There is inherent value in plain language.
Admittedly, I haven’t always been convinced by this. But after reading through countless briefing notes and having conversations with people at a variety of levels about a wide range of topics, it’s become clear to me — the ideas that stick with me are the ones that can be explained plainly (not to be confused with simple ideas).
That’s not to say the ideas are “dumbed down”, but rather the person speaking to me is able to communicate the ideas about something that I may be unaware of. I began to see the value as I had conversations about situations I was very much involved in. However, I could not understand what the other person was saying to me about the topic (even though they were also involved in the topic). The lack of ability to speak plainly causes confusion and, in the end, fails to advance any ideas forward in a meaningful way.
This topic recently came to the forefront of my mind due to Laura’s excellent post. If you haven’t read it, please do so now.
When we think of plain language, I think we often consider it to be externally facing — on our websites and in published material. But we should also consider the implications internally — whether in the forms of briefing notes, reports, or presentations. The goal is to pass ideas up the chain and have them heard/understood. Often times, we see people shrouding themselves in the cloak of “expertise” — that the sentence structure and words they have selected have been carefully chosen and have deep meaning (to the writer). But that isn’t always clear to the reader.
Therein lies the problem.
I think Laura put it best in one of her comments where she states:
If the goal of expressing complex ideas is to bring about change through them, then it’s worth the intense concentration required to figure out how to communicate them in a way in which they can be understood and used.
We can’t hide behind expertise or specialized vocabulary. In many cases, the words act as an exclusionary mechanism. What I mean by that is that if you do not want people to question/challenge your ideas, you can simply make them incomprehensible to all but the “experts” who understand the language. I do not think that people do this maliciously or intentionally, but I still think it happens. I believe the writers of such material genuinely believe that they are providing the best material possible — but they are writing for their own audience, rather than someone outside their specialized field. By not taking their audience into account, the material is failing to do what it should be doing: starting a conversation on their ideas that could better serve Canadians.
Even better, the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada outlines that writing plainly is, quite frankly, our duty as Public Servants. It states clearly that:
To ensure clarity and consistency of information, plain language and proper grammar must be used in all communication with the public. This principle also applies to internal communications, as well as to information prepared for Parliament or any other official body, whether delivered in writing or in speech.
How do we implement this? There are a wide range of options, but I’m honestly not sure of the best approach. One could be to assign a plain language editor to each group — every note/presentation going up the chain would receive a once-over from the Plain Language Specialist, just like any other step in the approvals process. Another idea would be to do mass training for all Public Servants on writing in Plain Language. Personally, I don’t like either of these ideas — but I don’t necessarily have anything better.
If we accept that the policy challenges of the future are going to be horizontal and require more people from different sectors to contribute to creating solutions, then we need to speak plainly to each other. This includes simplifying our writing so that a broader audience can understand the concepts and be able to contribute to creating solutions. This does not mean dumbing down our ideas, but rather using plain language.
Is that so hard?
Any ideas for how we can encourage all of our writers to use plain language internally?