10. Get more of your life back
Let’s start with the most immediate benefit: plain English frees up time.
How long do you spend wading through briefs, submissions or board papers? If they were written in plain English, they’d be clearer, one-third shorter and take half the time to read.
Surveys have found many executives leave work earlier each day after a plain English program — one went as far as to say “I got my life back!”.
9. Reduce information overload
We are bombarded with around five times more information today than we were 30 years ago, which has greatly increased the cognitive strain on our brains. The traditional public sector writing style only worsens this information overload by forcing you to sift through unnecessary verbiage for each nugget of meaning. Which of these two consumes less brain power?
It is suggested that consideration be given to the implementation of the program from within existing departmental budgetary allocations.
We recommend funding the program from the department’s existing budget.
8. Review the content, not the text
Executives report they spend too much time correcting commas or rewording awkward passages in the documents they review. As a result, agencies are paying top dollar for a final copyedit of substandard text. This also takes the focus away from where it needs to be: the content.
When documents are written in plain English in the first place, you can give quicker, substantive and far more constructive feedback to staff — and better direct the outcomes you are after.
7. Improve the analysis
Public sector writers love to tell the story, extensively narrating the history of an issue more than they actually analyse the risks or the options in response. How often have you read a brief that jumps from story to recommendation without a clear rationale?
Plain English is not just about short sentences and the active voice. It reforms the underlying logic of briefs and submissions to highlight the reasoning that supports a recommendation. Breaking the narrative mindset produces better analysis for you to work with.
6. Make better decisions
Consider the most common output you produce each day. It’s not the number of meetings, or the phone calls, emails or documents you process. It’s the number of decisions you make.
When the documents you use provide clearer analysis and you no longer have to wrestle the text to extract the core message, you can make those decisions more effectively. You’ll be able to dispatch the easy decisions quickly and engage with the tougher problems more creatively.
5. Drive culture change
Nothing is more symbolic of an organisation’s culture than its writing. Consider the values your organisation espouses. What voice would capture those values? Then take a typical document from your agency. If its voice does not match your values, you have a culture problem. Improving organisational style is one of the best ways you can solve it.
Bureaucratic language often reflects an internal focus and a process-driven mindset. Plain English sits more comfortably in an open, service-oriented culture.
Change the voice and you change the culture.
4. Improve stakeholder relationships
Who are your most important stakeholders? Have they ever given negative feedback about documents you approved? Has your agency attracted public opprobrium for complex and unclear communication? As Clive James once wrote:
“When the writer is getting all of the fee, and the reader is doing at least half of the labour, the discrepancy can cause resentment.”
Plain English won’t magically solve all of the tensions you have with your stakeholders. But it will certainly help.
3. Clarify the risks
Admit it. Sometimes you have let a document pass without fully understanding its implications. You are not alone. We all prioritise the tidal waves of text that wash across our desks, even if it means signing something we don’t fully comprehend.
Yet sometimes a key risk is buried in the back of that brief. If that risk is realised, the finger may point at you. Wouldn’t you rather it had been flagged in plain English in the first place?
2. Meet performance targets
Next, think about your performance agreement. Plain English will help you to meet its targets.
If your focus is on service delivery, study after study has shown a direct correlation between plain English and service performance. Need to improve productivity? Cutting staff writing time in half will free up valuable resources. And we know that plain English strengthens the analysis essential to effective policy or regulation.
All of which makes for a positive performance review.
1. Leave a legacy
Writing style is deeply embedded in agency systems, and staff generally resist change. Without ongoing attention, language in the public sector evolves much more slowly than in the broader community.
Reform takes real time and effort, which also makes it a significant feat in any career. And plain English reform comes with a bonus: changing writing culture will also permanently improve agency performance.
Make the legacy of clarity one of your career achievements.