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)
Presentations make for a competitive challenge. We prepare them, watch them and try to remember them. So, what makes one stand out? The use of simple, strong, clear, relatable language and images that connect with audiences. All these are key components of plain language. Here are ideas on how to increase the use of clear visuals and the impact of your next presentation.
Integrating plain language guidelines
Marketingmag.com.au points out the weaknesses of presentations junky with charts, jargon and top heavy with text. Plain language guidelines can solve all these challenges. If you commit to clear language, concise messages and simple images that support your ideas, people will relate better and remember longer. Integrate plain language guidelines for your content and visuals to make your presentation memorable.
Presentation software is no longer exclusive. And, audiences come with high expectations. How can you meet them? In her article, ‘Choosing the right visuals’, Emma Bannister quotes research showing that 90% of what our brain processes is visual. A picture really can be worth a thousand words. The clear communication rules of simplicity apply here too.
Rule 1: make sure the visual supports the text.
Rule 2: design and present visuals that are audience-friendly.
Rule 3: use real settings, people and locations whenever you can.
Always ask, and preferably to a test audience, what viewers think of the content, the visuals, the presentation. Put people first and you’ll experience presentation power. After all, it is them we have to inspire.
Impressions that last
Presenters can use clear design and presentation guidelines to enhance engagement. Gov.uk demonstrates how they committed to using simple slides to achieve memorable presentations. Choose a presentation style that supports clear information and visuals, and stick to it. Consistency in visuals is another way to have an impact.
Making an outstanding presentation relies on clarity, simplicity and strong visual impact. Set plain language guidelines, involve a test audience for feedback and be prepared to make changes to meet their needs. If you can confidently say you kept it simple, clear and really connected with visuals, you are heading for presentation success with some help from plain language guidelines.
Want to learn more, take a PlainLanguageAcademy.com course.
Editors Canada Conference 2018, May 25-27, Saskatoon: Plain Language Stream
When Frances McDormand said the words “inclusion rider”, during her Academy Awards Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech, it meant so much more than the two words themselves. Plain language is most often practiced around the written word, presented on paper or online. But, when you mix in speaker, setting, audience and context, words can take on a much more dynamic meaning.
Defining "inclusion rider"
Not everyone would have a clear understanding of the legal implications of the words “inclusion rider”, but would use their familiarity with each term individually. McDormand herself is reported to have only recently become familiar with this contract option. But, in their legal sense, in the acting profession, here is how Wikipedia defines them:
“An inclusion rider or equity rider is a provision added to a contract of an actor to ensure that casting and production staff are more representative and meet a certain level of diversity…”
When a production company agrees to this rider, but doesn’t meet it, consequences can result. So, you take two plain words, mix in a legal connotation, and their meaning and impact can greatly change.
Plain speaking and presentation impacts
Inclusion researcher Dr. Stacy Smith presented data outlining the film industry’s inequalities in a TED Talk, highlighting the point that A-listers (top actors) can lead change with inclusion riders. That’s one group McDormand was addressing in her Oscar speech.
But, the impact of those two words were super-enhanced by three environmental conditions because McDormand had:
Combine plain language and clear design
On paper and online, we often don’t have that kind of influence. So, plain language is all the more important to get our messages across with the intended meaning, to the intended audience, generating the intended outcome. The next time you write content for a document, website or speech, consider the impact using plain language can have, especially if it is supported by clear visuals. The combined effect of plain language and clear design can be memorable. That's what we want in our communication.
PlainLanguageAcademy.com 2018 course line-up. Register now.
Clear Design and Plain Language Basics begin April 1.
Advanced: Editing for Plainer Legal Writing begins April 10.
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.
Find out more about the Academy's
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
By Cheryl Stephens
Plain language projects, like any others, can be enhanced by clear documentation. Plain Language Academy program advisor and facilitator Cheryl Stephens shares four ways to track your project progress, for current and future needs. Thanks Cheryl.
For a freelance writer-editor, many jobs are short-run, although there may be repeat assignments with the same client. Early in your career, one tends to think of some jobs as quick and easy to do, so the engagement is not fully documented. In situations when you are working with a team member, you may not view it as your job because there is someone else who is supposed to do it.
Just remember, it is your career and your reputation at stake.
Create a case study
After a two-year project, I was asked to write an article about the project. It was then I wished I had made notes along the way and treated the writing project like a case study. In another instance, deemed an emergency by the client, I finished a short, written piece in one day. Later, there were many occasions when I wanted to use this piece as an example, but could not recall the details.
Many of us use checklists to make sure we cover off all the standard issues—in a written piece or an entire project. Checklists are good, but even better if you annotate them with some detail.
Write Interim report or memo to file
For project needs, an interim report is sent to the client or team, to bring everyone up to date on the status of the work-in-progress. A memo to file is used, but not circulated, to record some difficulty or reason to change the project's direction. Sometimes the memo to file is not kept in the project file, but in your own folder. A CMA (cover my ass) folder keeps information available, if you should ever need to CMA.
Track with originating documents
Of course you should always have a contract that sets out the expectations for each person involved, but sometimes an editing or writing project is started less formally. Then, the first memo should set out those parameters and it should be sent to the client. You can refer to it when things start to go sideways. Sometimes, veering sideways is unavoidable due to external developments, and you should record those changes and new decisions in a memo to file.
Learn more in Academy courses
You can get the full complement of skills needed for plain language project management by taking our six-course Foundation Program, or selecting Course 6: Plain Language Project, or its options (adding on coaching and consulting services). Registration is open. Visit Calendar for start dates.
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 email@example.com.
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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