Writing in plain language—an Information Mapping webinar

David Singer of Information Mapping hosted a free webinar about writing in plain language. Much of the second half of the session was devoted to the Information Mapping method, covered in the Introduction to Information Mapping webinar that I wrote about earlier, but the first half focused on plain language itself.

Plain language defined

What is plain language? The Center for Plain Language in Washington, DC, uses the following definition:

A communication is in plain language if the people who are the audience for that communication can quickly and easily

  • find what they need
  • understand what they find, and
  • act appropriately on that understanding.

Singer likes this definition, noting that there’s no mention of “dumbing down” the information, which is not what plain language is about.

Plain Writing Act

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act into law: “The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.” Interestingly, regulations were exempt from this requirement, although there’s since been a push to have regulations given in plain language as well.

Have the agencies made progress? Although some agencies have made an effort to implement plain language principles, the new law hasn’t made that much progress since it came into effect in 2011. The Center for Plain Language issued a report card in 2012 and found that out of the twelve agencies they looked at, only four scored a B or higher in complying with the basic requirements of the act. The Department of Homeland Security scored a D, and the Veterans Affairs Department scored an F.

Why were they having so much trouble?

  • The agencies were dealing with an unfunded mandate. Although the Plain Writing Act was signed into law, the agencies had no budget allowances to implement the training and changes to government documentation.
  • There was no specific yardstick to measure success. How do you define “clearer” or “easier to understand”?
  • There were no consequences for non-compliance.
  • There were no clear plans for implementation.

The effort to implement plain language faces a lot of barriers, including the fact that initial enthusiasm about the idea can fade and there is a lot of resistance to change. Technical folks may not believe that their communications can be made simpler or clearer, and attorneys and security people may not want their language to be easy to understand.

Telling people to use personal pronouns, active voice, and shorter sentences isn’t enough, argues Singer. You need a systematic method based on sound principles and a clear plan for implementation to work.

The Information Mapping method

Most of the challenges, says Singer, don’t involve grammar. Plain language’s chief concerns are about making complex information clear and accessible; writing for different audiences (how do you create a single document that meets the needs of many groups of people?); organizing large amounts of information; working with a team of writers (managing different styles, etc.); keeping up with changes; and finding a way to reuse content. Singer suggested the Information Mapping method as a way to achieve these objectives.

Some of the principles behind Information Mapping—chunking, relevance, and labelling—were covered in the Introduction to Information Mapping webinar. The method also has three other principles—consistency, integrated graphics, and accessible detail—which the Information Mapping crew covers only in the training sessions and not in these free webinars.

Singer presented case studies to show the benefits of applying the Information Mapping to business communication. In general, Information Mapping has found that its method leads to a

  • 32% increase in retrieval accuracy
  • 38% increase in usage of the documentation
  • 83% increase in initial learning during training
  • 90% decrease in questions to the supervisor
  • 83 % decrease in the time for a first draft
  • 75% decrease in the time to review the documentation
  • 54% decrease in error rates
  • 50% decrease in reading time
  • 30% decrease in the word count

By implementing a concrete plain language plan, such as the Information Mapping method, you may see the following benefits:

  • revenue growth—by reducing the time it takes to create content and shortening the time for products and their documentation to make it to market
  • cost reduction—by capturing employee knowledge, increasing operational efficiency, reducing support calls, and decreasing translation costs (owing to lower word counts and clearer content)
  • risk mitigation—by increasing safety and compliance

Resources on plain language

For more information about plain language, visit:

(or come to PLAIN 2013!)

An archive of this webinar, as well as more information about the Information Mapping system and training, can be found on the Information Mapping website.

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