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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28 August 2014

Write. Read.

Writing well can give you a remarkable insight into reading.

I go to a writing group once a month. The interest and feedback from its members is encouraging. We give each other support, criticism, and deadlines for submitting work. Without these things, my project may have fallen by the wayside.

But the skill I'm finding the most interesting and challenging is how to read how to critique other people's writing. Once a month, a member's story hits my inbox. These days my approach is to put my news sub-editor's hat on and wrangle sentences, the order of ideas in a paragraph, the punctuation. But my colleagues are bolder. They take a wider view. They dive in and comment on structure, relationships, tones, and voices. Last week Cathy completely rewrote the first page of the submitted piece.

I've learned two things from their critiquing comments:   
  • how to begin applying their remarks to my own work that's challenging
  • how to read fiction with a little of their insight stepping beyond enjoyment into a greater understanding.
I do a lot of reading at Write, and I well understand what to look for how to read, write, and edit. I put myself in the same reader's shoes, reading with a different purpose. Do clear headings headings tell the story? Does the structure deliver the information in a useful order for the reader? Does the piece answer all the reader's question? Is the language precise and familiar, so the message is completely clear?

Learn to write, and you learn what to look for. And that makes reading easier. I'm learning a different kind of writing. And I'm enjoying learning more about a different kind of reading.

Read a book by one of the 20th century's greatest editors Stein on Writing
Consider our workshop on Advanced Accelerated Reading

19 August 2014

Drawn Together — a new way to enrich meetings, workshops, and much more

We are all communicators — we aim for an effective exchange of ideas and information. Common communication methods include meetings, workshops, and events, which many of us organise. So I want to let you know about a new way you can enrich and easily recall any group discussion. It’s called graphic recording.

Graphic recording is very popular overseas and some of you may have experienced it at conferences. Now you can have access to this effective communication resource locally, with Drawn Together, a company that’s been established in New Zealand.

What is graphic recording? It’s recording a group discussion visually, so that everyone can immediately see and remember what they have said.

How does graphic recording enrich meetings and workshops? Graphic recording can describe complex issues simply and involve people more fully in group discussions. Because it’s collaborative, participants:

  • are more active
  • understand each other more easily
  • are more creative
  • remember discussion and concepts better.

Drawn Together has been set up by Linda Gilbert, a qualified lawyer, facilitator and trained artist. Linda’s skills enable her to listen deeply so she can visually capture your meeting or workshop on the spot.

After an event Linda can also develop the graphic record and put it into other formats, such as posters and infographics.

Linda’s website describes graphic recording in more detail and explains how you might use it. It also includes some great examples of graphic recording in the photo album. Have a look

17 August 2014

Retirement savings affected by human factors

Last week I attended the Workplace Savings NZ conference 'Shifting the Story Line'.

The keynote speaker was UK behavioural economist Dr Nick Southgate, who spoke about how people's behaviour and attitudes to saving affect their decision making about retirement savings. Investing for your retirement is something we know we need to do, but it can be a difficult thing to commit to because of the way our brains work.

Dr Southgate says that human beings are designed to be more interested in what is happening now than in the future. In his presentation, he discussed some of the human factors that affect people's behaviour towards saving. He suggested some techniques that may help providers of investment funds to find ways to encourage people's saving habits.
Read the report in the NZ Herald

See the slides from Dr Southgate's presentation

Aim for clear, concise, and effective documents

Many speakers at the conference referred to another important factor in encouraging people to invest in KiwiSaver and other retirement savings schemes: providing investors with clear, easy-to-read information so they can make decisions with greater confidence.We're more likely to read, understand, and act on information that is written in plain language.

So in a presentation later on at the conference with financial consultant Helen MacKenzie, I emphasised ways of keeping readers interested in the content of investment statements and other financial information.

In particular, keep your readers happy by presenting what is often complex information using straightforward language and short sentences. Add useful visuals, case studies, and examples to help explain your concepts. Avoid legalistic language and include definitions of technical terms.

Think of the human factors: just as we find it hard to think about savings in the future, we struggle with information that's hard to process.

08 August 2014


The language of financial markets continues to mystify.  The Washington Examiner has collected some statements by Federal Reserve bankers (the equivalent to our Reserve Bank), and suggests readers try to work out what they mean.

For example, what would you do with this?

He's given us five examples in all, and four multi-choice options each for meaning. Take a look!

04 August 2014

The language of money

In a recent New Yorker article, John Lanchester talks about the language used in the world of finance.

He gives the bad and the good reasons for having a language for experts. Sometimes, he acknowledges, such terminology is used to exclude and baffle. More often, experts need such terms went talking to each other, but forget that the meanings they understand so well are obscure to others.
It is potent and efficient, but also exclusive and excluding. Explanations are hard to hold on to, because an entire series of them may be compressed into a phrase, or even a single word.
He goes on to talk about reversification, where a term has, over time, drifted far from its original sense;sometimes so far that it now means the complete opposite. I love his examples, and his colourful style of writing.
The images and metaphors keep doing headstands. To “bail out” is to slop water over the side of a boat. That verb has been reversified so that it means an injection of public money into a failing institution; taking something dangerous out has turned into putting something vital in. “Credit” has been reversified: it means debt. “Inflation” means money being worth less. “Synergy” means sacking people. “Risk” means precise mathematical assessment of probability. “Noncore assets” means garbage.
It's a great article for anyone interested in financial language or the way that language changes. And expect the Nilometer to pop up in my conversations over coming weeks.

(A tip of the hat to Cheryl Stephens, whose comment on 'incomprehension is a form of consent' first pointed us to this article.)

Ask for a copy of our free e-book, Unravelling financial jargon.