Can Plain Writing improve your bottom line or change the way we behave?

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The Plain Writing Act of 2010 HR 946 passed the U.S. House in March by a bipartisan vote of 386 to 33 and is being considered by a Senate committee. Sponsored by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-“Iowa), the Act, if it becomes law, will require the federal government to write documents, such as tax returns, federal college aid applications, and Veterans Administration forms in simple, easy-to-understand language.

“There is no reason why the federal government can’t write these forms and other public documents in a way we can all understand,” says Braley. “Writing government documents in plain language will increase government accountability and will save Americans time and money. Plain, straightforward language makes it easy for taxpayers to understand what the federal government is doing and what services it is offering.

“The Plain Writing Act requires a simple change to business-as-usual that’ll make a big difference for anyone who’s ever filled out a tax return or received a government document. This bill shows what bipartisanship can accomplish when we put aside our differences and work together for the common good,” Braley concluded.

No, this would not be a government “take-over” of the language. It might be a “job-creator” for English majors. It would certainly be another example of a campaign that’s been growing for a number of years both here and overseas that encourages understandable communication -“ whether it’s by government, business, even education.

Dr. Annetta Cheek

Dr. Annetta Cheek (her Ph.D. is in anthropology, a field she abandoned long ago) is chair of the Center for Plain Language, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for clarity in writing. She’s also a retired senior federal bureaucrat -“ and no, those two are not mutually exclusive.

Cheek explains that our current state of poor communications “grew up over time from two sources, maybe three. People from various disciplines in the sciences and social sciences developed their own, sort of ‘in,’ language. It was a way to set them apart and mark them as ‘special experts’ in something. Communicating in any way that an interested party could understand wasn’t something they wanted to do. ‘If I use these big words then people will think I know a lot.’ Then, of course, there are the lawyers, who are being very cautions to cover all their bases and make sure everything is addressed. They think that clarity and imprecision are inconsistent with each other.”

The second reason we seem to be in a communications fog, according to Cheek, is “people are very busy. I was a ‘Fed’ for 25 years. We’d have to do a report. There was a similar report last year and the year before that. You have to get yours done in two days and you’re doing 14 other things, so you just drag out last year’s miserable report, update the data, and produce another miserable report that now has this year’s data in it. Frankly, it’s much easier to just throw some stuff down on paper than it is to write clearly.

“Writing clearly requires thinking clearly, And we often don’t have a lot of that,” Cheek says emphatically. She believes the lack of time to write clearly only perpetuates the problem of foggy writing and not just in what the locals calls ‘Foggy Bottom (their name for the Nation’s Capital).

“In a tiny minority of cases it’s intentional obfuscation. Not really very often. Usually people just aren’t thinking about the reader.” Cheek cites credit card agreements as one example of perhaps an intentional lack of clarity. Many people have recently received extensive notices from their credit card companies that could have been summed up in a short sentence or two. “We’ll soon be required by law to be much more transparent and clear in our communications to you -“ but for now we’re going to bury our new, much higher, rates and fees and other impediments to your understanding in as much intentional obfuscating language as our lawyers can come up with.”

In her role as a federal regulator Cheek explains one reason why some communications are unclear. It’s because the people who write them are unclear about what they’re supposed to say. “We intentionally made one particular regulation unclear because we weren’t clear about what the law said. We also weren’t clear about what our authority was. We wanted to do a good thing, which was taking care of an environmental issue [Cheek was with the Department of the Interior at the time] dealing with mining. We wanted to push the envelope a little so we decided to be vague and hoped we could get away with it. And we did, for a long time. By the time the Agency was taken to court, and lost, the industry involved had changed to accommodate the regulation we had written -“ so positive change had occurred and didn’t go backwards.”

Cheek makes a clear distinction between intentionally misleading communications and those that are created because of a lack of clarity from the beginning. “We didn’t say something that we knew not to be true, we just didn’t understand the law because it wasn’t clear.” In a similar situation Cheek “looked at the House and Senate Committee reports” to find out why a particular law was unclear. “There was a long debate,” she continues, “about whether the Committee wanted to do ‘A’ or something slightly different that was ‘B.’ Finally, according to the transcript, someone said ‘oh, we’ll just let the regulators figure it out.’

“They intentionally left it vague and threw it into the laps of the executive branch who then had to figure it out. They couldn’t make up their minds and dumped this issue on the American people.”

Plain communications can vary depending on the audience, according to the Center for Plain Language. No matter what the audience, however, it can best be expressed as being measured by outcomes. Can the people to whom the communication is directed quickly and easily:
-¢ find what they need
-¢ understand what they find
-¢ act appropriately on that understanding

Dr. Cheek speaks to a conference of Plain Language Inter National in Sydney, Australia.

The outcomes of plain communication can be measured and translated into bottom-line numbers. For example, in a study of a letter asking customers for information the “old” letter went to 750 recipients and resulted in 1,128 requests for clarification. A “plain language” letter sent to only 710 recipients resulted in 192 requests for clarification.

A similar result was noted when a cable company redesigned and rewrote its bill. Call center volume declined by 15 percent, the number of service calls declined by 8 percent and customers were inspired to seek online help on their own -“ and Web site traffic increased 17 percent.

Cash-strapped state governments might want to learn that one state revenue department rewrote a public notice that required a response. Only 3 percent of the public responded with the ‘old’ letter while 43 percent responded to the new one written in plain language -“ resulting in $800,000 more than anticipated being collected as a result.

Cheek suggests one way in which organizations can determine if their communications program is successful is to hold focus groups. In one of her last assignments before retiring from federal service, Cheek worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. “We had a focus group with commercial pilots. We asked them about our communications and they said things like, ‘You know you think we understand your regulations -“ but we don’t.’ ‘I’ve been a commercial pilot for 27 years and at any point in time I can’t tell you if I’m complying with your regulations or not because I don’t understand them.’ Asked to come up with one word to describe FAA’s guidance and regulations they came up with words like ‘dreadful’ and ‘Byzantine.'”

Another way companies can determine whether their communications programs are effective or not is to determine what Cheek calls a “choke point.” A too-large-to-fail bank was experiencing a loan default rate of better than 30 percent (back in the days before the current financial crisis). “One vice president decided to rework the loan forms to make them clearer,” she says, “and the default rate plummeted to 3 percent.” That’s the power of plain language being applied effectively.

Besides pushing for Congressional action to require plain writing at the federal level, the Center for Plain Language hosts a two-pronged award program: the Clearmark Award (for clear communications) and the Wondermark Award (as in ‘I wonder what they mean by this?’).

“We had about 180 entries, which is far more than we expected,” Cheek says. “A lot of them came from the D.C. area. But, we got a good one from a small power company in Texas, many from New England, a city Web site from Oregon, and a bunch from Washington State -“ which has been a leader in plain language. By far most of the entries were Clearmarks.”

Rep. Bill Braley (D-Iowa) surrounded by (from left) Melodee Mercer, Dr. Cheek and Joanne Locke all of the Center for Plain Language.

So, perhaps plain language is catching on. “Only 30 entered as Wondermarks,” Cheek explains. Samples of Wondermarks included communications from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Welcome to the United States form, a policies and procedures statement from the Temple University Web site that was “under construction” and various legal documents directed to customers from corporate giants RIM, the company behind BlackBerry, and Chase.

Asked if the Wondermark nominees should be named, Cheek replied enthusiastically “By all means do so. They should be pilloried!”

The awards ceremony will be at the National Press Club in Washington at the end of April. Corp! will post the results.