Content = Communication: What is Plain Language and Why Should You Care?


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I gave this presentation to the Content Strategy Applied Conference at eBay/PayPal in San Jose, CA. October 16, 2013. Large audience of content strategists learning about how plain language strategies can make content easy to understand.

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  • Thank you for asking me to talk today about plain language, or clear communication.
    Mantra: Clear | Concise | Credible
  • Difficulty creating clear content can be a result of a product or system that’s too complicated.
    Content creation can point out unnecessary complications.
  • 1. Interaction of mind and language 2. Unambiguous is impossible 3. ADAPTIVE CONTENT
  • Two stories:
    CitiBank sent me a text message on my phone.
    The message included Reply STOP to discontinue messages.
    I sent STOP.
    Exactly two minutes later, I received another text.
    Booked hotel in Vancouver at $189
    The day before arriving, saw on hotel website $129 plus lots of perks.
    Contacted (“guaranteed best rate”)
    Long back and forth on chat.
    First yes, then no.
  • Including?
  • confusion, costly | deadly mistakes
    inability to comply
  • Compliance requires understanding
    Legal language obfuscates
  • Trust remains the most "essential" quality for a financial services firm, outranking performance.
    “Customer advocacy provides customers with open, honest, and complete information…truly representing their customers’ best interests, essentially becoming advocates for them.”1
  • Prevalent problems with hardcopy.
    Prevalent problems with online text:
  • Prevalent problems with hardcopy.
    Prevalent problems with online text:
  • Federal Registery: CAARD on Adverse Action Letter
    What are your rights? Talk with neighbor and list them.
  • Why and how better?
  • used the free tool Website Grader to find the readability levels of the top 15 blogs in 7 industries.
    compared average readability of blogs in each industry to the readability of the iconic old media outlet with the industry.
    In general, blogs used more complicated language.
  • “A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”1
    So, here’s what happens when I go on a retail site…the minute I change my mind, or encounter confusion, or feel like I’m really not getting a deal, etc. I click off.
  • A way for you to push back on attorneys, who job is, after all, to protect the company.
    But doesn’t have to be an either/or.
  • From a list of questions content creators should ask themselves:
    What are the problems? Ask audience.
  • Attorney website
  • According to Bryan Garner, Attorney and Author of Legal Writing in Plain English, dozens of lawyer groups have compared the two passages and said that if they were sitting on a grievance committee, they would be much less favorably disposed to the lawyer who wrote the first version.
  • After first slide, what do you think students thought about the writer of the complex version?
  • know what you know:
    content (explain)
    understand words:
    vocabulary (define)
    know what to do:
    processes (tell)
    feel comfortable:
    emotions (be friendly)
  • Begin with questions users will have.
  • What would you want to know?
  • writer
    persuasive power
    interesting material
    options and cues for understanding
    simplified information
  • Benefits:
    decreases call-ins, confusion, misinformation
    increases clarity, compliance, goodwill, trust
  • Legal docs in p.l. were 35% to 100% clearer
  • Content = Communication: What is Plain Language and Why Should You Care?

    1. 1. What is Plain Language and Why Should We Care? Content Strategy Applied Conference October 17-18, 2013 Deborah S. Bosley, Ph.D. Owner and Principal | The Plain Language Group 704.641.1334 Permission from TPLG needed to use any material in this presentation.
    2. 2. Real life Dilberts • What I need is a list of unknown problems we are likely to encounter. Lykes Shipping • Email is not to be used to pass on data or information, only company business. Electric Boat Co. • We know that communication is a problem, but the company is not going to discuss it with the employees. AT&T 2
    3. 3. What have smart people said? • “Make everything as simple as possible but not simpler.” • “If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.”
    4. 4. What have smart people said?
    5. 5. What have smart people said?
    6. 6. The golden rule of communication The golden rule of communication • communicate unto others • as they would communicate unto themselves
    7. 7. What have smart people said? • "…words and data to create unambiguous content that supports meaningful, interactive experiences.” -- Rachel Lovinger • Make content that’s relevant to people by choosing words and sentence structures to best meet communication goals. – Rachel Lovinger • “Content is a‘verb,’not a noun.” --- Deborah S. Bosley
    8. 8. Here’s where we’re going 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. What are the problems? What is plain language? How do we know it works? What laws require its use? Why is plain language important to content strategy?
    9. 9. 1. What are the emotional problems? • angry public • consumer fatigue • frustration • choices available • lack of trust
    10. 10. 1. What are the emotional problems? Terms of Service update We are updating the Google Terms of Service. The new Terms will go live on November 11, 2013 and you can read them here. Because many of you are allergic to legalese, here’s a plain English summary for your convenience. We’ve made three changes: First, clarifying how your Profile name and photo might appear in Google products (including in reviews, advertising and other commercial contexts). You can control whether your image and name appear in ads via the Shared Endorsements setting.
    11. 11. 1. What are the disclosure problems? • • • • • • • • • regulations and laws cell phone bills financial statements insurance policies internet | software agreements internal policies (privacy, benefits) mortgage contracts credit card statements Whatever the form, words, or experience, it’s all branding.
    12. 12. 1. What are the communication problems? • Disclosure ≠ communication • Facts and accuracy ≠ understanding • Information ≠ communication
    13. 13. 1. What are the trust problems? Trust in business dropped below 50% in U.S.
    14. 14. 1. What are the document problems? Most transactional documents • have sentences that are too long (40+) • have dense, uninviting paragraphs • lack specific details about steps | processes • are wordy and use too much jargon • sound like legalese or computer-speak or artificial • lack sufficient headings and lists • are illogically organized • lack design that aids readability | skim-ability • need tables, graphs, visuals • include incomplete information (usually lacking “how?”) • contain inconsistent information 14
    15. 15. 1. What are the website problems? Some websites • • • • • • • do not get to the point are wordy; too much jargon sound like computer-speak have dense paragraphs lack design that aids readability need more visuals to convey information give too much information 15
    16. 16. plain language and legalese The language of regulations
    17. 17. plain language and legalese
    18. 18. 1. What are the print vs web problems? Blogs Use More Complex Language Than Old Media by Haris Krijestorac June 4, 2010
    19. 19. 1. What are the people problems? • decide in 5 seconds (or less); • .5 seconds on website • read 28% slower online • use sites as reference • read “just in time” • interpret and create meaning • explain to others • phone for clarification
    20. 20. 1. What are the reading problems? The Law of Least Effort 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences
    21. 21. 1. What are the legal language problems? • “Too many lawyers believe [that] it is essential to legal English that one write as pompously as possible, using words and phrases that have long since disappeared from normal English discourse.” Hon. Antonin Scalia, U.S. Supreme Court • “Attorneys are not usually required to use regulatory language. Such language usually indicates what information must be included In a disclosure, but not how it must be stated.”Joseph Kimble, columnist for Michigan Bar Journal, legal professor at Thomas Cooley School of Law
    22. 22. 1. What are the content advice problems? • • • • • • • • • Does your content solve your customers' problems? Does content match your audience's expectations? Have you determined the purpose of your site? Do you know your target audience? Why would anybody visit my site a second or third time? Is the content technically correct? Do customers need the content? Is the content current and updated frequently? Can people find the content they're looking for? • What’s missing? • Can customers understand the content?
    23. 23. Before Provision in fee agreement Clients understand that any estimates provided be the Firm of the magnitude of the expenses that will be required at certain stages of any litigation asserting a cause of action are not precise, and that the kinds and amounts of expenses required are ultimately a function of many conditions over which the Firm has little or no control, particularly the extent to which the opposition files pretrial motions and engages in its own discovery requests, whether in the nature of interrogatories, depositions, requests for production, or requests for admission, or any other type of discovery allowed by the rules of procedures in the forum in which the dispute is pending. (110 words; 49th grade level)
    24. 24. After Provision in fee agreement A firm’s estimate are just that: estimates. Conditions outside the firm’s control, especially the other side’s pretrial motions and discovery requests, may raise or lower expenses. (26 words; 12th grade)
    25. 25. Cell Phone Agreement: BEFORE This Wireless Customer Agreement (this “Agreement”) is between the person or entity (hereinafter referred to as “Customer,” “you” or “your”) that is the customer of record and [Company B, Incorporated] (hereinafter referred to as “Company B,” “we,” “our” or “us”). This Agreement, including the terms of service for wireless products, features, applications and services (“Service(s)”) not otherwise described herein that are posted at, or devices, and any documents expressly referred to herein or therein, make up the complete agreement between you and Company B and supersede any and all prior agreements and understandings relating to the subject matter of this Agreement. This Agreement is binding when Service is activated to your specific telephone number(s) (each, a “Number”). The term “Unit,” “Equipment,” or “Device” means the cellular receiving and transmitting equipment that is programmed with the Number. You acknowledge that you are of legal age, have received a copy of this Agreement, and have read and clearly understand its terms. BY USING OUR SERVICES YOU ACCEPT ALL TERMS OF THIS AGREEMENT. PLEASE READ THIS AGREEMENT CAREFULLY TO ENSURE THAT YOU UNDERSTAND EACH PROVISION, INCLUDING OUR USE OF YOUR LOCATION INFORMATION (SEE SECTION 3.6). THIS AGREEMENT REQUIRES THE USE OF ARBITRATION ON AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS TO RESOLVE DISPUTES, RATHER THAN JURY TRIALS OR CLASS ACTIONS, AND ALSO LIMITS THE REMEDIES AVAILABLE TO YOU IN THE EVENT OF A DISPUTE. Grade 16
    26. 26. Cell Phone Agreement: AFTER This Agreement sets out the terms of service for all the wireless products, features, applications and services that Company B provides you. This Agreement begins once we activate your Service and replaces any prior agreements and understandings between you and us. Please read this Agreement carefully. Sign it only if •You are of legal age in your province. •You have read and clearly understand the terms of this Agreement. If there is anything that you do not understand, please ask your sales representative to explain it to you. •You accept all the terms of this Agreement including • our use of your location information (see Section 3.6) • how we will resolve disputes (see Section 4.2). Grade 7
    27. 27. 1. What are the understanding problems? 90% couldn’t identify correct amount of up-front fees1 • 63% believe intentional complexity to hide information2 • 75% believe complexity and lack of understanding played significant role in financial crisis3 • 84% more likely to trust companies that use jargon-free language4 • “Improving Consumer Mortgage Disclosures: An Empirical Assessment of Current and Prototype Disclosure Forms”: A Bureau of Economics Staff Report (June 2007, FTC) 2,3 Siegel and Gale: Clarion Call for Transparency, January 4 Siegel and Gale: Mystery of Federal Agencies, March 2010 1
    28. 28. 1. What are the image problems? • Study from Stanford University: 71 evaluated writing samples: "moderately complex" to "highly complex” • As complexity increased, readers’ estimate of author's intelligence declined.1 1 Oppenheimer, D. M. “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” Applied Cognitive Psychology. March 2006.
    29. 29. 2. What is plain language? • Plain language is the use of proven writing and designing strategies that make it easy for your intended audience to find, understand, and use information. • Clear | Concise | Credible • Concepts: behavior, reading process, rhetoric, social constructionism, visual and information processing, linguistics, literacy, user design, and more…
    30. 30. Remember... • No user ever complained that information was too easy to understand. • users with low literacy struggle to complete basic tasks1 • users with high literacy levels also scored better when website language was lower level1 1 Angela Colter
    31. 31. 2. What is plain language? 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. write for intended audience (readers) organize for readers’ needs use active voice use pronouns use positive language be succinct avoid jargon: use common words be concrete; avoid ambiguity write short sentences | paragraphs use headings and lists include visuals (tables, figures, photos etc.) test document for readability 31
    32. 32. Duh! and Huh?
    33. 33. What do readers really want to know?
    34. 34. Medicare: BEFORE • Investigators of the contractor will review the facts in your case and decide the most appropriate course of action. The first step taken with most Medicare health care providers is to reeducate them about Medicare regulations and policies. If the practice continues, the contractor may conduct special audits of the providers medical records. Often, the contractor recovers overpayments to health care providers this way. If there is sufficient evidence to show that the provider is consistently violating Medicare policies, the contractor will document the violations and ask the Office of the Inspector General to prosecute the case. This can lead to expulsion from the Medicare program, civil monetary penalties, and imprisonment.
    35. 35. Medicare: AFTER We will take two steps to look into this matter: 1. We will find out if this situation was an error or fraud. 2. We will let you know the results in approximately six weeks. • More importantly, it answers the reader’s questions.
    36. 36. Reading ease Before After 111.00 34.00 # sentences 6.00 3.00 Average words per sentence 18.50 11.33 Gunning Fog Index (grade) 13.42 6.89 Flesch Reading Ease 31.81 # words 80.87 (60 standard)
    37. 37. 2. What is plain language? Why design | visuals so critical: • 43% likely to be persuaded • 25 - 40% less time • 38% better retention • satisfies two modes of processing information
    38. 38. 2. What is plain language? Text testing is easy: • test with real users • interview one-on-one • use qualitative and quantitative approaches • revise based on feedback
    39. 39. 3. How do we know it works? • Notre Dame: corporations that use plain language in shareholders communication increase money investors bring into their company.1 U of Nebraska: firms with high corporate reputations use less varied, shorter, and more concrete words than low reputation firms.2 • 1 2 Loughran, T. and McDonald, W. Plain English, Working Paper, Mendoza College of Business. Gebbart, J. and Lawrence, J. Predicting Firm Reputation Through Content Analysis of Shareholders’ Letters. Corporate Reputation Review. Vol. 11, No. 4, 284-307.
    40. 40. 3. How do we know it works? • • • • • • • • • more likely to to be read faster to read easier to comply strongly preferred more easily understood less likely to cause mistakes caused fewer questions | fewer complaints decreased some litigation saved time and money
    41. 41. 4. What laws require plain language? • CAARD: Credit Card Accountability Responsibility & Disclosure Act of 2009 “clear and conspicuous” • ERISA: Employee Retirement Income Security Act -- “written in a manner calculated to be understood by the average plan participant” • Dodd-Frank: Requires all model disclosures to be written in plain language; validated through testing • HIPAA: Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act
    42. 42. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) “A covered entity can satisfy the plain language requirement if it makes a reasonable effort to • • • • • organize materials for readers write short sentences in active voice use “you” and other pronouns use common words divide materials into short sections.” 42
    43. 43. 4. What laws require plain language? • GLB: Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act Financial Privacy Notices • RESPA: Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act RESPA/TILA integrated disclosures with format using plain language and highlights important terms. • NAIC: National Association of Insurance Commissioners True readability requires disclosures using plain language that is designed to facilitate consumer understanding including clear organization and design.
    44. 44. 5. Why is plain language important to content strategy? • • • • • • • acquire closely related skills meet compliance requirements emphasize new branding make values clear manage risk increase satisfaction affect the bottom line
    45. 45. Resources The Plain Language Group The Center for Plain Language: Clarity: promotes plain legal language Plain Language Association InterNational