Introduction to Plain Language      Federal Communicators              Network                      April 16, 2012        ...
INTRODUCTION
Goals of this session1. Understand what plain language is2. Learn a few plain language techniques3. Learn about the 2010 P...
1. What is plain language?
What is plain language?Material is in plain language if your intended  audience can• Find what they need• Understand what ...
• The concept of audience is very important.• Plain language is not the same for all  audiences.
2. Benefits of plain language
• Plain language saves time and money for boththe author and the audience.• Plain language also results in bettercomplianc...
We have lots of information about bottom-line savings from plain language in thepublic and private sectors.
Canadian government• An extensive project revising forms into plainer  language and format.• As a result, they saved time ...
Original     Plain LanguageName of Form                    Version          VersionOperating GrantApplication         20 m...
Veterans Benefits Administration• Veterans Benefits Administration letter to all  veterans, asking for an up-to-date benef...
Higher response rate, lower costs               Response    Estimated                            savings                 r...
Federal Communications       Commission• Revised regulations about radio  operations on pleasure boats to improve  their c...
Less time for users to solve a        problem (in minutes)Type of User    Old Rule     New RuleExperienced     2.43       ...
Private sector• Research project to study the effects of using  plain language on the performance of a financial  services...
• The plain language group was 61.2% more  satisfied with their documents than the original  document group.• The plain la...
• The plain language group was 61.2% more  satisfied with their documents than the original  document group.• The plain la...
Predicted improvements based  on the two sample groupsProductivity         ↑       36.9%Errors                   ↓    77.1...
More info about benefits•   http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/kimble/dollars.h•   http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whyPL/ben...
3. Plain language techniques
Use1.   Logical organization2.   Informative headings3.   Active voice and other strong verbs4.   Pronouns5.   Lists and t...
Use Logical organization• Organize the material in the way the reader  needs it.• If you are discussing a process, often a...
Use Informative headings•Headings help your reader navigatethrough the document.•Avoid vague headings like “general” and“i...
Use Active Voice• Verbs are the strongest words in English.  They give your writing power.• Use strong ones – active voice...
Use Pronouns• Using pronouns pulls your readers into the  document.• Use “you” for the reader• “I” in question headings• “...
Lists and tables• These devices help clarify complex  information.• Make sure your list items are parallel and  follow the...
Use Common Words• Use words your reader is likely to know.  Here’s a fun but not scientific way to check  how common a wor...
Use reasonably short sentences• For written material, average sentence  length should be 20 words or fewer.• No sentence s...
Avoid1.   Abbreviations, jargon, legal terms, Latin2.   Confusing constructions3.   Noun strings4.   Unnecessary words5.  ...
Habits to avoid• Abbreviations, jargon, legal terms, Latin –  Readers hate abbreviations more than anything  else. Jargon,...
Habits to avoid, 2• Noun strings – These are 3 or more nouns  sandwiched together. Readers find them very  confusing. (Att...
Habits to avoid, 3 (excess words)• Redundancies – instead of “at a later time” just  say “later”• Hidden verbs – These are...
Habits to avoid, 4 (excess words)• Prepositional phrases. Many constructions that  introduce excess verbiage involve prepo...
Habits to avoid, 5 (excess words)      Instead of             Use• For the purpose of    • For, to• Level of coverage     ...
Habits to avoid, 6 (excess words)• Excess modifiers – Avoid unnecessary modifiers  such as “really” and “very.”• Doublets ...
Habits to avoid, 7• And one of the most insidious bad habits of  bureaucratic writers– Information your reader  doesn’t ne...
General wordy phrase helpFor a list of wordy phrases and suggestedalternatives, see:http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/wor...
Let’s look at a few samples
Veteran’s Benefits letterOriginal: If you disagree with this disallowance andbelieve the evidence now of record is suffici...
RegulationOriginal: The amount of expenses reimbursed to aclaimant under this subpart shall be reduced byany amount that t...
Plain language: If you get a payment from acollateral source, we will reduce ourpayment by the amount you get. If you getp...
Sign at a US Embassy entranceOriginal:•In order to ensure everyones safety and to ensure that securityscreening does not d...
Plain language: To ensure everyones security andspeed processing, you may not bring the followingitems into the Consulate:...
Medicaid instructionOriginal: Apply if you are aged (65 years old orolder), blind, or disabled and have low income andfew ...
Plain language: You may apply for Medicaid if youare:•Terminally ill and want hospice services;•Eligible for Medicare and ...
Resources•   NIH plain language training on the web•   Plainlanguage.gov•   Federal plain language guidelines•   Center fo...
The Plain Writing Act• Act was signed by President Obama on  October 13, 2010.
What’s covered  Covered Document - means any document  that--• People need to get a Federal benefit or  service or that pr...
Covered documents• Include paper or electronic letters, publications,  forms, notices, or instructions.• Unfortunately, th...
What’s the public?• The public includes an agency’s audience.• “Public” is not restricted to the general public.
Definition of “plain writing”• `Plain writing means writing that is clear,  concise, well-organized, and follows other bes...
What the President’s office had to do • By April 13, 2011, the Office of Management   and Budget (the President’s extended...
President’s office (2)• The Director of OMB was allowed to designate a  lead agency or interagency working groups to  help...
OMB’s Guidance• Besides reiterating the requirements of the Act,  some important points in the guidance are that  it--
OMB’s Guidance 2• Designates PLAIN as the official interagency  working group that will help with guidance.• This made the...
OMB’s Guidance 3• Tells agencies to use the Federal Plain  Language guidelines as the guidelines to be  followed in implem...
OMB’s Guidance 4• Tells agencies that the senior official  responsible for the program should have  cross-cutting responsi...
What agencies had to do by         July 13, 2011• Designate 1 or more senior officials to oversee  implementation.• Tell e...
What agencies had to do by          July 13, 2011 (2)• Designate at least 1 person to receive and  respond to public input...
What agencies had to do by         October 13, 2011• Start using plain writing in every covered  document of the agency th...
So where are we now?• Many agencies have a designated official.• Many agencies have started training  employees.• A few ag...
Wrap up
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Intro to Plain Language-for FCN Apr2012 Presentation

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Accompanying presentation to Federal Communicators Network (FCN) April 2012 presentation by Dr. Annetta Cheek.

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Intro to Plain Language-for FCN Apr2012 Presentation

  1. 1. Introduction to Plain Language Federal Communicators Network April 16, 2012 Dr. Annetta L. Cheek Posted to Slideshare with the permission of the author
  2. 2. INTRODUCTION
  3. 3. Goals of this session1. Understand what plain language is2. Learn a few plain language techniques3. Learn about the 2010 Plain Writing Act 3
  4. 4. 1. What is plain language?
  5. 5. What is plain language?Material is in plain language if your intended audience can• Find what they need• Understand what they find• Use it to fulfill their needsAnd they should be able to do that the first time they read it! 5
  6. 6. • The concept of audience is very important.• Plain language is not the same for all audiences.
  7. 7. 2. Benefits of plain language
  8. 8. • Plain language saves time and money for boththe author and the audience.• Plain language also results in bettercompliance with instructions.• Plain language delivers better customerservice.• Writing clearly makes you look smarter.
  9. 9. We have lots of information about bottom-line savings from plain language in thepublic and private sectors.
  10. 10. Canadian government• An extensive project revising forms into plainer language and format.• As a result, they saved time for their agencies and achieved a higher rate of compliance with requirements.
  11. 11. Original Plain LanguageName of Form Version VersionOperating GrantApplication 20 minutes 3 minutes(Processing Time)Grant Report 25% 50%(Submission Rate)Order Form 40% 20%(Error Rate)
  12. 12. Veterans Benefits Administration• Veterans Benefits Administration letter to all veterans, asking for an up-to-date beneficiary.• The VA must find a valid beneficiary if none is listed.• It costs several thousand dollars to find a valid beneficiary.
  13. 13. Higher response rate, lower costs Response Estimated savings rate Original 35% $8 mil every mailing letter cycle Plain 58% language letter
  14. 14. Federal Communications Commission• Revised regulations about radio operations on pleasure boats to improve their clarity.• A Washington-based firm studied the ability of users to find answers to questions in the old and new versions.• The test groups included both new and experienced users.
  15. 15. Less time for users to solve a problem (in minutes)Type of User Old Rule New RuleExperienced 2.43 1.50Inexperienced 3.51 1.73 FCC pleasure boat radio regulation
  16. 16. Private sector• Research project to study the effects of using plain language on the performance of a financial services company, BANCO.• The researcher translated scripts used by BANCOs service staff to answer customer questions over the phone.• Two groups of 30 subjects – one used the original document, the other the plain language version. (Neither had experience with the topic covered by the document.)
  17. 17. • The plain language group was 61.2% more satisfied with their documents than the original document group.• The plain language group preferred all aspects of their documents.• The plain language group said their documents improved their ability to find, understand and use information required for their jobs.
  18. 18. • The plain language group was 61.2% more satisfied with their documents than the original document group.• The plain language group preferred all aspects of their documents.• The plain language group said their documents improved their ability to find, understand and use information required for their jobs.
  19. 19. Predicted improvements based on the two sample groupsProductivity ↑ 36.9%Errors ↓ 77.1%Number of calls ↓ 17.4%to help deskLength of calls to ↓ 10.5%help desk
  20. 20. More info about benefits• http://www.plainlanguagenetwork.org/kimble/dollars.h• http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whyPL/benefits/index.c• http://www.plainlanguage.gov/whyPL/benefits/bottom• Watch for a new book from Prof. Joe Kimble next fall from Carolina Academic Press, updating the first reference above.
  21. 21. 3. Plain language techniques
  22. 22. Use1. Logical organization2. Informative headings3. Active voice and other strong verbs4. Pronouns5. Lists and tables6. Common words7. Well organized, reasonably short sentences
  23. 23. Use Logical organization• Organize the material in the way the reader needs it.• If you are discussing a process, often a chronological organization will work best.
  24. 24. Use Informative headings•Headings help your reader navigatethrough the document.•Avoid vague headings like “general” and“introduction.”•Often question headings – if they are thereader’s questions – work best.
  25. 25. Use Active Voice• Verbs are the strongest words in English. They give your writing power.• Use strong ones – active voice and simple tenses.• Passive voice makes your writing weak and confuses the reader about who is doing what.
  26. 26. Use Pronouns• Using pronouns pulls your readers into the document.• Use “you” for the reader• “I” in question headings• “We” for your organization
  27. 27. Lists and tables• These devices help clarify complex information.• Make sure your list items are parallel and follow the lead-in grammatically.• If-then tables are the most useful table type.
  28. 28. Use Common Words• Use words your reader is likely to know. Here’s a fun but not scientific way to check how common a word is – http://www.wordcount.org/main.php• I recommend you don’t go past 4 or 5000.
  29. 29. Use reasonably short sentences• For written material, average sentence length should be 20 words or fewer.• No sentence should be longer than 40 words.• And these numbers should be smaller for web pages.
  30. 30. Avoid1. Abbreviations, jargon, legal terms, Latin2. Confusing constructions3. Noun strings4. Unnecessary words5. Information the audience doesn’t need
  31. 31. Habits to avoid• Abbreviations, jargon, legal terms, Latin – Readers hate abbreviations more than anything else. Jargon, legal terms, and Latin make your writing pretentious and hard to read.• Confusing constructions – Avoid confusing readers by placing modifiers correctly; avoid slashes – apart from fractions, slashes have no good uses. (That means no “and/or”!!!)
  32. 32. Habits to avoid, 2• Noun strings – These are 3 or more nouns sandwiched together. Readers find them very confusing. (Attention consumer notices)• Unnecessary words – This is the big challenge of plain language. There are many factors that can indicate excess words:
  33. 33. Habits to avoid, 3 (excess words)• Redundancies – instead of “at a later time” just say “later”• Hidden verbs – These are verbs turned into nouns. Instead of “conduct an analysis” say “analyze”
  34. 34. Habits to avoid, 4 (excess words)• Prepositional phrases. Many constructions that introduce excess verbiage involve prepositional phrases, so check every one and see if you can shorten it.
  35. 35. Habits to avoid, 5 (excess words) Instead of Use• For the purpose of • For, to• Level of coverage • Coverage• In relation to • About, in, with• On the grounds that • Because• On a monthly • Monthlybasis
  36. 36. Habits to avoid, 6 (excess words)• Excess modifiers – Avoid unnecessary modifiers such as “really” and “very.”• Doublets and triplets – You don’t need both “knowledge” and “information.”• Meaningless formal language – All that stuff at the beginning and end of your letters that no one reads. Why say “We are writing to tell you . . .” – they know you are writing, they’re holding your letter!
  37. 37. Habits to avoid, 7• And one of the most insidious bad habits of bureaucratic writers– Information your reader doesn’t need, but you just have to tell them.• This is a very hard habit to break—and you will meet lots of resistance.
  38. 38. General wordy phrase helpFor a list of wordy phrases and suggestedalternatives, see:http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/wordsuggestions/s 38
  39. 39. Let’s look at a few samples
  40. 40. Veteran’s Benefits letterOriginal: If you disagree with this disallowance andbelieve the evidence now of record is sufficient forus to award you benefits, please refer to theenclosed VA Form 1-4107, Notice of Proceduraland Appellate Rights, which explains your rights toappeal.Plain language: If you think we shouldnt haveturned down your claim, you should write and tellus. Weve attached a form, which explains yourrights.
  41. 41. RegulationOriginal: The amount of expenses reimbursed to aclaimant under this subpart shall be reduced byany amount that the claimant receives from acollateral source in connection with the same actof international terrorism. In cases in which aclaimant receives reimbursement under thissubpart for expenses that also will or may bereimbursed from another source, the claimant shallsubrogate the United States to the claim forpayment from the collateral source up to theamount for which the claimant was reimbursedunder this subpart.
  42. 42. Plain language: If you get a payment from acollateral source, we will reduce ourpayment by the amount you get. If you getpayments from us and from a collateralsource for the same expenses, you mustpay us back the amount we paid you.
  43. 43. Sign at a US Embassy entranceOriginal:•In order to ensure everyones safety and to ensure that securityscreening does not delay entrance in to the Consulate and plannedinterviews, no electronic devices, including cell telephones, may bebrought into the Embassy or Consulate. Large backpacks, suitcasesand glass containers are also not permitted. Security personnel will notstore items for applicants and will confiscate all weapons. We thereforesuggest that all such items be left at home, in a locked car, or with afriend or relative who remains outside the premises.•Documents relevant to the visa and/or passport application are theonly items that we encourage applicants to bring with them.•Your cooperation will help to ensure everyones safety and will help usto ensure that we are able to interview you as quickly as possible.
  44. 44. Plain language: To ensure everyones security andspeed processing, you may not bring the followingitems into the Consulate:• electronic devices, including cell telephones• large backpacks and suitcases• glass containers• weapons of any typeStaff at the gate cannot store any items for you.
  45. 45. Medicaid instructionOriginal: Apply if you are aged (65 years old orolder), blind, or disabled and have low income andfew resources. Apply if you are terminally ill andwant to receive hospice services. Apply if you areaged, blind, or disabled; live in a nursing home;and have low income and limited resources. Applyif you are aged, blind, or disabled and neednursing home care, but can stay at home withspecial community care services. Apply if you areeligible for Medicare and have low income andlimited resources.
  46. 46. Plain language: You may apply for Medicaid if youare:•Terminally ill and want hospice services;•Eligible for Medicare and have low income andlimited resources; or•65 years old or older, blind, or disabled and havelow income and few resources and – Live in a nursing home; or – Need nursing home care but can stay at home with special community care services.
  47. 47. Resources• NIH plain language training on the web• Plainlanguage.gov• Federal plain language guidelines• Center for Plain Languageannettalcheek@gmail.com
  48. 48. The Plain Writing Act• Act was signed by President Obama on October 13, 2010.
  49. 49. What’s covered Covered Document - means any document that--• People need to get a Federal benefit or service or that provides information about those benefits or services.• People need to file taxes.• Explains to the public how to comply with a requirement the Federal Government administers or enforces.
  50. 50. Covered documents• Include paper or electronic letters, publications, forms, notices, or instructions.• Unfortunately, they do not include regulations.
  51. 51. What’s the public?• The public includes an agency’s audience.• “Public” is not restricted to the general public.
  52. 52. Definition of “plain writing”• `Plain writing means writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience.
  53. 53. What the President’s office had to do • By April 13, 2011, the Office of Management and Budget (the President’s extended staff) had to issue guidance on implementing the Act. • Read the full guidance at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/o mb/memoranda/2011/m11-15.pdf
  54. 54. President’s office (2)• The Director of OMB was allowed to designate a lead agency or interagency working groups to help with the guidance.• OMB designated the federal plain language working group as the lead for guidance under the Act. See their site at www.plainlanguage.gov
  55. 55. OMB’s Guidance• Besides reiterating the requirements of the Act, some important points in the guidance are that it--
  56. 56. OMB’s Guidance 2• Designates PLAIN as the official interagency working group that will help with guidance.• This made the group official—after 15 years of operation. It’s still unfunded. That’s not necessarily a bad thing--when no one funds you, no one gets to tell you what to do.
  57. 57. OMB’s Guidance 3• Tells agencies to use the Federal Plain Language guidelines as the guidelines to be followed in implementing the Act – or if they write their own, to base them on those guidelines.• Again, those unofficial guidelines from the voluntary federal group are now official federal guidelines. We’ll talk about them in a moment.
  58. 58. OMB’s Guidance 4• Tells agencies that the senior official responsible for the program should have cross-cutting responsibilities within the agency; oversee agency programs, personnel, technology, regulations, or policy; and be involved in agency communications.• This is an attempt to ensure that agencies appoint officials with enough authority to make the program work.
  59. 59. What agencies had to do by July 13, 2011• Designate 1 or more senior officials to oversee implementation.• Tell employees about the requirements.• Train employees in plain writing.• Establish a process to oversee ongoing compliance.
  60. 60. What agencies had to do by July 13, 2011 (2)• Designate at least 1 person to receive and respond to public input.• Create an easily-found section of the agencys website to tell the public about the agency’s program and to receive and respond to public input.
  61. 61. What agencies had to do by October 13, 2011• Start using plain writing in every covered document of the agency that the agency issues or substantially revises.
  62. 62. So where are we now?• Many agencies have a designated official.• Many agencies have started training employees.• A few agencies have a written plan.• Some agencies haven’t even heard of the Act yet.• http://www.plainlanguage.gov/plLaw/fedGovt/index has a not-quite up-to-date list of agency websites and contacts.
  63. 63. Wrap up

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