Earlier this month, Immigration and Border Protection Secretary Michael Pezzullo prescribed four concrete strategies to improve the public sector. One was to “communicate clearly” in a way that is “clear, crisp, meaningful and expressive”.
Unfortunately, these terms are rather open to interpretation. Language that is meaningful to one person may not be clear and crisp to another, let alone expressive. We need to define these criteria in a more tangible way, and then we need to take them much further.
Start with the words
To explain his prescription, Pezzullo cited two 70-year-old texts: George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” and a 1940 memo Winston Churchill wrote during the Battle of Britain. These texts certainly did influence the push to replace officialese with plain English in the post-war years.
Orwell advocated simplifying long words and Latinate jargon, cutting common clichés and avoiding the passive voice. Churchill implored civil servants to select “the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational”.
The Australian public sector is familiar with these linguistic remedies, although many still struggle to put them into practice. Here’s part of a notice from Pezzullo’s own department that illustrates his point:
“Quota used during the month of June 2015 will be taken into consideration for allocation 2016-17, but will NOT count in computations for 2016-17. This June ‘factor’ is repetitive for every annual allocation because of the 31 May import performance cut-off for calculation of following year’s allocations.”
Public servants can clearly apply further plain English salve to their sentences. But they also need to extend their understanding of what clear communication requires.
Reform the structure
Over the last 70 years, plain English has evolved well beyond the words. Just as important, for example, are changes to the way we structure information.
Too often, texts such as briefs and memos are written in a “narrative” structure. This takes the reader on a chronological journey through the research process: setting out the issue, the background and the current position before finally recommending a response. Standard templates enshrine this approach with fixed headings that reinforce a process-driven mindset.
Of course, this structure is perfectly logical for researching a problem. But it isn’t ideal for communicating the results. A narrative document puts the most important action at the end and buries the analysis in descriptive detail. Texts become far too long and readers start to skim, increasing the risks of misreading.
The best antidote is to convert templates to a “telescoping” structure that unfolds from the recommendations to the reasoning, and only then into the background detail. As Plain English Foundation has reported, this strengthens analysis, reduces documents by 40% and cuts writing and reading time in half.
Update the design
Template reform also presents an opportunity to treat a related ailment: bad design.
In Churchill’s day, the typewriter was standard technology for producing documents. It had a fixed font and little capacity for emphasising text or creating lists or tables. We now have far more sophisticated tools, yet the design of so many government documents remains in the typewriter age — with paper-based layout, all-caps headings and dense blocks of body text.
Reforming design is not just a case of making text more attractive. It is crucial because the internet has permanently changed our reading habits. Readers now scan a page at a macro level before they commit to reading, and they will be doing so more often on a mobile screen. We need to realign our information design so that readers move more comfortably through the text.
Evaluate the outcomes
These three elements come together in the current international definition of plain language:
“A communication is in plain language if the wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find and use that information.”
Notice this definition has two parts. The first highlights the wording, structure and design we need to work with. The second relates to the actual outcomes.
This points to the final part of plain English: evaluation. While we should write and design our documents based on best practice principles, we also need to assess whether our intended readers can actually find, understand and use our information.
There has been a robust debate in recent decades about the importance of testing documents, using methods such as cognitive interviews or performance surveys. These can be vital for high volume, high-risk communications, where you need some certainty a document will work. Full-blown testing is less essential for an internal email to a few colleagues, where a quick review against a document standard is enough.
Emerging from the debate is a growing consensus about a spectrum of evaluation methods and how to choose the right tools in a given context. Whatever the mix, evaluation must become central to the next generation’s communication mindset, just as short sentences and the passive voice were in the 1940s, and structure and design became in more recent decades.
This will also establish a more objective set of criteria for that dose of “clear, crisp and meaningful communication” that plain English can deliver, and it will produce measurably better results.