Book review: Plain Language and Ethical Action

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

  • Bureaucratic,
  • Unfamiliar,
  • Rights Oriented, and
  • Critical

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:

“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.

Joseph Kimble—No, the law does not (normally) require legalese (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Joe Kimble has been advocating for plain legal language for more than three decades: he is a founding director of the Center for Plain Language, a past president of Clarity International, the editor of the “Plain Language” column in the Michigan Bar Journal, and the author of Lifting the Fog of Legalese: Essays on Plain Language and Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please: The Case for Plain Language in Business, Government, and Law. He also redrafted U.S. federal court rules (which he spoke about at PLAIN 2013). At Editing Goes Global, Kimble gave us a few tools to help us work with lawyers who claim that legalese is mandatory.

Kimble has heard many stories about plain language projects that died after they were “sent to legal.” In one of his own projects, he redrafted bicycle regulations for a city. “The redraft went to legal,” said Kimble, “and their indifference was palpable. I knew almost immediately that this project was dead.”

How do we prevent projects from ending up in the graveyard? Lay the groundwork, said Kimble, by communicating with the legal department in the project-planning phase. “Don’t wait till the project is finished and then send it to legal. Do everything you can beforehand to make sure legal is receptive or at least knows it’s coming.” Show them samples of the work you plan to do, and keep them apprised of your progress as you reach project milestones. “A little sample should reduce anxiety, not create it,” said Kimble. “Everyone will get a feel for the contours of the road ahead.” For more pointers, Kimble recommends reading “Working with lawyers on your projects,” an article by Cheryl Stephens in Clarity, issue 66.

Some lawyers have prejudices against plain language and may insist on using legalese, although their arguments may change depending on whether you’re working with codified law or caselaw (also known as common law).

In codified law, lawyers tend to copy the exact wording of the underlying law. One example Kimble gave was of a warning sign at a Michigan gas station that reads, “A person shall remain in attendance outside of the vehicle and in the view of the nozzle.” This language was taken directly from Michigan Administrative Code R.295235, §, which says that warning signs “shall incorporate the following or equivalent wording” (emphasis added). In other words, warning signs that convey the same message but in plain language are perfectly acceptable.

If a lawyer says that you have to use a particular bit of legalese, ask for a legal citation—the name of the code and the numbers—and find the original. If it says that you must use particular wording, then you’re stuck, but “as often as not,” said Kimble, “the underlying law does not require legalese.” Look for words like “equivalent to,” “substantially similar to,” or “containing all the following information,” which gives you the flexibility of expressing the same concepts using different—hopefully simpler—language.

That said, Kimble acknowledged that the underlying law often gets copied anyway—“The fear of departing from the underlying language can be paralyzing”—so we should keep pushing for plain language in legislative and regulatory drafting.

In caselaw, lawyers will be reluctant to change what they consider terms of art. “Nothing shuts down a conversation more quickly than a lawyer proclaiming, ‘term of art!’,” said Kimble. “Pursuant to, in witness whereof, and prior to are not terms of art.” Nor are the here-, there-, and where- words (thereby, heretofore, etc.) so often seen in legalese. “Legal language is not as precise as lawyers think it is,” said Kimble. “Lawyers grossly exaggerate the constraining effect of terms of art.” Words like thereby have the feel of precision, but they can actually add ambiguity to a sentence.

Look out for what Kimble calls “legal doublets,” which often have shorter or plainer alternatives. For example, jointly and severally can be rewritten as together or individually, which is immediately understandable.

In some cases, you will have a hard time finding a plain equivalent—for example: reasonable doubt, probable cause, or negligence. But most of the time, a plain alternative exists. Why write indemnify when you can say pay for? (On that example, he cited the September 2013 “Plain Language” column.) “If you can’t bear to part with a word like indemnify,” said Kimble, “pair it the first time with a plain word. Then try using the plain word the rest of the way through.” See Law Words, on the Clarity International website, for help or inspiration.

For plain language more generally, Kimble recommends the following resources:

A longer list appears in an appendix to Lifting the Fog of Legalese.

Debra Huron—Low literacy adults read, too! How to edit for them (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Debra Huron is a plain language specialist with a degree in journalism, and she spent three years managing the Canadian Public Health Association’s Plain Language Service. She shared with us some adult literacy statistics and gave us tools to create clear communications that will help low-literacy readers understand and high-literacy readers save time. A free PDF of her booklet, Five Ways to Create the Happiest Readers, is available on her website.

Huron began her session by asking us to read through a two-page financial services letter packed with long, complex sentences and bureaucratese. “From an editor’s point of view,” she said, “it’s perfectly grammatical. The sentences are long, but they’re coherent.” Yet the letter was hard to read and buried the call to action. “What I thought when I first read this letter,” said Huron, “was, ‘I need to read this again.’ It requires a high degree of analysis.”

Those of us in the room were likely strong readers, but many Canadians are not. Huron showed us the results of a 2013 survey, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which ranked Canada eleventh in prose and literacy skills, behind the Czech Republic and Estonia. The survey also found that 49 percent of Canadians had low literacy, meaning they read at level 1 or 2 in the OECD’s definition of literacy levels. According to the Canadian Council on Learning, “Level 3 is the internationally accepted level of literacy required to cope in a modern society.” Huron cautioned us about using the correct terminology: we talk about low literacy, rather than illiteracy, because most people have some ability to read and write.

Who has low literacy skills? Huron worked with a national literacy organization in Ottawa helping adult learners improve their literacy. These learners may have grown up with violence or substance misuse in the home—not in an environment that valued literacy. Some people in their forties had learning disabilities that schools didn’t routinely test for when they were children.

People with low literacy do not read for pleasure. They read when they have to learn or do something. These adult learners have normal intelligence, so the term “dumbing down” is pejorative. Communicating with them may have to involve other media, including audiovisual material or activities to promote experiential learning. Huron reminded us that we can be literate in some circumstances and not so literate in others. Financial jargon and legalese can be particularly problematic.

Huron offered us four basic plain writing tips that can help you make your communications more clear:

  1. Prefer the active voice.
  2. Avoid frozen verbs (nominalizations). Don’t turn verbs into nouns.
  3. Organize your text into chunks.
  4. Reduce or define jargon.

These suggestions are a great starting point for the uninitiated, but writers and editors with more plain language experience understand that there are qualifications to these tips. Great sources of information for evidence-based plain language practice include Karen Schriver’s work (see my summary of her PLAIN 2013 talk) and Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (which I reviewed). These summaries from previous conference sessions about adult readers and plain language may also help:

Accessible documents for people with print disabilities

In prepping a PubPro 2015 talk about editorial and production considerations when creating accessible documents, I ran into information about both the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) and the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS). Confused about the differences between them, I emailed NNELS for clarification, and librarian Sabina Iseli-Otto wrote back: “Would it be alright to call you? I know it’s getting late in the day but 5 minutes on the phone would save 20 minutes of typing (seriously).”

That five-minute chat turned into an impromptu phone interview, and Iseli-Otto gave me permission to share with you what I’ve learned. (The information in most of this post I got from her, but I’m also including a bit of what I found through my own research for my talk.)

Print disabilities and copyright

Print disabilities include:

  • blindness or visual impairments,
  • physical impairments that prevent a person from holding or manipulating print materials, and
  • cognitive impairments, like ADHD, dyslexia, or learning or memory problems due to a brain injury, that impede reading and understanding.

Although colourblindness isn’t considered a print disability, documents should be created with colourblindness in mind.

About 10 percent (a conservative estimate) of Canadians have a print disability, but only about 5 percent of published works are accessible. Most people with print disabilities aren’t using public libraries.

Section 32(1) of Canada’s Copyright Act spells out an exception to copyright that lets people with print disabilities, and those acting on their behalf, create and use alternate formats of copyrighted print materials (with the exception of large-print books and commercially available titles).

Accessible formats

The following are some of the accessible formats for people with print disabilities:

  • E-text: plain text (.txt), rich text (.rtf), Word (.docx)
  • EPUB 2 & 3
  • Accessible PDFs
  • MP3s
  • large-print
  • Braille

E-text, EPUB, and accessible PDFs can be read by screen readers such as JAWS and VoiceOver. Not all PDFs are accessible—Adobe offers a way to check a document’s accessibility and has guidelines for creating accessible PDFs.


CELA formed about a year ago following a change to the funding structure at CNIB (formerly the Canadian National Institute for the Blind). CNIB had, over the past hundred years, amassed Canada’s largest collection of alternate-format books in its library, and CELA, with the support of the Canadian Urban Libraries Council, took over administrating this collection. The CNIB library still offers services to existing clients but will refer new clients to their local public library to access CELA’s services.

The shift of oversight from CNIB to CELA will hopefully allow more people to discover and use this extensive collection. Although it was always available to everyone with print disabilities, given that it was under the purview of CNIB, people who didn’t have visual impairments may not have realized that they could access it.

CELA has also partnered with Bookshare, an American online library for people with print disabilities. Rather than owning its content, Bookshare operates on more of a licensing model, controlling pricing and the licensing fees.


NNELS is also about a year old, with a lean staff of only four people, and, unlike CELA and Bookshare, is funded exclusively by provincial governments, which gives it more transparency. It has a much smaller collection but owns perpetual rights to everything in it. NNELS takes patron requests and works directly with publishers to add to their collection. Nova Scotia helped negotiate a fixed rate for NNELS with publishers in the Atlantic provinces, and Saskatchewan has funded an initiative to create accessible EPUBs for all Saskatchewan books, which will be added to the NNELS collection. Whereas CELA focuses on partnerships with public libraries, NNELS also works with public schools and universities—for example, it has a content-exchange agreement with the Crane Library at UBC .

Recent policy changes relevant to people with print disabilities

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act

According to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA),

Organizations will have to…provide accessible formats and communications supports as quickly as possible and at no additional cost when a person with a disability asks for them.

The law was enacted in 2005, but the regulations for information and communications didn’t come into effect until 2012, when all sectors had to make all emergency procedures and public safety information accessible upon request. For other types of communications, the AODA requirements were phased in beginning in 2013 for the public sector and beginning in 2013 and 2015 for private and non-profit sectors. (Respectively, I think? The website doesn’t make that bit clear.) If you work with Ontario businesses, you may be called on to provide accessible communications.

The Marrakesh Treaty

The Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities laid out exceptions to copyright so that signatories could freely import and export accessible content, obviating the need to duplicate efforts to convert works to accessible formats in different countries. Although Canada was instrumental in writing the treaty, it hasn’t ratified or signed it. However, in its 2015 budget, unveiled last week, the Government of Canada announced that it would accede to the treaty, meaning that people with print disabilities could soon have access to a lot more content.

Publishers and accessible content

I asked Sabina Iseli-Otto how publishers can make her job easier.

“We’d prefer to get EPUB files or accessible PDFs directly from the publisher. Actually, I’ve been really, pleasantly surprised at how often publishers will say yes when we ask for them. I mean, they can always say no—they’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts—but it saves public funds if they send us those files directly.”

If a publisher refuses to provide accessible files, the copyright exception still applies, which means that NNELS would still be able to create an accessible format, but it would have to:

  1. acquire a hard copy,
  2. scan in the pages,
  3. run optical character recognition (OCR) on the scans,
  4. clean up the text file (e.g., deleting running headers and footers),
  5. proof the text.

“More than anything,” Iseli-Otto said, “we want to hear back quickly” from publishers, regardless of what they decide.

I asked if the files NNELS provides to patrons have digital right management (DRM) on them. “No,” she said, “but we make it very clear to them that if they abuse them that they’re putting our whole operation in jeopardy. Some of them appreciate having the access so much that they’re actually quite protective of their files.”

Our conversation had focused on books. What about periodicals and grey literature? “There’s certainly demand for it,” said Iseli-Otto. “We’d love to do more of that. And I’d like to turn your question around: what can we do for publishers to make it easier to collaborate with us? I’m not sure how to build those relationships.”

(Can you guess who I’ve invited to PubPro 2016?)

Publishers who’ve been in business for longer than a decade will recognize the steps NNELS has to take to create accessible formats from a print-only book: they’re identical to what publishers have to do if they want to reissue a backlist title that has no retrievable digital files. Could Canadian publishers partner with an organization dedicated to creating accessible formats so that, in exchange for digitizing the backlist for publishers, the organization could add those files to its collection at no additional cost?

Editorial, design, and production considerations for creating accessible files

In my PubPro 2015 talk, I mentioned a few things publishers should keep in mind through the editorial and production process so that the output will be accessible—especially since having to retrofit an existing document to adhere to accessibility standards is more labour intensive and expensive than producing an accessible file from the outset. I focused mostly on the effect of editing and production on screen readers.

Style considerations

Screen readers will not always read all symbols. The Deque Blog has a summary of how three of the most popular screen readers interpret different symbols. (It’s a bit out of date but still a good place to start; thanks to Ashley Bischoff for that link.) Testing on VoiceOver, I found that although the screen reader is smart enough to read “Henry VIII” as “Henry the eighth,” “Chapter VIII” as “chapter eight,” and “World War II” and “World War two,” it reads each letter in “WWII” as if it were an initialism. And it reads 12,000 as “twelve thousand” but “12 000” as “twelve zero zero zero.” I also found that it doesn’t read the en dash before a numeral if the dash is used as a minus sign, saying “thirty-four degrees” for “–34°.”  It’s best to use the actual minus sign symbol − (U+2112), which my version of VoiceOver reads as “minus sign.” The same goes for the letter x used in place of the real multiplication symbol × (U+00D7). My version of VoiceOver doesn’t read a tilde before a numeral, so ~8 mL would be “eight millilitres” instead of  the intended “approximately eight millilitres.”

In any case, if you’re editing and deciding between styles, why not choose the most accessible?

Language considerations

Plain language best practices apply here:

  • chunk text and use heading styles,
  • break up long, complex sentences, and
  • aim for a natural, conversational style.

Headings and short chunks of text offer context and digestible content to the listener. Screen readers are actually already quite adept at putting the stress on the right syllables depending on whether a word like reject is used as a verb or noun—when the word is in a short sentence. It can get confused in longer sentences.

Image concerns

For images:

  • Offer alt text—text that is rendered if the image cannot be seen—for substantive images but not decorative ones. (Add an alt attribute in the code, but leave it blank—i.e., alt = “”—or the screen reader will read the filename. You can add alt text directly in InDesign.)
  • Don’t use colour as the only way to convey information. Make sure colours you choose to distinguish between two lines on a graphs, say, will not occupy the same grey space when converted to greyscale. Alternatively, use different styles for those lines or label them clearly directly on the graph.
  • Don’t turn text into an image to fix its appearance. We often see this practice with equations. Screen readers do not read LaTeX. If you have equations or mathematical expressions, convert them to MathML or offer alt text using the Nemeth MathSpeak system.

In essence, because ebooks are like websites, applying the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 will ensure that your ebook will be accessible. The BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit also has useful guidelines for publishers. I would recommend at least spot checking a document with a screen reader to uncover possible ambiguities or reasons for misapprehension.


Huge thanks to Sabina Iseli-Otto for her eye-opening insights!

Open textbooks and the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (webinar)

In fall 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project was launched to reduce the financial burden on post-secondary students, who spend an average of $1,200 per year on textbooks. As part of Open Education Week, BCcampus hosted a webinar about the project as well as the associated BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit, created to help people who develop learning resources to make them as accessible as possible from the outset.

Open Textbook Project (presented by Amanda Coolidge)

In 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project received a grant of $1 million to develop open textbooks for the top-forty enrolled subject areas. It received another $1 million in 2014 to create resources for skills and trades training. BC has now committed to working together with Alberta and Saskatchewan to develop and share open textbooks.

Many people think open textbooks are e-textbooks, but what makes them open is their Creative Commons (CC) license: they can be copied, modified, and redistributed for no charge. Instructors can therefore change open textbooks to suit their courses, and students are able to get these books for free. In two years the project has saved more than five thousand students over $700,000 in textbook costs.

BCcampus carried out the Open Textbook Project in three phases:

  • First, they collected existing textbooks with CC licenses and asked faculty to review them.
  • Second, they modified these books based on faculty reviews. At the end of this process, they had covered thirty-six of the top-forty subject areas.
  • Finally, they funded the creation of four textbooks from scratch.

Open textbooks are now being used in fourteen post-secondary institutions across the province, and BCcampus has eighty-one textbooks in its collection. To create these materials, they use Pressbooks, a plugin that lets you write once and publish to many different formats.

Accessibility testing (presented by Tara Robertson)

Tara Robertson helps run CAPER-BC, which provides alternate formats of learning materials to twenty institutions across the province. They specialize in accommodations, including remediating textbooks for people with print disabilities. One reason the Open Textbook Project is exciting, said Robertson, is that instead of taking something broken and fixing it, she now has the opportunity to make the textbooks accessible from the start.

Seven students with special needs volunteered to test the open textbook resources for accessibility, reading selected chapters from textbooks in five subject areas and offering feedback on their usability. Robertson also ran a focus group with five students. She found recruiting testers challenging, and she acknowledges that the students who participated in the focus group, all of whom had visual impairments, were not representative of the many students that had other print disabilities. Still, the testers offered a lot of constructive feedback.

The chapters the students reviewed each had features that might interfere with assistive technology like text-to-speech software: formatted poetry, tables, images, quizzes, and so on. Testing revealed that the software would skip over embedded YouTube videos, so the textbooks would have to include URLs; formatted poems were problematic when enlarged because readers would have to scroll to read each line; and layout sometimes led to a confused reading order.

Robertson sees the accessibility consultation with students as an ongoing process to refine accessibility best practices.

BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (presented by Sue Doner)

BCcampus has just launched an accessibility toolkit for faculty, content creators, instructional designers, and others who “don’t know what they don’t know about accessible design.” Their aim is to build faculty capacity for universal design and to highlight the distinctions between accommodations and accessibility. Accommodations involve individualizing resources and providing alternative learning options for students who identify as having a disability. If we were proactive about creating materials that were accessible from day one, we’d have no need for accommodations.

Universal design recognizes that different students learn differently—some prefer visual materials, whereas others prefer text, for example. It offers students multiple access points to the content, and it’s better for all students, not just those who register with their disability resource centre. For example, aging students may appreciate being able to enlarge text, and international students may benefit from captions to visual material.

The toolkit offers plain language guidelines for creating different types of textbook content with a student-centred focus, using user personas to inform key design concepts and best practices. It asks content developers to think about what assumptions they’re making of the end users and how those assumptions might affect the way they present the material.

It might take a bit of time for creators of some types of content to catch up with all accessibility features—for example, video and audio should, as a rule, come with transcripts, but a lot of YouTube content doesn’t, and you may run into copyright issues if you try to offer material in different formats.

The next steps for BCcampus are to incorporate the toolkit into the development process for all new open textbooks they create, to modify existing textbooks for accessibility, and to encourage the province’s post-secondary community to formally adopt these guidelines. The toolkit, like the open textbooks, are available under a CC license and can be thought of as a living document that will change and grow as different types of content (e.g., math) becomes amenable to accessible design.

Doner sees these steps as “an opportunity to create a community of practice—a new literacy skill.”


This webinar (along with others offered during Open Education Week) is archived on the BCcampus site.

Indi Young—Practical empathy: For collaboration and creativity in your work (webinar)

Empathy for your end users can help you create and design something that truly suits their needs, and it’s the basis of usability design and plain language writing. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is an example of applying empathy, but UX consultant Indi Young, author of Practical Empathy, says that you first have to develop empathy, and she led a webinar to show us how.

Empathy, said Young, is usually associated with emotion: it makes you think about sensitivity and warmth or about sympathy and understanding a person’s perspective, sometimes so that you can excuse their behaviours or forgive their actions. As it turns out, that definition describes empathy rather poorly. Dr. Brené Brown created a short animation to explain the differences between sympathy and empathy.

True emotional empathy, Young explained, is when another person’s emotion infects you. “It strikes like lightning,” she said, and “it’s how movies and books work”—you’re struck with the same emotions as the characters. This kind of emotional empathy can be incredibly powerful, but you can’t force it or will it to happen. In our work, we need something more reliable.

Enter cognitive empathy, which can include emotions but focuses on understanding another person’s thinking and reactions. In creative work, we often end up concentrating too much on ideas and neglect the people. By listening to people and deepening our understanding of them, we can develop and apply ideas that support their patterns. This listen » deepen » apply process is iterative.

How is empathy important in our work? Empathy has a lot of uses, said Young, and one she saw a lot was using it to persuade or manipulate, which could be well intentioned but might also problematic. She’d rather focus on using empathy to support the intents and purposes of others—to collaborate and create. “Others” is purposely vague here—it can refer to people in your organization or external to it.

To truly collaborate with someone, you have to listen to them, one on one. “When someone realizes you are really listening to them and you don’t have an ulterior motive, they really open up.” These listening sessions allow you to generate respect for another person’s perspectives and can be the basis for creativity. When a user issues a request, ask about the thinking behind it. Knowing the motivation behind a request might allow you to come up with an even better idea to support your users. You can’t establish empathy based only on a user’s opinions or preferences.

In a listening session, be neutral and let go of any judgments; you can’t properly support someone you’re judging. Purposeful listening can also let you discover what you’re missing—what you don’t know you don’t know. The intent of a listening session isn’t to solve any problems—don’t go into a session with an agenda or a set list of questions, and don’t use the session as a forum to show others how much you know. Become aware of your assumptions and don’t be afraid to ask about them.

Let the other person set boundaries of what to talk about. Don’t bring something up if they don’t bring it up. If they’re not comfortable talking, excuse them. Don’t set a time limit or watch the clock. Finally, don’t take notes. “The act of writing things down in a notebook takes up so much of your brain that you can’t listen as well,” said Young.

What you’re trying to uncover in the listening sessions is the person’s reasoning, intent, and guiding principles. What passes through their mind as they move toward their intent? Instead of asking “How do you go about X?” ask “What went through your mind as you X?”

These guidelines seem simple, said Young, but mastering listening skills takes a lot of practice. Once people start opening up and you see how your ideas can better serve their needs, you’ll see how powerful developing cognitive empathy can be.


Indi Young’s webinar will be available on in a couple of weeks.

Craig Morrison—10 fixes for improving your product’s UX (webinar) hosted a free seminar featuring usability consultant Craig Morrison of Usability Hour. Morrison began as a web designer, focusing on visual design, but he soon discovered that aesthetics alone aren’t enough to ensure a good user experience. Freelancers often get into the habit of satisfying only their clients’ demands and, once they finish one project, they move on to the next, which means that they don’t get a chance to refine user experience. But positive user experiences translate into user recommendations and business growth, so it’s a good idea to help clients see the importance of placing user needs ahead of their own.

Morrison outlined ten of the most common UX mistakes and how to fix them:

1. Focusing on impressive design instead of usable architecture

It’s tempting to want to make a site that will wow people with its visuals, but aesthetics alone don’t provide value. Morrison offered Craigslist as an example of how a plain-looking site can be popular because it has great functionality. He recommends that you consult a UX consultant first to plan a usable content structure, then focus on visual design.

2. Not removing unvalidated features

If your site has features that nobody is using, all it’s doing is cluttering up the site and making it harder for users to find what they really want from you.

3. Listening to user ideas

This is not to say that you shouldn’t listen to your users at all; listening to their problems is valuable, but often what users suggest as solutions wouldn’t work well. Morrison suggests that you start user testing and watch how people use the product. Seeing where they falter will highlight what you need to work on.

Polling your audience is also a good way to get feedback, particularly for new features, but phrase your questions carefully. You’re looking more for users’ motivations for using a particular feature, as opposed to their opinions about which option they’d prefer.

4. Forcing people to sign up without offering any value

Your landing page can’t be just a logo and a sign-up form. People aren’t willing to exchange their information for nothing. Instead, show why your product is valuable before they sign up. This also goes for credit card numbers: asking for that information during a free trial will turn people off before they’ve even tried your product.

5. Taking user feedback personally

If your dismiss negative feedback by saying “they just don’t get it” or “users are dumb,” you’re sabotaging your business. Complaints are opportunities to improve UX.

6. Poorly designed search function

Half of web users are search oriented and won’t browse. Morrison admits that this bit of advice may sound like a bit of a cop-out, but “follow proper guidelines for designing a usable search function.” There are best practices out there, and he’s written about some of them on his blog.

7. Not optimizing for mobile

“Mobile traffic on the web is 20% and rising,” said Morrison, and you’re driving that traffic away if your site isn’t optimized. People aren’t going to voluntarily spend the time to zoom and navigate through a website meant for larger screens. Invest time and money into a simple mobile site. Morrison says that whatever solution you choose is up to you, but he’s found CSS media queries to be a simple way to ensure your content displays how you want it to, and he prefers it over responsive design.

8. Not offering users help

Despite your best efforts to designing a user-friendly site, inevitably some people will get lost or confused and then won’t come back, out of frustration. Morrison suggests buttressing good content architecture with a searchable wiki and an FAQ page. How-to videos are great, as is live support, if you can offer it.

9. No emotional connection between brand and users

People who feel emotionally connected to your brand will have a better experience. If your users aren’t familiar and comfortable with your brand, they’ll be quick to dislike you for even the smallest flaws. Focus on building your brand early, and get buy-in from all of your employees. For example, if part of what you offer is excellent customer service, ensure that all of your employees live up to that expectation.

10. Not including user onboarding

A user’s first impression is key, and if they get frustrated with using your product, they’ll quit and never come back. You’ve sunk a lot of effort into attracting a new user but you’ll lose it all by not being able to activate them into a long-term user. User onboarding is a way of teaching users how to use your product while demonstrating its value.

At the same time, Morrison recognizes that not everybody loves onboarding. Always offer users the ability to skip it if they’re confident in using your product. At the same time, make sure they can go back whenever they want to do the onboarding if they need to brush up.

According to Morrison, real business growth through UX comes from

  1. getting traffic to the landing page
  2. converting that traffic
  3. activating new users to become long-lasting users

Morrison will be offering an online course through his website to teach people how to meet those goals using great UX. He’s also written an ebook, 5-minute UX Quick Fixes, available free on his site. The webinar I attended will be posted in a couple of weeks at


I liked that although Morrison’s advice is obviously more geared toward websites or apps, a lot of it applies to other kinds of documents as well. I saw the following parallel mistakes for plain language documents (numbering corresponds to list above):

1. Focusing on aesthetics over functionality. Aesthetic design is important, but usability is paramount: do your choices regarding type, graphics, headings, and white space make the document easier to read and understand?

2. Including too much “nice to know” information. In most plain language documents, you should give readers what they need to know.

3. Listening to users? This point of Morrison’s gave me pause, but his advice of paying attention to the users’ problems rather than their suggested solutions makes sense. For instance, users that consistently fill in a part of a form wrong may not pinpoint poor layout as the reason, but a plain language expert might.

5. Taking user feedback personally. This problem probably applies to the client more than the plain language writer or editor, but the editor may have to go to bat for a user and convince a reluctant client that you have to make certain changes.

6. Poorly designed search function. A good search function is a must-have for websites and apps. The print analogue is an excellent table of contents, descriptive and logical headings and subheadings, and a thorough index.

Have I’ve missed other parallels? Let me know in the comments.

Informed-consent documents: Where legalese meets academic jargon

Ever since the Nuremberg Trials put on display the atrocities of human experimentation at the hands of Nazi doctors, the concept of informed consent has been a cornerstone of both medical treatment and biomedical research. [1] Although no country has adopted the Nuremberg Code in its entirety, most Western nations have acknowledged the importance of informed consent as a pillar of research and medical ethics. But if study participants or patients don’t understand the documents that describe the study protocol or treatment plan, are they truly informed?

For human research subjects, the U.S.’s Code of Federal Regulations states:

46.116 General requirements for informed consent

Except as provided elsewhere in this policy, no investigator may involve a human being as a subject in research covered by this policy unless the investigator has obtained the legally effective informed consent of the subject or the subject’s legally authorized representative. An investigator shall seek such consent only under circumstances that provide the prospective subject or the representative sufficient opportunity to consider whether or not to participate and that minimize the possibility of coercion or undue influence. The information that is given to the subject or the representative shall be in language understandable to the subject or the representative. [Emphasis added]

In “Public Health Literacy in America: An Ethical Imperative,” Julie Gazmararian and her co-authors note that one of the “Characteristics of a health-literate America” is that “Informed consent documents used in health care are written in a way that allow people to give or withhold consent based on information they need and understand.” [2]

Unfortunately, actual informed-consent materials fall far short of promoting understanding. Informed-consent documents are used both for legal reasons and to explain research or treatment protocols; as a result, they’re susceptible to being filled with legalese and medicalese—the worst of both worlds. Giuseppina Terranova and her team reviewed consent forms used in various imaging procedures and found that

At qualitative assessment by consensus of the expert panel, the informed consent forms were complex and poorly organized, were written in a jargon style, and contained incomplete content (not including information about treatment options, long-term radiation risk and doses); for outcome probabilities, relevant information was not properly highlighted and easy to find. [3]

Having a complex informed-consent form rife with legalese only stirs distrust among participants and patients. In “Improvement of Informed Consent and the Quality of Consent Documents,” Michael Jefford and Rosemary Moore write:

Informed consent has two main aims: first, to respect and promote participants’ autonomy; and second, to protect them from potential harm. Provision of information in an understandable way lends support to both these aims…

The written informed-consent document (ie, consent form) is an important part of the requirement to disclose and advise participants of the details of a proposed trial. Although the form has been said to give “legal and symbolic documentation of an agreement to participate,” the length and complexity of informed-consent documents hinder participant understanding. Viewing the consent form mainly as a legal document tends to hinder attempts to create reader-friendly documents: “many sponsor and institutions appear to view them primarily as a legal instrument to protect them against litigation.” [4]

Ironically, “The high reading levels of most such forms precludes this understanding, increasing rather than limiting legal liability.” [5] What’s more, if a consent document is hard to understand, research participants will believe researchers are merely covering their own asses rather than prioritizing the participants’ well-being.

The obvious solution to this problem is to use plain language in informed-consent documents. In a test of a standard versus modified (plain language) pediatric consent form for parents, Alan R. Tait and co-investigators found that

Understanding of the protocol, study duration, risks, and direct benefits, together with overall understanding, was greater among parents who received the modified form (P<.001). Additionally, parents reported that the modified form had greater clarity (P = .009) and improved layout compared with the standard form (P<.001). When parents were shown both forms, 81.2% preferred the modified version. [6]

Further, not only do plain language statements (PLS) protect research subjects and patients, but they also benefit researchers:

In the most practical sense, a commitment to producing good quality PLS leads to faster ethics approval—an outcome that will delight researchers. However, the real reward that comes with commitments to high quality PLS is the knowledge that parents and participants are properly informed and that researchers are contributing to a positive change in meeting the information requirements of parents and young research participants.

Plain language information statements need to be clearly understood by research subjects if the ethics process for research approval is to fulfil its objective. [7]

I see an opportunity for plain language experts to advocate for informed consent by promoting clear communication principles at research institutions and health authorities. Although most institutional research ethics boards (REBs) have guidelines for consent forms that recommend using lay language, I would guess that most REB members are unfamiliar with the plain language process. Institutional REBs, such as the one at Simon Fraser University, consist of not only faculty members and students but also members of the wider community, so even if you are unaffiliated with the institution, you may still be able to join an REB and advocate for plain language from the inside. If you’d rather not commit to sitting on an REB, you might want to see if you could give a presentation at an REB meeting about plain language and clear communication principles.

In my ideal world, a plain language review of consent documents would be mandatory for ethics approval, but biostatistician and current chair of SFU’s REB, Charlie Goldsmith, warns that adding a further administrative hurdle to ethics approval probably wouldn’t fly. Most researchers already see the ethics review process as burdensome and a hindrance to their work. But if you could convince researchers that a plain language review before submission to the REB could accelerate approval, as Green and co-investigators had found, you might help open up opportunities for plain language advocates to work with researchers directly to develop understandable consent documents from the outset.

That said, plain language informed-consent forms address only one facet of the interaction and relationship between researcher and study participant, or between clinician and patient. Jefford and Moore write:

There are reasons for putting effort into the production of plain-language participant information and consent forms. However, evidence suggests that these forms should not be relied on solely to ensure that a person understands details about a trial. Plain-language forms should be seen as part of the process that aims to achieve meaningful informed consent. [8]

In other words, clear communication initiatives should extend beyond written materials to in-person interactions: researchers and clinicians should receive training in plain language debriefing and in techniques such as “teach-back” (asking someone to repeat the information they’ve just been given in their own words) to ensure that they are fulfilling their ethical obligations and are doing all they can to help patients and study participants become truly informed.

To learn more about research ethics, including informed consent, take the Course on Research Ethics, developed by Canada’s Panel on Research Ethics.


[1] JB Green et al., “Putting the ‘Informed’ into ‘Consent’: A Matter of Plain Language,” Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health 39, no. 9 (December 2003): 700–703, doi:10.1046/j.1440-1754.2003.00273.x.

[2] Julie A Gazmararian et al., “Public Health Literacy in America: An Ethical Imperative,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 28, no. 3 (April 2005): 317–22, doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2004.11.004.

[3] Giuseppina Terranova et al., “Low Quality and Lack of Clarity of Current Informed Consent Forms in Cardiology: How to Improve Them,” JACC. Cardiovascular Imaging 5, no. 6 (June 1, 2012): 649–55, doi:10.1016/j.jcmg.2012.03.007.

[4] Michael Jefford and Rosemary Moore, “Improvement of Informed Consent and the Quality of Consent Documents,” The Lancet. Oncology 9, no. 5 (May 2008): 485–93, doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(08)70128-1.

[5] Sue Stableford and Wendy Mettger, “Plain Language: A Strategic Response to the Health Literacy Challenge,” Journal of Public Health Policy 28, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 71–93, doi:10.1057/palgrave.jphp.3200102.

[6] Alan R Tait et al., “Improving the Readability and Processability of a Pediatric Informed Consent Document: Effects on Parents’ Understanding,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 159, no. 4 (April 1, 2005): 347–52, doi:10.1001/archpedi.159.4.347.

[7] JB Green et al., 2003.

[8] Michael Jefford and Rosemary Moore, 2008.


This post is an excerpt (heavily edited to provide context) of a paper I wrote for one of my courses about the role of plain language in health literacy. Plain language experts might find some of the references useful in their advocacy work.

Access to information: The role of editors (EAC-BC meeting)

At the November EAC-BC meeting, Shana Johnstone, principal of Uncover Editorial + Design, moderated a panel discussion that offered rich and diverse perspectives on accessibility. (She deftly kept the conversation flowing with thematic questions, so although her words don’t show up much in my summary here, she was critical to the evening’s success.)


Panel members included:

The Crane Library, Nygard explained, is named after Charles Crane, who in 1931 became the first deafblind student to attend university in Canada. Over his life he accumulated ten thousand volumes of works in Braille, and when he died, his family donated the collection to the Vancouver Public Library, which then donated it to UBC. Paul Thiele, a visually impaired doctoral student, and his wife, Judith, who was the first blind library student (and later the first blind librarian) in Canada, helped set up the space for the Crane Library, including a Braille card catalogue and Braille spine labels so that students could find materials on their own. Today the Crane Library is part of Access and Diversity at UBC and offers exam accommodations, narration services (it has an eight-booth recording studio to record readings of print materials), and materials in a variety of formats, including PDF, e-text, and Braille.

Gray, who has a background in recreational therapy, used to work with people who had brain injuries, and for her, it was “a trial-and-error process to communicate with them just to do my job,” she said. Through that work she developed communication strategies that take into account not only the language but also formats that will most likely appeal to her audience. To reach a community, Gray said, it’s important to understand its language and conventions. “It’s about getting off on the right foot with people. If you turn people off with a phrase that is outside their community, they stop reading.” It’s also important to know who in a community is doing the reading. In the Down syndrome community, she said, “people are still writing as if the caregivers are the ones reading” even though more people with developmental disability are now reading for themselves.

Booth works with forty-five groups (such as the Writers’ Exchange) that provide literacy support in the Downtown Eastside, which he emphasized is “a neighbourhood, not a pejorative.” He defined literacy as the “knowledge, skills, and confidence to participate fully in life,” and he told us that “There is more stigma around illiteracy than there is around addiction.”

Busting misconceptions

Within the Downtown Eastside, said Booth, there are “multiple populations with multiple challenges and multiple experiences—sometimes bad—with learning.” Residents may be reluctant to get involved with structured educational opportunities, and so they rely on community organizations to reach out to them. The media does the Downtown Eastside a disservice by portraying it as the “poorest postal code in Canada,” Booth says. To him, all of his clients, regardless of their background, bring skills and experience to the table.

Gray agreed, adding that it’s easy to make judgments based on appearance. She knows that her three-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, is taking in more than he’s putting back out. The same holds for people who have had strokes or people with cerebral palsy. Some people may not speak well, but they may read and understand well. She acknowledges that we all bring preconceptions to every interaction, but it’s important to set them aside and ask questions to get to know your audience.

“What do we think of, when we think of a person with a disability?” said Nygard. “Not all disabilities are visible.” People assume that text-to-speech services are just for the visually impaired, but often they are for students with learning disabilities who prefer human voice narration. The students who use the Crane Library’s services are simply university students who need a little more support to be able to do certain academic activities. They are people with access to resources and technology that will help them get a university education.

People also assume that technology has solved the accessibility problem. Although a lot of accessibility features are now built into our technology, like VoiceOver for Macs and Ease of Access on Windows, computers aren’t the answer for everyone. For some people, technology hasn’t obviated Braille.

Their work—The specifics

Gray said that although she works primarily with print materials, she’s started writing as though the text would destined for the web. “I’m no longer assuming that people are reading entire chunks of material. I’m not assuming they’re following along from beginning to end or reading the whole thing. I’m using a lot more headings to break up the material and am continually giving people context. I’m not assuming people remember the topic, so I’m constantly reintroducing it.” People with Down syndrome have poor short-term memory, she said, so she never assumes that a reader will refer to earlier text where a concept was first introduced. “Don’t dumb it down,” she said, “but use plain language. Keep it simple and to the point.” Some writers enjoy adding variety to their writing to spice things up, she said. “Take the spice out. Keep to the facts.”

That said, editors also have to keep in mind that when people read, they’re not just absorbing facts; they’re approaching the material with a host of emotions. For people who have children with Down syndrome, she said, “everything they’re reading is judging them as a parent.”

“We don’t know where people are at and where their heads are when they’re taking the materials in,” Gray said.

To connect with the audience, said Booth, listening is a vital skill to develop. “Storytelling is a really important art form. Everybody has a story, and everybody will tell you their story if you give them the opportunity.”

Nygard compares her work to directing traffic—making sure resources flow to to people who need them. She explained the process of creating alternate formats: students have to buy a new textbook and give Nygard the receipt, at which point she can request a PDF from the publisher. But is it fair, she asked, to make these students buy the book at full price when their classmates can get a used copy for a discount? Another inequity is in the license agreement; often they allow students to use the PDF for the duration for the course only, when other students can keep their books for future reference. Image-only or locked PDFs are problematic because text-to-speech software like JAWS can’t read it.

For books that exist only in print, the conversion process involves cutting out the pages and manually scanning them to PDF, then running them through an OCR program to create a rough Word document. These documents then get sent to student assistants who clean them up for text-to-speech software. Otherwise, columns, running heads, footnotes, and other design features can lead to confusing results. We get a lot of context from the way text is laid out and organized on the page, said Nygard, but that context is lost when the text is read aloud.

Editors as advocates

Gray said she’d never considered herself an advocate per se. “I do think it’s part of my role to advise clients about the level of content and the way it’s presented. We need to make sure we can reach the audience.”

When we make decisions, said Nygard, we have to look out for people in the margins that we might not be addressing.

Booth said, “We’re all very privileged in this room. We have a responsibility to be advocates. Our tool is language.” As he spoke he passed out copies of Decoda Literacy Manifesto to each member of the audience.

Resources on accessibility

Nygard suggested we check out the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Ontario has been a leader in this arena. She also mentioned the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS), which allows collection sharing between various libraries. Many public libraries don’t find out about the Crane Library’s services, because it’s at an academic institution, but its collection is available to the general public. The NNELS site also has a section of tutorials for creating alternate-format materials. SNOW, the Inclusive Design Centre at OCAD, also has some excellent resources.

Compared with Ontario, said Nygard, BC lags behind in its commitment to accessibility. The BC government released Accessibility 2024, a ten-year plan to make the province the most progressive within Canada. But both Nygard and Booth call it “embarrassing.” “How they’ve set their priorities is a horror show,” said Nygard. One of the benchmarks for success in this accessibility plan, for example, is to have government websites be accessible by 2016, without addressing the concerns of whether people with disabilities have the skills, literacy, or access to technology to use that information. Meanwhile, disability rates haven’t gone up since 2007.

Booth agreed. The province has cut funding for high-school equivalency programs (GED), ESL, literacy, and adult basic education, choosing instead to focus on “job creation in extractive industries and training people to do specific jobs. What’s going to happen in a decade from now for people who don’t have education?”

In response to a question from the audience, Nygard acknowledged that  Project Gutenberg and Project Gutenberg Canada are great for accessible text of works in the public domain. She also mentioned that LibriVox has public domain audiobooks.

Communication Convergence 2014

Plain language advocates Cheryl Stephens and Katherine McManus teamed up with the Society for Technical Communication’s Autumn Jonssen and EAC-BC’s Amy Haagsma to organize the first Communication Convergence mini-conference as part of the Vancouver celebrations of International Plain Language Day, October 13. Because IPL Day coincides with Thanksgiving this year, we celebrated one weekend earlier, on October 5.

The afternoon included a networking buffet lunch, followed by three panel discussions. I was a panellist on the first, which explored the tendency for different communication fields to apply a common range of methods. Joining me were:

Frances Peck moderated.

The second panel looked at the real-world demand on communicators and featured

Katherine McManus moderated.

The third panel, hosted by

  • Lisa Mighton, director of communications and community liaison at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC
  • Paula LaBrie, marketing communications specialist;
  • and Cheryl Stephens, who moderated,

was more of an open discussion asking where we—as a community of communicators dedicated to plain language—go from here.

We had eleven speakers and three moderators, as well as plenty of comments and questions from the floor, so although the format made for invigorating discussion, I couldn’t capture everything that everyone said in my notes. Not pretending to do all of the participants justice, I’ll just give an overview of my impressions and the points I found most interesting. Because there was a lot of overlap among the three sessions, I’ll focus on the day’s themes rather than the specifics from each panel. (Find photos of the Communication Convergence event on IPL Day’s Twitter.)

Writing and editing for the audience (sometimes easier said than done)

We all agreed that the audience is paramount when we craft our communications. Joe Goodwill pointed out the importance of considering the audience’s cultural context, which can be very different from our own.

What can get especially tricky is when your work has to go through several layers of approval, said Heidi Turner. Frances Peck agreed: often at each of those levels managers and directors reintroduce jargon and officialese and undo all of the work you’ve done to make that text accessible. Turner always tries to advocate for plain language, telling those clients for whom she writes grants that “A funder won’t want to give you money just because you use big words,” but from a business standpoint she ultimately has to give her clients what they want, and sometimes they don’t have a very good idea of who their readers are.

How do you write for disparate audiences? Sometimes you have to create more than one document, and Stephens reminded us that there will always be some people we can’t reach with our writing. But if your hands are tied, Elizabeth Rains said to “use the plainest language possible that will satisfy your readers’ needs.” She firmly believes that “no matter what type of information you have, it can be explained simply. And you may find that you can use that same language to explain concepts to very, very different audiences.”

Tools and resources

Pam Drucker’s work as a technical communicator has evolved over the years; today, she no longer works on large manuals but instead writes individual articles or topics. Her most consulted resources include the

She also uses structured writing techniques (e.g., Information Mapping).

Plain language as a right

Beyond the arguments that clear communication is more efficient and will get better results, what motivates many advocates of plain language is that we feel it’s a human rights issue. Information can be life altering, sometimes life saving. Citizens need to understand their government’s legislation to participate in a democracy. People with health issues deserve to understand their treatment options to achieve the best health outcomes. What can we do get people the information they need?

Christabelle Kux-Kardos works with immigrants and seniors, among others, to help them access community and government services. Her approach is to do what she calls a literacy audit: she tries to step back and try to see the world through the lens of a new client. This process has shown her that some services, even essential ones, have poor signage and are hard to find, particularly if you don’t know the language well or aren’t comfortable with technology. She sees it as her responsibility to point out to those services what they could be doing better. A lot of her work, she said, involves talking with her clients to tease out the right questions. What don’t they know that they need to know? Often they don’t know what they don’t know.

Nicholson reminds us that for some people, there is value in misrepresentation. “There are circumstances in which people are vested in obfuscating,” she said. “We have to be loud enough to cut through the clutter.”

Beyond comprehension to persuasion

Did the audience understand the message? Achieving understanding is always the communicator’s goal, but should it stop there? How do we persuade people to act on that information?

Hompoth, an image consultant, said that we are judged on

  • how we look,
  • what we do,
  • what we say, and
  • how we say it.

What we say accounts for 7 percent of the message, but how we say it counts for 13 percent (with other non-verbal communication making up the balance). In other words, our delivery is more important than our content.

That reality certainly jibes with health and science communications. How best to achieve persuasion is an unanswered question from a knowledge translation point of view: we can present people with evidence that smoking harms health, but evidence alone isn’t enough to convince some smokers to quit. Whether our message spurs change depends on the audience’s level of motivation.

As much as some of us may shy away from marketing, if we really want to effect change, we may have to study it. Will a course in psychology eventually be a required part of communications training?

Communication in and from academia

Those who know me know that one of my life’s missions is to try to eradicate turgid writing from academia. Academese is unnecessary, it hinders understanding and collaboration, and, because research is mostly taxpayer funded, it is undemocratic. Part of my research in knowledge translation involves finding alternative means of communicating research so that stakeholders beyond a researcher’s own colleagues can find and use it. Journal articles haven’t fundamentally changed in sixty years: if you print one out, it will still be in tiny type, packed onto a page with no space to breathe.

But we are making some gains. Many journals, North American ones, especially, are more accepting now than ever of first-person pronouns in journal articles. The style can be more conversational, and as research necessarily gets more interdisciplinary, researchers are beginning to recognize that they need a lingua franca to work together, and that lingua franca is plain language. We still have a long way to go, but we can celebrate these small victories.

Jandciu’s programs at UBC try to tackle the problem earlier, with communications courses designed specifically for science students. Although the Faculty of Science had always acknowledged that its students needed to develop communication skills, it usually left that training to first-year English courses. Feedback from graduating students, though, showed that those courses weren’t adequately preparing them to write reports and scientific articles or prepare and give presentations. Now the Faculty of Science offers a first-year course that integrates communication into science training and helps students develop scientific arguments. A third-year course has students interview researchers and develop videos and podcasts. Even funders, said Jandciu, are wanting researchers to do more outreach using social media, videos, and multimedia. Research communication can no longer be just text based.

He occasionally still hears students say, “But I’m in science because I don’t like to write,” or “I can’t do presentations,” but after the courses they realize the value of being able to communicate their scientific expertise. They begin to grasp that a lot of legislation hinges on policy makers getting sound information, and right now scientists aren’t doing a good enough job getting it out to them or to the public. “We need science students to stop thinking of communication as separate from their science,” said Jandciu.

Jeff Richmond, a journalist, responded that a lot of blame is put on “the media” for distorting research. And although it’s true that some stories can get sensationalized, if you talk to individual journalists, they typically have the sincerest of intentions. How does the distortion happen, and how we can express ideas in plain language without altering the facts?

Increasing awareness and uptake of plain language

We were all preaching to the converted at Communication Convergence—we all understand the value of plain language. But not everyone thinks the way we do. Nicholson said that we know that clear communication is the ethical choice, but when it comes to convincing others, some people and organizations simply won’t respond unless you show them the economic benefits.

And Stephens said that although professional legal associations support plain language, there’s still a culture of resistance among practising lawyers. I believe the key is in subtle shifts—a kind of quiet rebellion. There are several tacks to plain language; do what you can within the bounds of the culture, but start gathering evidence that what you are doing is producing results.

Does the public at large realize what they’re missing when communication isn’t clear? How can we raise awareness of plain language?

Paula LaBrie suggested that we all find a way to celebrate International Plain Language Day at our workplaces and spread the word about it. Lisa Mighton said we should always look for opportunities to turn our work into a media story.

The ideas from the crowd reinforced the community’s need for a central repository of plain language information: research, case studies, history. I urged everyone to join the Clear Communication Wiki and start contributing to it. It has the potential to become a valuable resource, but it needs a critical mass of participation.


My key takeaway from Communication Convergence is that being able to say “I don’t understand” is a privilege. The most disenfranchised among us may not realize that there’s an alternative to confusing communication or may feel that revealing their lack of comprehension might make them look ignorant, compromising their position.

We communicators need to acknowledge our privilege and use it to push for change. “By not calling people on their poor communication practices,” said McManus, “we’re making people—maybe generations of people—put up with a lack of information. It becomes the responsibility of communicators not to just throw up our hands and give up.”

Stephens and McManus hope to make Communication Convergence an annual event. If you have ideas for session topics or speakers, get in touch via LinkedIn or Twitter.