This blog shares some of our thoughts about plain language, and the latest discussions about plain English and clear design in New Zealand, and around the world.

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30 November 2012

Congratulations to all the winners!

Congratulations to all winners in the 2012 Awards! Winners were announced last night at a ceremony hosted by Kiwibank and attended by all finalists and guests.

Highlights of the evening were the Cancer Society's win of the premier award for Best Organisation and MSD and IR's excitement at winning the new 'Turnaround' award.

And everyone was impressed that Nova Energy fronted up to collect the Brainstrain bin.
They got the warmest applause of the evening!

See all results and read the media release.

26 November 2012

Plain language evangelism – Equipping the disciples

Since Moses smashed the tablets – the stone ones with ten straightforward rules for living – we’ve been working very hard at transforming the simple into the complex, and confusing ourselves in the process. Joe Kimble, a plain language evangelist whose life work has been campaigning for plain legal language, is trying to alleviate the confusion by keeping things simple in his book, Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please.

This book is about a cause, but with a personal touch. For me, the personal touch adds interest and underpins the integrity of Joe Kimble’s work in an area that many would struggle to get excited about. You get a sense of mission from the personal story in Part 1.

While at law school, Joe never questioned legal style, despite having studied English at Amherst College and graduated with honours. It never occurred to him that anything was wrong. The awakening (Joe’s word) came while working for the Michigan Supreme Court when he stumbled across two texts – on legal drafting and on English usage – both of which promoted simplicity and clarity. Over the last 30 years Joe has taught legal writing at Thomas Cooley Law School, acted as a legal drafting consultant, and written and spoken widely about plain language and its benefits.

Early on, you find out what this book is not about. It’s not a manual focusing on the nuts and bolts of clear writing. But in Part 2 Joe adapts guidelines he has produced for printed legal documents to helpfully explain the elements of plain language. For more detailed practical advice, he invites his reader to consult the plain language literature.

As its subtitle states, this book presents the case for plain language in business, government and law. In making the case, Joe’s “good news” message for businesses and government agencies is simple – using plain language is a money-saver. Why? Because plain language promotes clear understanding, and clear understanding reduces transaction costs. Those who need to act on information can do so only to the extent they understand what is required. Misunderstanding generally means more time and expense.

The case is made in Parts 3, 4 and 5. Part 3 debunks 10 of the most common myths, which attack the utility and effectiveness of plain language. Part 4 highlights the concrete results of promoting plain language worldwide over the last 50 years via publications, laws, projects, events, organisations and consultancies. Finally, Part 5 provides summaries of 50 plain language initiatives that demonstrate savings in time and money for government and business, and a better experience for consumers.

The case, as presented, is compelling. But is that enough to change hearts and minds? I have my doubts, and I suspect Joe might agree with me. In his personal story he says this book reflects all his efforts over 35 years in sharing the techniques, debunking the myths, and promoting the benefits of plain language. Three times in one paragraph he says, “I’ve tried…” revealing a hint of disappointment, and confirming the truth of the adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”. You can also sense the frustration when at page 43, after asking isn’t 50 years of myth-busting enough, the author says:
In the end, you have to wonder just what it is that traditionalists are defending about traditional style. And you have to wonder whether they have had the slightest experience with plain language or given a moment’s thought to what it can accomplish.
Joe refers to his work as a journey. I like that metaphor. A journey’s progress depends on the conditions faced along the way. Occasionally it will be “plain” sailing with excellent progress, but more often than not the road will be rocky and progress will be slower, but progress nonetheless. In many cases complacency, rather than overt opposition, may be to blame for the perceived slow adoption of plain language in business and public communication.

So who will read this book? I think it will appeal mainly to those who are already convinced of the worth of plain language, or at least are favourably disposed towards it. They will be encouraged by the well constructed retrospective showing the gains that have been made, and hopefully will be inspired to build on the solid foundation of those gains.

Joe Kimble has demonstrated that he is not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. The seeds of plain language have been well and truly planted. Benefits are being reaped, but a rich harvest remains out there. Those who already acknowledge the value of plain language and want to promote it in their organisations will find this book a valuable resource. They will be able to confidently follow the author’s rallying call that ends this book: “Go forth and spread the word.” Hearts, as well as minds, need to be changed, and that’s a job for well-equipped disciples.

By Steve O’Hagan

Steve is an enrolled barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand and a plain language advocate. He has worked in the legal services industry in both the private and public sector for 22 years, specialising in knowledge and information management, and honing his writing skills.

23 November 2012

The old order passeth...

I have long had a love affair with encyclopaedias. When I was a child, we had several sets, pitched at different reading levels. We also subscribed to encyclopaedias delivered in weekly or monthly installments: Finding Out and The Book of Knowledge. I spent many happy hours browsing from one article to another, following a trail through ideas and concepts.

We bought the Encyclopaedia Britannica for our own children, all 16 volumes of it, plus yearly supplements. In a big clean out several years ago, we sent the whole set to a book fair. I had a moment of nostalgia, but had to acknowledge I'd not cracked a cover of any of the books for years. The electronic encyclopaedias we own are so much easier to use. And that doesn't even begin to take account of the wealth of knowledge available on the Internet.

Johnson's latest post talks about the end - and new beginning - of another great reference work. What do you think? Are printed dictionaries a thing of the past?

20 November 2012

Clarity or obfuscation?

Eric Rosenberg, writing in Forbes, suggests that business can save money if it learns plain language techniques from business.
Many organizations default to opacity and obfuscation in their communications. Clarity of purpose is crucial in business. But many within organizations have difficulty expressing that purpose – whether it’s in a mission statement, a news release, or an internal marketing presentation. The result isn’t surprising. As workers grapple for clarity, there are more meetings about meetings, more memos about memos, more time and resources spent clearing away the brush in an attempt to reveal a purpose.
 and the business world,  lengthy presentations often are rewarded over substance, and jargon is confused with intelligence. Real words are lost and, as a result, the ideas buried.
Read the article for more about the diagnosis and the solution.

14 November 2012

Hiding meaning isn’t 'plain English'

People think that plain English is about using simple words. Plain English goes beyond that. It is about making meaning clear.

This blog caught our eye. The writer used plain English to deconstruct a series of advertisements written in simple words.

Read Richard Boock's blog 'Plain talk about plain cigarette packs'

13 November 2012

Plain English on the coffee menu at Debenhams

UK store Debenhams has come to the rescue of coffee drinkers who'd like to try something new, but are nervous about seeking explanations of the confusing coffee names. The Daily Mail reports:
On the store's deconstructed menu, a caffe latte is described as 'really really milky coffee', cappuccino as 'frothy coffee' and caffe mocha as 'chocolate flavoured coffee'.
Black coffee is 'simple coffee, with or without milk', and an espresso shot is labelled as 'a shot of strong coffee'.

11 November 2012

Understanding the fiscal cliff

Yet another picturesque term from the language of economics is making headlines, especially since the US elections. This time it's the 'fiscal cliff'. Find out more in this article from The Atlantic. And is it a cliff or a slippery slope?

Read about the fiscal cliff

06 November 2012

Proofreaders 2; spelling checkers 0

We love our skilled proofreaders. They save us (and our clients) from looking dumb and careless. Sometimes, they can even save lives.

One of our clients sent us a snip from a response to a report on a major health and safety investigation. The response listed the recommendations then what the respondent planned to do about them. The final recommendation was mistyped to suggest that organisations have:
modern equipment and fatalities.
Ooops. We checked the report. Sure enough, it recommended:
modern equipment and facilities.
The error was particularly inept given that fatalities were the reason for the investigation.

Many years ago, I worked on an instruction guide for locomotive engine drivers that said something like:
The driver must halt the locomotive and must not proceed until the light is eliminated.
That was easy to rewrite.
Stop. Do not start until the light goes off.
It didn't make sense to me. I brooded about it, then rang the client. Sure enough, the word 'eliminated' should have been 'illuminated'. Final version.
Stop at the red light. Start when the green light goes on.
Spelling checkers don't replace proofreaders. Game, set, and match.

05 November 2012

Parking fines are always annoying — but the letter didn’t help

The tone of the letter I received from the rental car company telling me of my ‘Parking infringement’ didn’t help. They sent a standard letter that was written some time ago, maybe years ago.
Upon a search of our records, we have determined that you were renting the vehicle at the time the infringement was incurred. Please find enclosed a copy of your rental agreement, the terms and conditions of your hire, and the infringement for your reference.
I’m going to Christchurch in two weeks, and I’ll rent a car from someone else. Once standard letters are written, they are not OK for all time. Reviewing and updating the tone and the language of standard letters is an important part of managing client relationships. The rental car company needs to review and rewrite this one in contemporary, everyday language.

It’s extra annoying that the ‘infringement was incurred’ in Wellington, while I was renting in Auckland. By the time I found out there’d been a mix-up and the parking fine wasn’t mine, the rental car company had already debited my credit card ‘for the considerable paperwork involved in transferring an infringement, under the terms and conditions of your rental agreement (enclosed), a $58.49 (incl. GST and credit card surcharge) administration fee payable to … for processing each infringement. We noticed you had nominated a credit card for further charges and have therefore processed the charge accordingly. A receipt is enclosed.’

‘Kind regards’ at the end didn’t quite fit.

Here are some ways of thinking about tone when you write.
  • Tone is the impression the writer makes on the reader.
  • Tone is about considering how the reader will feel.
  • Tone is a matter of attitude: your choice of words, your sentence structure, and your content combine to display your attitude to your subject and your reader.
  • Tone will win you customers, or lose you business.
By Rosemary Knight