This month’s cartoon is a bit of an experiment. I got an iPad to replace my decrepit laptop and am trying an all-digital workflow for the first time. I’m, uh, not thrilled with these results, but I didn’t have the time to redo it. I’ll keep trying until I figure out something that will work. I haven’t imported my custom fonts to the device yet, so this cartoon is a throwback to the days when I hand-lettered all the dialogue. (Maybe that’s why the whole thing looks amateurish—well, especially amateurish—to me. I hope you’ll forgive me!)
Anyway, what inspired this cartoon were conversations I saw among editors on social media, where a few of us wondered: As we face an existential threat and a massive shift in how we live and function, does it really matter if a compound is open, hyphenated, or closed?
Nitpicking about commas and applying house style seem like such trivial undertakings in the grand scheme of things, especially when compared with what essential service workers do. It’s easy to feel useless and even expendable, particularly when some clients are cancelling projects because of the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic.
But what these recent weeks have highlighted for me is that clear and accurate communication is more important than ever. We have the skills to help public health officials, health researchers, and policy makers get critical information to people who need it and, importantly, to strike the right tone.
This crisis is an excellent reminder that editing is about improving communication, not mindlessly applying rules. We have an opportunity to reassess how we approach a text and separate the edits that help the message reach its audience more effectively from those that do nothing other than uphold arcane notions of language, feed our ego, or waste our time.
Poor communication excludes, and when we all have to solve a problem together, we can’t afford to exclude anyone.
Thank you for coming back month after month! I’m grateful I still have a way to connect with colleagues even though I’ll miss seeing you at the Editors Canada conference this year. I wish you all good health.
This month’s cartoon is dedicated to Erika Thorkelson.
Play along! What other fields would the Plain-o-matic wipe out? Here’s a blank where you can fill out:
- the career,
- the name of the convention,
- the convention speaker’s words, and
- the slide content.
(Someone make one for plain language editors, please!)
Tweet me your creations, and I’ll retweet them.
What happened to October’s cartoon? My computer was out of commission for six weeks, and when I finally got it back in the middle of October I was too busy to put a cartoon together. Without my digital tools, I tried more traditional media by participating in Inktober. You can watch me struggle with drawing anything more complex than a rudimentary stick figure on this Twitter thread.
There’s no shortage of examples of missing or misplaced punctuation causing confusion. When used properly, most punctuation should add clarity. But the colon has the remarkable ability to add ambiguity—sometimes hilariously—even when correctly used:
Sentence construction is really important. pic.twitter.com/WoJxCrMbD0
— Imran Garda (@ImranGarda) January 4, 2017
I dunno, he’s just one bloke, I reckon we could take him. pic.twitter.com/LVPYU6bqiL
— Phil Fersht (@pfersht) July 19, 2015
I presented this four-level accessibility framework at a few academic conferences this year, and some people have requested a non-academic summary, so here it is. I’ll leave out the methodology details, but if you’re curious about them, please get in touch!
Is your communication accessible? This question can be tricky to answer, because access means different things to different people. By analyzing the themes in a series of articles about accessibility, I’ve found that most definitions of access fit under four main categories, and I’ve organized these into a framework I use as a checklist of sorts when I create communications (pamphlets, books, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) for the general public. I hope you’ll find it helpful, and I welcome suggestions to make it better.
The four levels are:
- discovery—can users find your communication?
- acquisition—can users get your communication?
- use—can users use your communication?
- comprehension—can users understand your communication?
In June, I was lucky enough to attend Information+, a phenomenal data visualization and information design conference at Emily Carr University. One of the keynote speakers was Colin Ware, renowned for his pioneering work on visual thinking and cognitive processing. At the end of Ware’s talk, Yanni Loukissas, assistant professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, asked him: “Don’t we have an ethical obligation to consider people who have colourblindness or stereoblindness in our visualizations?”
Ware responded, “As a designer, I always want to use of all of design space,” suggesting that limiting the palette only to the colours that people with colourblindness can discern, for example, would be too restrictive.
I’ll come back to Ware’s comment in a bit, but first I want to focus on the concept of design space, which refers to the universe of choices—media, typeface, type size, colour, and so on—available to the designer. The metaphor doesn’t tend to be used outside of design, which is a pity, because it’s handy. I’ve found it useful to think of design space as a subset of communication space, which itself is a subset of creation space. Continue reading “Collapsing the dimensions of communication space”
Who are we writing for when our audience is the general public? “The general public is an amorphous concept,” said plain language champion Cheryl Stephens in her talk at Communication Convergence. “I wrote 20 years ago that there was no such reading audience as the ‘general public,’” she wrote in a handout. “I said that any organization would have gathered data about their customers, clients, patients, or participants through their marketing or client-service research. They would share this information with their communication consultant.”
“But I’ve come to see that this does not happen or does not solve the problem,” she continued. “Too many of my clients were not collecting the sort of information needed for better communication.”
What Stephens proposes is an approach to understanding who might be in your general reading public so that you can take steps to make communication more universally effective. First, we must try to overcome the curse of knowledge—“when better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.” We also have to acknowledge that people from different cultures think and see things differently. Most importantly, we need to consider some of the hidden reasons our communication may not get through as intended.
Cognitive biases arise from information-processing shortcuts, the mind’s limited information-processing capacity, emotional and moral motivations, and social influence, among other sources. They’re good for evolution because the shortcuts let us process information in less time, but they can lead our thinking astray and cause inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretations, and irrationality. A person’s construction of social reality—not objective input—determines behaviour. When you put together your communications, ask yourself, “How are people going to misunderstand?”
Stress and anxiety
Stress interferes with our capacity to focus, process information, and think clearly. Stress can arise from any number of sources—harassment or abuse, physical or mental health problems, personal or work problems, poverty, fear, and even exposure to excessive noise, just to name a few. Post-traumatic stress disorder and grief also interfere with comprehension. Stress can be transient and situation specific, or it can be chronic.
Aphasia, autism, dementia, head injury, neurological diseases, and hearing impairment can all affect language comprehension. And Canada, being a country of immigrants, has a large proportion of people learning English as a second language. Images can be a huge help: people process images instantaneously, and with a different part of the brain.
These illnesses can be mild, hidden, undiagnosed, or unrecognized. “If it’s hidden from you, it may be hidden from the person who has it.” Stephens said she could tell us first-hand that diabetes interferes with thinking. Mood disorders like depression can also affect how well a person thinks. Patients who have chronic complex diseases have six or more diagnoses and are typically on several medications at a time. Whether from the diseases or as side effects of the drugs, disabling fatigue and difficulty thinking and remembering are characteristic of this group. Many of them are also in severe pain. They would not have the patience for material that takes too long to read.
Ontario defines “disability” as follows:
(a) any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,
(b) a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,
(c) a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,
(d) a mental disorder, or
(e) an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997; (“handicap”)
(From the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001)
Disabilities may be
- visible or invisible
- congenital or acquired
- mental or psychiatric
- intellectual or developmental
For example, said Stephens, one out of twelve people have some degree of colourblindness, and often the only clue that something is a link, for example, is the colour.
Forty-two percent of working-age adults have low literacy skills (level 1 or 2 as defined by the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey). They have limited vocabulary and lack the skill to parse sentences and so can’t draw intended meaning from text. Some readers may have emotional or psychological problems that interfere with comprehension or may lack knowledge of the content.
“The legal system discriminates against people,” said Stephens. She said that the Supreme Court of Canada recognizes differences that are disabling because of external barriers or stigma imposed by societal norms, procedures, and institutions. In other words, discrimination is socially constructed, and it can lead to functional limitations, real or perceived.
“Everybody appreciates material that’s simple, clear, and well designed,” she said. As communicators, we should acknowledge that people with reading difficulties aren’t a separate target group—they are all of us, at some point in our lives. By considering these invisible impediments to comprehension, we can better empathize with our readers and be sensitive to their needs.
Stephens has written a paper that explores these concepts in much more detail. Contact her to get a copy.
Clear communication advocates are used to telling prospective clients about the practical benefits—the savings in time, money, and effort—of plain language. But many plain language practitioners (and I’m among them) are motivated by more than the efficiency and expediency of a clear message. To us, demanding clarity and plain language is an overtly political act meant to redress power imbalances. Russell Willerton, who teaches in the technical communication program at Boise State University, gives ethical context to these interactions in his new book, Plain Language and Ethical Action: A Dialogic Approach to Technical Content in the Twenty-First Century (Routledge, 2015).
This book, Willerton explains in the preface, “is the first to focus on the ethical impacts of plain language: plain language gives citizens and consumers better access to their rights, and it combats the information apartheid that convoluted, overly complicated documents generate.” (p. xiii) He introduces what he calls the BUROC framework, used to identify
- Rights Oriented, and
situations that call for plain language as an ethical imperative. Whereas other technical communication textbooks “provide extensive analysis of ethical scenarios that are drastic and dramatic, such as stealing intellectual property, fabricating or misrepresenting data, or whistleblowing” (p. xv), which don’t happen very often, Plain Language and Ethical Action focuses on more common situations that nevertheless raise important ethical issues. For example,
Plain-language laws and policies extend citizens’ freedoms: plain language bolsters the authority of law and respect for the justice system. The public’s right to understand the law coincides with the responsibility to follow the law. (p. 19)
Designed to be a resource in technical communication courses, each chapter ends with questions and exercises that reinforce the chapter’s concepts.
Willerton casts a wide net and approaches the topic of ethics and plain language from several directions, first introducing his BUROC model and summarizing quantitative and qualitative results from a survey he conducted with plain language practitioners around the world. These experts reviewed and commented on the BUROC framework and shared their perspectives on the relationship between plain language and ethics. Plain-language consultant Frances Gordon expressed a view similar to my own, saying, “I think that plain language without ethics is pointless. I believe that an ethical view is what differentiates plain language from related disciplines” (p. 61)
What makes a plain language communication ethical? Willerton provides an overview of ethics in the technical and professional communication literature, drawing heavily from philosopher Martin Buber’s writings about dialogic ethics. Buber contrasts I–It relationships, in which the communicator talks down to the other party, with I–You relationships, which involves respecting the other party and engaging in a meaningful dialogue and exchange of ideas. Ethical plain language is based on an I–You paradigm, and the two sides, despite their differences, work to meet at what Buber calls the narrow ridge, where communication can truly take place. Writes Willerton:
Through dialogic ethics and the ideal of the I–You relationship, the importance of clarity becomes paramount. The dialogic approach requires rhetors to view the audience not merely as important, but as essential to their own being. (p. 52)
Because plain language resources rarely get this theoretical, I read this chapter with great interest. At the core of ethical plain language, Willerton argues, is the dialogue between the communicator and the user, which lets the former be sensitive to the needs and limitations of the latter. The concepts he unearths in his review of technical communication literature share parallels with Howard Giles’s communication accommodation theory, which says that two parties hoping to communicate will adjust their speech patterns and mannerisms to minimize the differences between them. Under-accommodation can mean that the message won’t get through, whereas over-accommodation can be perceived as condescending. Striking the right balance of accommodation can be an iterative process involving continual feedback between the sender of the message and its recipient.
Willerton shows how these theories apply in practical terms for five initiatives:
- Common Craft, which produces explanatory videos,
- Booster Shot Media, which produces print and online media for kids with asthma,
- John Wiley & Sons’ For Dummies series,
- Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) and her Quick and Dirty Tips, and
- the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.
“Each of these groups challenges the power differential that separates experts from nonexperts,” writes Willerton, “empowering consumers to act.” (p, 173)
The book also features in-depth profiles of six projects or organizations—many of them previous winners of the Center for Plain Language’s annual ClearMark Awards—that have applied ethical plain language practices to fulfill their mandates. These deeper dives include
- Healthwise, a health information company in based in Boise, Idaho;
- Civic Design, motivated by the butterfly ballot fiasco in the 2000 US elections to help county elections officials produce clear election materials;
- the multi-year restyling of the Federal Court Rules;
- CommonTerms, a volunteer-led effort in Sweden to simplify the terms and conditions that come with software;
- Health Literacy Missouri, which provides health literacy training; and
- Kleimann Communication Group, which produced mortgage documents that complied with the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) and the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA).
These deep dives give us a fascinating inside look into creative operations, small and large, that take plain language seriously. As a plain-language practitioner, I’m always looking for success stories to promote the cause of clear communication, and Willerton’s case studies are a treasure trove. They also show that the plain language community, though growing, is still small, and that the familiar names within these profiles are part of a collegial, supportive group of advocates working internationally to further the same cause.
Plain Language and Ethical Action is a refreshing synthesis of the informal conversations we’ve been having about what makes plain language a movement rather than simply a process or technique. I don’t hesitate to recommend this book to clear communication proponents, although I don’t think I’ll be using the BUROC framework in my own work. To me, the framework implies that situations in which plain language should be used are exceptions, but I prefer to think of them as the rule. Like universal precautions in healthcare to prevent infectious disease, plain language should be the default, with rare exceptions (for example, if you want to use abstruseness for literary effect, or if you are among specialists of equal expertise and jargon makes communication more efficient). I would also have loved to see Willerton take a risk and depart from the standard expectations of an academic monograph. (For one, I didn’t find the book’s subtitle particularly plain!) These minor quibbles aside, I’m grateful that Willerton has, with this book, given plain language practitioners the start of what I think will be an engaging and important conversation.