry out an audit
Without embarrassing or intimidating anyone, carry out a plain language audit. Gather a team and collect a variety of documents or information sources and measure against selected plain language guidelines. Share the findings and as a group come up with recommendations for future information.
Apply for an award
Awards offer several opportunities for learning and committing to plain language. It helps others see what the standards are in the profession. If you are recognized, you have motivation to move forward with your plans. PLAIN ( Plain Language Association InterNational) offers members opportunities to be recognized at its conferences. Other organizations offer annual awards. Just participating can be rewarding.
Integrate training into your plain language projects, style guides, training plans. Reap the benefits.
As I holidayed this summer, in Canada and in the US, I found myself comparing levels of and styles of customer service. Experiencing a lack of clarity in instructions, directions and information, it reminded me that plain language truly is a form of customer service excellence.
Any business can gain an advantage by using plain language. In preparing for my presentation The Solution to Persuading Plain Language Sceptics—Training for the PLAIN 2017 Conference: Improving Client Relationships, I became even more convinced we need to really persuade clients—internal and external—to integrate plain language with customer relations initiatives.
What benefits does plain language provide?
Unhappy clients can mean a loss of business and negative publicity. It can affect staff morale, productivity and commitment. No one wants these. Incorporating plain language and supporting it with training offers huge benefits for your staff and clients:
What are my plain language training needs?
The best way to plan your plain language training is to begin with a thorough audit of what communication training has been or is being delivered. Identify key customer relations problems—existing or potential. Then assess who needs which skills or knowledge in clear communication. Once all these are agreed, the plan can take shape. Plain language training can be stand-alone, integrated or connected to a specific project.
What should we focus on?
What results should we look for?
Integrate plain language training or consulting into every customer service initiative. Ensure staff can effectively connect with clients using clear communication for problem solving and promotions. Look for and measure the improvements:
Check the PlainLanguageAcademy.com Calendar for courses that can help. We offer three options for Course 6: Plain Language Project, including coaching and consulting combinations.
There are simple solutions to testing
Ever wonder why a message or campaign just doesn't get the results from people you expect. Did you ask clients, readers, users for their input along the way? The most important aspect of the plain language process is testing the message with your readers or users. Yes, asking them what they think, feel, want.
However, both the process and resources—human, time and money—often mean organizations drop this stage. But, it delivers a brilliant return on your investment. Imagine if one concept, word or phrase was turning away clients, decreasing sales and taking up staff time answering the same questions over and over.
Here are five easy options for testing.
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1. Listen and learn
Listen carefully to the words your readers use when they describe your products or services. You will learn a lot about using 'their language' to gain understanding and really connect.
2. Everyone is a salesperson: let them sell
Get clients to explain o another person (even yourself), in their own words, what you offer. You can pick up some great clues as to how well your message matches your client's interpretation. And, you get an inside look at how people talk about you.
3. Use the simple Plus or Minus Checklist
Give a group of testers a section of your marketing materials, web content or product description. Then ask them to simply read through it and put a plus sign (+) beside info they like and understand and a minus sign (–) if they don't understand, like or get it. Now you know where to focus.
4. Get website users to perform a task
Watch how people get from the home page to the task page. How long it takes them? Which problems did they encounter? You will get great insights into how they navigate, what's important to them, and if your content and design are delivering the results you want and they need.
5. Start by asking clients what they really want
If you haven't done a client survey, focus group, or product test recently, now is the time to simply ask some key questions. What do you want from us? What are we doing that you like? What could we do better?
Your clients hold the key to your success. You ignore them at your peril. And, if you really want to create clear or plain language materials to connect with clients, you need to involve them along the way.
Here are some helpful sites
ProsWrite—A simple way to test your reader's response
UserResearch.gov.uk—Tips for testing your words
Peers share top strategies for selling benefits
Despite the many successes I have experienced and positive stories from my colleagues, we are still challenged by those who don't understand the benefits of plain language. After many years in the field, sketicism is still a topic peers want to talk about and seek a solution to. A recent PlainLanguageAcademy.com Google Hangout focused on how to successfully sell plain language services to skeptics. Hosted by Cathy McPhalen, thINK Editing Inc., Edmonton, the group of peers shared their experiences and expertise on ways to convert clients to this new (to some) way of connecting with audiences, by simply being clear. The discussion was lively as options were explored.
"What is plain language?" "Isn't that dumbing it down?" "I don't want to lose my professional voice. That's what I'm paid for." "We've always done it this way. If it's not broke, don't fix it." Whether you are new to plain language or have been providing clear writing, editing, design and training services for some time, these protests may sound familiar. So, as a profession, what can we do to persuade skeptics clear communication is worth the investment? Here we share three proven approaches highlighted during the Hangout.
1. Educate your clients
It has never been more apparent that lack of education, or understanding, can lead to sad social, political, organizational and cultural situations. Integrating a training or orientation session into your plain language proposal or project is important to get organizational support. You may have to do it to get a project started. Integrate it and get help from a plain language trainer if you need one. But, expect positive results.
2. Health check on current practices
We are all somewhat resistant to change. It takes time, resources and commitment. Your client, internal or external, may say making all these changes will meet resistance and cost money. Here is a great way to turn this around.
Get permission to ask some questions to help you understand their situation. Here's what our NZ colleagues at ReWrite–How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit have to say about discovering what is really going on. Find out how long it takes to produce an email, a brochure, web updates or reports. How many people are involved? How many versions? Now, do a calculation: time it took x salaries = cost. Scary? Plain language can be the solution. The upfront investment in training can generate savings at many levels for the long run.
3. Words that work
We are plain language professionals all helping our clients use words more effectively. Are we doing our best? What words could we use to better explain—and sell—the benefits of plain language? Do you find yourself using negative terms like 'problems', 'challenges', 'issues'? The Hangout peers put their heads together to come up with words that positively promote plain language. What do you think?
For every problem there is a solution. And, the best way to find it is with the power of peers. If you have ideas or stories on success in persuading skeptics, please post a comment or share on social media using #plainlanguage or #plainlanguageacademy.
If you want to join or lead future PlainLanguageAcademy.com Hangouts, send your contact details and ideas to Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out Academy Course 1: Plain Language Basics, designed to increase your understanding of plain language. It can help increase your options for persuading others. The course is open to registration throughout the year.
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