Tamsin Constable

Calling all climate change scientists: help us understand by using plain language.

Researchers in the States have identified poor communication as one of the reasons why there is such widespread public confusion about climate change. Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol of the Climate Communication not-for-profit project in Colorado set out to try and understand why the public and policy-makers fail to take the threat of climate change seriously.

They found several factors, including economic instability, ‘disinformation campaigns’ (motivated by a variety of interests), scientific illiteracy and the way the media presents issues.

But key to the problem is the way that scientists communicate.

‘Scientists typically fail to craft simple, clear messages and repeat them often,’ say the authors. ‘They commonly overdo the level of detail, and people can have difficulty sorting out what is important. In short, the more [scientists] say, the less [people] hear. And scientists tend to speak in code. We encourage them to speak in plain language and choose their words with care. Many words that seem perfectly normal to scientists are incomprehensible jargon to the wider world.’

Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public

Scientific term

Public meaning

Better choice

enhance improve intensify, increase
aerosol spray can tiny atmospheric particle
positive trend good trend upward trend
positive feedback good response, praise vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
theory hunch, speculation scientific understanding
uncertainty ignorance range
error mistake, wrong, incorrect difference from exact true number
bias distortion, political motive offset from an observation
sign indication, astrological sign plus or minus sign
values ethics, monetary value numbers, quantity
manipulation illicit tampering scientific data processing
scheme devious plot systematic plan
anomaly abnormal occurrence change from long-term average

Read the full report on Physics Today.

When a Fox is a weasel

Here is a cracking example of how people use the passive to avoid taking responsibility. It comes courtesy of Liam Fox, theUK’s ex-defence secretary, who resigned last week as a result of allegations of conflicts of interest between his public and private life. In a statement he said:

‘I accept that it was a mistake to allow distinctions to be blurred between my professional responsibilities and my personal loyalties to a friend.’

Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland was incensed:

‘Fox did not say: “I blurred the distinction.” Instead, by using the passive, he picked up his offence with a pair of sterilised tongs, sealed it in a plastic bag and placed it as far away from himself as he could. That use of the passive turned his sin from one of commission to omission. “You know what distinctions are like,” he was saying. “They’re always itching to be blurred. My error was not to stop them.” I had a flatmate back in my student days who, rather than admit he’d not done the washing-up, would say: “Dishes have been left.” The passive is grammar’s way of telling you somebody is hiding something. [my emphasis]

As if that weren’t enough, see whether you can get your head round another of Fox’s statements. Asked whether his friend profited from the relationship, Fox said: “When it comes to the pecuniary interests of Mr Werritty in those conferences, I am absolutely confident that he was not dependent on any transactional behaviour to maintain his income.”

Weasel alert!

International Plain Language Day

Hurray for International Plain Language Day on 13 October (follow #iplday on Twitter).

I can’t get to Ottawa in time to pig-out at the plain English celebratory luncheon, or to Stockholm to rub shoulders with the Swedish language consultants. I’d love to see how the government writers respond to their plain English workshop in Washington, and I wish I could join the town hall petition in Alberta, Canada to Calgary to have the city declare International Plain Language Day by 2012. I hope the free webinar goes well , that the competition to find the best examples of jargon being organised by plain English experts in South Africa attracts lots of entrants, and I wish I could go to the presentation for editors in New Zealand, as that looks really useful.

But all that’s a bit too far from soggy Yorkshire, and anyway I’d have to be home in time to pick the kids up from school.

So what can I do? I’ve decided. I will close my eyes, begin to hum, breathe deeply and take my editing brain down to the cool, calm Zone of Clarity.

Having taken leave of my senses, I will then offer a two-hour JARGON AMNESTY. I spend two hours  ‘plain Englishing’ (now a verb) any material I receive (within reason) from an organisation or business by Thursday 13 October, for free, until the two hours is up and I emerge gracefully from the Z of C.

So go on, sling it over.

Good luck to everyone else celebrating International Plain Language Day in whatever form. Let’s hope the effect lasts more than a day…

Information simplification: ad agency USP

Plain language as a basic branding concept – now that, I like. It’s the line that a firm in the States takes, focusing on information simplification above everything else. The visuals, the concepts, the design, the messages… all that stuff you usually get with branding and advertising agencies… all flow from the starting point of clear communication.

They’ve done a little promo video, which I’m more than happy to share. (It’s only 1mn long.)

Are your business documents fit for purpose?

Plain English editing (or re-writing) can cause discomfort, because it often reveals hidden weaknesses in the original document. But companies willing to accept the treatment and put in any work necessary will produce a document that shines.

By turning existing, long-winded and inaccessible text into clear writing, plain English can shine an uncomfortably bright light on flaws in the original content that would otherwise remain unnoticed.

The reality is that in many businesses, a lot of very talented and experienced professionals can spend an awful lot of time doing fantastic research and work only to produce a document that fails dismally to do them credit.

Why do all that work if the final report, which may be so critical, simply isn’t fit for purpose?

Companies and organisations are increasingly recognising that the reports they produce need to read clearly. They recognise that the text needs to be in plain English.

The author is not the reader.

Putting the text through the plain English editing process can polish text until it shines with clarity. That’s great if the bones of the report, the facts and figures and findings etc, are already solid.

But sometimes, the editing process itself can throw up uncomfortable questions. It reveals flaws in original document, highlights waffle, questions in-house jargon, and draws attention to unsubstantiated claims.

And that’s when a businesses’ true grit shows.

‘Your editing highlighted the fact that there were holes in just about every paragraph,’ one client told me. ‘The plain English showed us just how many gaps we need to fill before we can send the report to our client.’

Smoke out the baddies: plain language and the church

Here’s a fabulous example of the power of plain language.

It’s from the blog Diary of a Wimpy Catholic, talking about the church’s love of euphemism and jargon.

‘When it comes to conflict resolution, no one’s jargon is gummier or windier. Pope Benedict didn’t sack Marcial Maciel; he invited him to a life or prayer and penitence. Superiors don’t order their subordinates to shape up or ship out; nor do subordinates tell their superiors to take this job and shove it; instead, both express a wish to engage in dialogue. ’

Eagle-eyed US blogger Max Lindenman goes on, though, to highlight a subtle shift in a recent statement written by a regional priest on the alleged misdeeds of another church leader, Fr. John Corapi. Analysing the statement, Lindenman points out that it:

‘…uses only as much jargon as decorum requires. Corapi didn’t abuse substances; he abused drugs and alcohol. He didn’t have inappropriate relations; he had sexual relations… The effect is no less jarring or damning than it would have been had he called Corapi a cad, a cur or a mountebank. In fact [the author] deserves a special edginess award for using the term sexting, which has only been in circulation for a few years… [the] statement leaves the imagination only as much as it deserves. There’s still room to wonder which drugs Corapi abused, how much booze he could put away, and in what context these sexual relations took place — were they full-blown love affairs, or simple hookups? … [this] plain talk enhances his credibility. He wouldn’t make these explicit charges unless he was able — and ready — to back them up.’

Thanks to Lindenman for an example of how plain language can help smoke out the baddies.

Free plain English guide available

My free ‘How to write in plain English’ report is finally ready, and I’m really pleased with it. Please disseminate far and wide! Or at least download yourself a copy from my home page.

I wanted to make sure that people feel confident that this is not a spam-device, hence the option to receive a digest, or never to hear from me again.

Thanks to everyone who gave valuable feedback on the content, to Marc for the lively illustration, Gaz for elegant design, support and advice, and to Rich for sprinkling webby fairy-dust.

I’m quite proud of this, and can now see the benefit of spending time producing a written product that’s done, dusted – and permanent. Time to think of the next one…

No plain English in the Educational Jargon Generator

If you want to amuse yourself for a few moments, visit the Educational Jargon Generator. As well as a thoroughly useful and very comprehensive table of genuine jargon verbs, nouns and adjectives used in education, you can also get the generator to churn out random official-sounding combinations of gobbledygook for anything you key in.

Medical literacy: not about reading

Millions of people suffer health problems because they can’t read, understand and act on medical information. The American Medical Association estimates that nearly half of all Americans have health literacy difficulties of some form.

I watched the AMA’s video on You Tube (thanks to Cheryl Stephens from the Plain Language Advocates Group on Linked-In). It’s a bit long, so I thought I’d do a summary of some of the quotes, comments and solutions.

“I was sick a lot because I didn’t take the dosage right. I didn’t understand and I didn’t have the nerve to ask them to right way.”

“I had an abscess in my ear. I had to fill out forms that I couldn’t fill out. I ended up having to go to ER.”

“You’re talking to an intelligent doctor and these people are using words you don’t even know. So you come out of that room thinking, I hope I don’t make a mistake with my medicine, because I didn’t understand.”

All of these quotes support the findings of Professor Mark V Williams’ team at Emory University School of Medicine: that people with literacy problems are more likely to be hospitalised for chronic illness, at enormous cost to the economy ($50-$73 in the US), on top of unnecessary suffering.

There are legal consequences too. Someone who signs a consent form without understanding it has not, in fact, given informed consent to anything, signature or not. They can sue.

The answer here, as in many fields, is take the word ‘literate’ to mean ‘understand’ rather than ‘able to read and write’. Once professionals – health or otherwise – take that on board, they can think of simple, creative, elegant and effective ways to make sure that their patients (clients, customers, service-users etc) have got the message.

Like taping individual sample pills to a cardboard chart. Or explaining concepts using vivid ‘living room’ language and metaphors. Or remembering not to ask “Do you understand?” but to find other ways of checking understanding.

As one doctor, Cheryl E Woodson, said, “It almost doesn’t matter why they’re having problems understanding: it’s my job to overcome that barrier so I can get them the information they need to let me help them.”

Pensions in plain English

Baffled by pensions? Don’t really know how it works? What you might expect from the State? What happens to your pension if you die? At last, there’s a plain English overview of the current world of pensions in the UK. The maths is clear and easy to follow. Even if you think you understand pensions, reading through this is like a breath of fresh air. But then you’d expect nothing less from the folk at the Plain English Campaign.