Earlier this month I attended the International Plain Language Conference in Vancouver, Canada. After three days of talking with plain language communicators, participating in workshops and listening to presenters from around the world, I am more convinced than ever that plain language can be a huge competitive advantage for businesses in Canada.
Here are my top eight news bites from Plain 2013:
- Globally, there is increasing legislation mandating plain language to help ensure citizens, customers and employees understand the information they receive.
- Sweden is miles ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to plain language communications in government, finance, healthcare and business. It’s no surprise that they also have one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
- Universities from around the world are partnering to develop an international postgraduate program in clear communication. The program is being developed in response to increasing demand for clear, easy-to-understand information and the lack of well-trained clear communications professionals.
- CUPE, Canada’s largest union representing more than 620,000 members in Canada, started using plain language in 2009 and they provide training and support materials for staff on how to communicate and write clearly.
- Research shows that readers need to understand 90% of the words in a document in order to understand what they are reading.
- Information overload is real. Our brain can only hold five to seven pieces of information at once. When we are bombarded with lengthy, wordy or complex documents our ability to understand and remember is greatly reduced.
- As a layperson, when you sign a contract that is full of legalese it’s questionable whether you can be held accountable as there is likely no way you could fully understand what you are agreeing to. (Consider that the next time you sign a cell phone contract or accept a web site’s terms-of-use policy.)
- There is no law stating that contracts, regulations, policies, etc. need to be written in legalese. Most lawyers simply choose to follow the language that exists rather than trying to clarify information for the end user. (This statement came from a law professor.)
Perhaps the best discussions I had at the conference was during a break when the conversation turned to
dispelling the perception that plain language just ‘dumbs down’ information. It’s a view held particularly by those in the corporate world. One person summed it up nicely: “Plain language isn’t simplifying the idea. It’s just simplifying how we explain
The Plain Language Movement is starting to gain serious momentum and big business is taking notice.
Several of Canada’s key regulating bodies are not only advocating for plain language but they are insisting their industry counterparts use it. This is great news for customers and consumers. In the past few months three big industries in Canada were encouraged, if not mandated, to adopt plain language communications. Pharmaceuticals
Health Canada has launched a Plain Language Labeling Initiative
citing that drug labels can be hard to understand and this puts people risk. Guffaw if you want (someone recently said to me, “may cause death
– what more do you need to know?”) but 60% of Canadians have low health literacy and nearly half of adults cannot clearly understand drug labels. They rely on the pharmacist or doctor to explain how to take their medication.
Misreading or misunderstanding labels can and does cause death. Taking medication incorrectly increases visits to medical clinics and hospitals. The patient may get worse or develop other complications. All of which are a strain on our already taxed healthcare system so if plain language on labels will help (and it surely will), we should not only support it but demand it. Investments
Apparently investors don’t always understand their investment reports. No, really?! Canadian Security Administrators
have said that mutual fund companies must make information easier to understand. As of June 2014, they are required to provide a two-page, plain language document outlining important information about the fund(s). And they must send the information to clients proactively as opposed to making clients ask for the information.
When I receive those documents next year from mutual fund companies it will be the first time that I actually read the information as opposed to relying on (aka trusting) my advisor. Wireless Services
The Ontario Provincial Government recently introduced proposed legislation that will require wireless
providers to use plain language in their contracts. The Minister of Consumer Services says that people just want to simply understand their cell phone contract and they are confused and frustrated with unclear contracts. Complaints to the Federal Commissioner for Telecommunications Services have tripled in the past four years.
Imagine if a wireless provider had a clear, simple contract without legal mumbo-jumbo and marketed the simplicity of their contract. If the industry were really listening they would know that’s what consumers want. It shouldn’t have to be legislated. See my earlier post about wireless contracts
Before you turn a blind eye to plain language and before you say ‘my business doesn’t need plain language’ and ask ‘why are we dumbing down communication?’…read my guest blog on the Language Lab
outlining why plain language is good for business.
The Ontario Government is planning to introduce new legislation
that will require cell phone and wireless contracts to be simplified and written in plain language. It appears that consumers are starting to complain about not understanding their contracts. Hallelujah!
Like pretty much everyone else in Canada, I have a cell phone and like pretty much everyone else, I signed up for the service without
reading the five pages of fine print that outlined all the conditions and legalese. Why didn't I read it, you might ask? I’m a relatively smart person who works with words for a living so surely I would read the document. Nope. And here’s why:
I’m in a store shopping for a new smart phone and service provider. Of the umpteen different choices available I select a couple that seem to best suit my needs and budget. I talk with a salesperson who, in rapid fire speech, explains the contract and helps me compare and contrast different programs (all while there are a dozen other people vying for the salesperson’s attention). I listen attentively to what the salesperson is telling me. It’s much easier than reading all the fine print which 1) I don’t have time for (it’s five pages of 7-point font for god’s sake), 2) I don’t really understand it anyway and 3) have you ever seen anyone standing in one of those stores reading all the fine print? I didn’t think so. After a few minutes of quickly reviewing the large print (which is always the features and benefits) I select my plan. I ask a few pointed questions which I get quick, simple answers for and then I sign the contract. My new phone is activated and I’m on my way.
This scenario is repeated over and over again every day. We sign the contract without even reading it, let alone understanding it.
In light of this proposed legislation I pulled out my cell phone contract from a dusty file and this was the first sentence: If you have received a promotional discount or rebate on the price of the device for activating a feature or plan on that device, you must either (a) continue to subscribe to that feature or plan for at least 12 months, or (b) pay a cancellation charge of $200 (as liquidated damages, not as a penalty) if you cancel that feature before the plan, or change to a non-eligible feature or plan, within 12 months.
Essentially, I think this one sentence means:
If you purchase a service for your phone (voicemail for example) and because of that purchase you receive a discount on the phone itself, then you have to pay for that service (voicemail in this case) for 12 months or you will be charged $200.
I had to read it several times and I had to deconstruct the sentence and language. I still don’t know what "liquidated damages” means but it sounds serious.
How, in good faith, can wireless providers expect us to understand these contracts? Perhaps they don’t.
As consumers and citizens we have power. We shouldn’t be passive recipients of confusing contracts and information. The onus should be on companies and organizations to communicate clearly in a way that we can understand. It’s not the audience’s responsibility to interpret jargon, bureaucratise and legalese.
- If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. – Einstein
- Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people. – William Butler Yeats
- Things are never as complicated as they seem. It is only our arrogance that prompts us to find unnecessarily complicated answers to simple problems. – Muhammad Yunus
- Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity. – Charles Mingus
- The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words. – Hippocrates
- If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out. – Kurt Vonnegut
- The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. – Thomas Jefferson
- I'd come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clear-cut language. – Jean-Paul Sartre
- Those who write clearly have readers; those who write obscurely have commentators. – Albert Camus
- One should use common words to say uncommon things. – Arthur Schopenhauer
- If any man wishes to write a clear style, let him first be clear in his thoughts. – Goethe
- Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind. – Cicero
- The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words. – George Eliot
- Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated. – Confucius
- Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. – Leonardo da Vinci
I was having a discussion with a colleague the other day when she said to me, "that’s a mute point". What she meant was that the point wasn’t up for discussion anymore. I had an overwhelming desire to correct her (but didn’t) and I was slightly amused by the premise that a point could no longer talk. The word she intended was moot and it doesn’t mean something is no longer open for debate. It simply means that it’s not practical any more, but it’s still open for debate.
Nonetheless, it got me thinking about how often we misuse words and terms and how easy it is to get tripped up by the English language. So I’ve listed my Top Ten Trip-up Terms (yes, that’s a deliberate play on alliteration).
Literally means it really happened not metaphorically happened. He literally won the lottery. Means he really did win the lottery. He was literally shooting fire from his eyes. That would be really scary and time to call an exorcist.
Collaborate vs. Corroborate. When you work together on a project with your coworkers you collaborate. When you support someone’s work you corroborate.
Scapegoat not Escape Goat. For example, That political party really messed up and needed a scapegoat to take the blame. Although I suppose an escape goat might work too.
Toe the line not tow the line. This has military origins and means to conform with rules and regulations. Towing the line has an entirely different meaning and sounds like lot of work.
Redundant means duplicate or many of the same or similar things. It does not mean something is broken or useless. Airplanes have redundant operating systems. That’s a good thing.
Irregardless isn’t a real word. Just regardless will do.
Accept vs. Except. The easiest way to remember this is accept = receive and except = exclude. You accept an award. Then you eat everything except the dessert.
Continual vs. Continuous. Continual means repeated frequently whereas continuous means it doesn’t stop.
Nonplussed does not mean you are indifferent about something. It means you are confused about something.
Affect vs. Effect. Affect influences. Effect is a result. The hours she puts in will affect the outcome of the project. Her open communication style had a positive effect on the audience.
And then there are those who make up new words when existing words just won’t do. I once worked with a very nice person who always used the word indifferentiate. As in, We need to indifferentiate this product. I didn’t correct that person either but simply smiled every time I heard it. After all, Shakespeare made up words too.
“RBC has not hired temporary foreign workers to replace our employees.”
This statement has been made time and again by the official RBC public relations machine, by RBC CEO Gord Nixon, by RBC’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Zabeen Hirji, and I’m sure it has been duly vetted by RBC’s legal department.
If this is the case then why is everyone so angry?
Aside from the facts that yet another company is outsourcing jobs overseas to maximize corporate profit, and that an iGATE team (the company hired by RBC) has taken up camp in the RBC office so they can learn everything they need to know from the people they’re replacing, RBC is using old fashioned PR spin and their employees and customers aren't buying it.
In a time when public trust is low and people are stressed from a rather prolonged recession it would have been a smarter move to be blatantly clear about what is happening.
RBC is outsourcing some IT jobs to iGate. As a result some RBC employees will be laid off. Employees of the outsourcing company are receiving training on site at RBC offices. Once the training is complete the jobs will move overseas.
That’s it. It's a business move and it's based on profit. But what RBC is saying is this:
“…like most businesses, we partner with external vendors to improve and extend our product and services offering to meet our client needs, and improve our operational effectiveness.”
What is this really saying and what did Canadians hear?
“like most businesses” = everyone is doing it so that makes it okay
“we partner with external vendors” = in this case, for outsourcing jobs
“to improve and extend our product and services” = we want to offer many products and services
“to meet our client needs” = we're doing this for you
“and improve our operational effectiveness” = we need to find cheaper, faster ways of doing business
When CEO, Gord Nixon, was questioned about the situation his response came off as nonchalant. He said that this outsourcing “involves a relatively small contract” and that the iGATE workers are “just people here for the transition process”. His attempt to downplay the situation didn’t work. What Canadians heard instead was, ‘This is a small issue. These iGATE people are just here for the transition. What's the big deal?"
What RBC and many other companies are failing to recognize is that people are tired of corporate babble. After years of spin, misleading communications, corporate jargon and the always insulting, ‘we’re doing this for you... you just don’t understand… trust us’ line, people are not buying the corporate rhetoric anymore.
Canadians know what Kevin O-Leary clearly explained on The Lang & O’Leary Exchange. That RBC is doing this to drive down cost so they can make more money. It’s a simple message but it’s not one the RBC team will communicate because, for a company that made $7.5 billion in profit last year, and with a CEO who took home $12.5 million, making more money by putting Canadians out of work…well, that’s just not a very popular message.
The apostrophe is one of the English language's basic punctuation marks yet it's not quite understood...
Why is so much of the information produced by our governments complicated and difficult to read?
I typically don’t like to call out any one organization for public scrutiny (honestly, it’s bad for business) but government communications is particularly poor and an unnamed city in Ontario
is in serious violation of clear communication.
I was recently reading this city’s
procurement documents which are posted on their public website and I was confronted with this:
“Whereas the Council of the Corporation of the <city in Ontario>
, recognizing its responsibility for the effective utilization of all of its resources, is desirous of codifying sound policies for the purpose of procuring goods and services in a manner that fulfils its mandate.”
This was the first
sentence. I don’t know of anyone in the modern era “desirous of codifying” anything – except the government of course.
The sad part is that this example is not unique. Reams of documents just like this are spewed from all levels of government on a regular basis. It seems that they fail to recognize that they are hired by the people, paid by the people and serve the people. Yet, information that is produced is not written for the people. It is written for their own purposes and their own audiences often appeasing a legal team or the powers that be. Worse yet, they are simply mimicking the poor communication of their predecessors and peers saying, “that is the way it’s always been done” or “that’s just the way it is”.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
is often cited as one of the most influential speeches in history and it’s a great example of clear communication. In less than two minutes and fewer than 300 words, Lincoln captured the essence of the time and the hearts of the people. How? His speech was simple and straight to the point. Lincoln knew what many of our governments today seem to ignore. For communications to be effective, it must be clear.
Governments are trying – at least on the surface. In the United States, Obama passed the Plain Writing Act
in 2010. The law requires that all government documents be written in plain language. The Government of Canada has also taken steps to promote plain language communications and on their website under Communications Policy of the Government of Canada
“An institution's duty to inform the public includes the obligation to communicate effectively. Information about policies, programs, services and initiatives must be clear, relevant, objective, easy to understand and useful. 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.”
Clearly, governments at many levels are not taking their own advice.
For the record, here’s my version of that <city in Ontario’s
> procurement document:
"We have policies in place to ensure that goods and services purchased by the city best address our needs and budgets."
Many business people aren’t aware there is an adult literacy issue in Canada. When I share the statistics with them I get two distinct reactions. First, they are shocked. They can’t believe that literacy is an issue in Canada. Second, they tell me that literacy isn’t a problem where they work.
Not so fast. Approximately 10.5 million Canadians with low literacy skills are employed. So, how is literacy affecting your business? Let’s look at the facts.
1. Canada’s adult literacy rates are poor
Almost half of all Canadian adults (42%) don’t have the necessary literacy skills to participate effectively in our economy.
2. It's in your workplace
Approximately 72% of adults with low literacy skills are employed.
3. It's costing you money
Low literacy levels cost Canadian businesses $2.5 billion each year in lost productivity – $1.6 billion of which is for industrial accidents alone.
4. Fixing it can make you money – lots
A 1% increase in literacy skills would lead to an additional $18.5 billion per year in Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
5. Some CEOs get it
Two thirds of Canadian CEOs believe the lack of essential skills and poor literacy are the biggest threats to growth but they don't know how to address the problem.
6. Especially at big companies
Ninety percent of Fortune 1000 executives report that low literacy hurts productivity and profitability.
7. Misunderstanding costs money
As much as 40% of the total cost of managing business transactions is spent on problems resulting from poor or misunderstood communications.
8. Clarification takes time
A business with 100 employees spends on average 17 hours each week clarifying email communications. Over a year this costs the business over $500,000.
9. Your employees don't see things the way you do
Only 37% of employees understand what their company is trying to achieve.
10. Get ready for the competition
China and Japan have higher national literacy levels than Canada. This affects the competitiveness of Canadian businesses and our ability to compete in a global marketplace.
It’s not all bad! Companies that invest in basic skills and literacy training and plain language communications see great results.
> 87% report more effective use of workplace technology
> 84% report improvements in the quality of employees’ work
> 82% report improved health and safety compliance and outcomes
> 79% report increased productivity
> 73% report an increase in employee effort
Not only is Canada facing an impending labour shortage set to hit hard in the next ten years, we are also
facing a severe skills gap and workplace literacy is front and centre. Smart businesses will invest in training and improved communications now to shore up their competitive resources for the near future.
1, 2, 4, 10. Statistics Canada
3. Literacy Alberta
6, 7. Impact Information
8. SIS International Research
9. Steven Covey Study