Author Archives: Heather Holland
If you think America is shifting to a culture of transparency, unfortunately, you’re wrong: consumers are drowning in more fine print and byzantine disclosure language than ever before. Bank contracts and product manuals commonly bloat to hundreds of pages, in type as small as 1/6 of an inch.
Who reads this stuff? Almost nobody. And as this news clip from a CBS affiliate in Alabama reveals, that costs the average household about $3,000 a year.
Lawyers argue that excessive language is necessary to “protect consumers.” But until disclosures are presented in a form people actually read, they’re doing just the opposite: allowing organizations to bury unattractive terms in pages of jargon, while simultaneously shielding them from legal liability.
“Devil in the Details” by Shanisty Myers
To all those who still think plain language = low-literacy: have you taken a look at your mobile phone contract lately? Or your cable agreement? Chances are, you’re paying more than you think.
This month’s SmartMoney Magazine catalogs a horrifying array of contracts, product waivers and legal disclosures with language that has likely bamboozled each and every one of us at some point.
From 100+ page checking account contracts to unexpected fees in everything from airline tickets to gift cards, this lack of clarity is costing us, big time. Experts estimate that hidden disclosures cost each American household more than $2,000 a year.
Fed up yet?
Co-hosted by Clarity with the Center for Plain Language and Scribes — The American Society of Legal Writers
National Press Club in Washington DC
As a champion of plain language, here’s why you should attend Clarity 2012:
- The Speakers: A packed agenda of world-wide experts, including Congressman Bruce Braley, the Honorable Lee Rosenthal, Eamonn Moran (Hong Kong), Dr. Neil James (Australia), Susan Kleimann, Prof. Joe Kimble, Bryan Garner, Amy Friend, Dr. Annetta Cheek, Candice Burt (South Africa) and Christopher Balmford (Australia).
- The Program: Sessions include exciting master classes on language and structure, insights into new research, and best practices for juries, ballots, criminal law, mobile sites and more.
- The ClearMark Awards Banquet: The Center for Plain Language presents our annual ClearMark awards on May 22, celebrating some of the best documents in the U.S., and poking gentle fun at some of the worst.
- The Clarity Band: The Clarity Band will perform after the dinner. If the dancing at the Clarity conference in Lisbon, Portugal is anything to go by, then the Clarity Band alone is reason enough to attend the conference.
- Early bird discount — conference fee
The conference fees (in US$) are:
$450 for government employees and members of Clarity, the Center, or Scribes ($400 if you book before March 1)
$500 for general public ($450 if you book before March 1)
Your clear communication could win a ClearMark award.
We know it’s not always easy to institutionalize plain language – navigating multiple contributors, priorities and layers of approval is a challenge. That’s why we want to hear about your plain language successes.
Have a publication, form, website or policy document you created using plain language principles? Nominate it for a ClearMark award!
Send us your plain language victories, and let us know about the positive impact of your work: improved response rate? lower costs? better compliance? reduced questions into your call center?
Let your clear communication be a model for other organizations!
Submit a ClearMark Award here. Nominations are open until March 3.
A recent review of land leases underscores the way language can obscure rather than clarify: in a review of 11,000 land leases from gas and oil companies, the New York Times found the majority had terms decidedly unfavorable to landowners.
Many leases granted companies broad permission to clear trees and build roads, while holding them harmless for damage repair. Incredibly, a majority of leases also permitted extensions without landowner approval.
So why do people sign documents with such unfavorable terms? Because they don’t understand them.
Just as with credit agreements and mortgages, people often sign documents based on what they hear from the marketing team, versus what’s actually in the contract.
While it’s our job as consumers to read the fine print, companies shouldn’t be able to bury unfavorable terms in jargon and legalese designed to trick consumers into signing documents not in their best interest.
With any luck, plain language reform will soon extend to lease agreements, too.
By IAN URBINA and JO CRAVEN McGINTY
There’s a huge amount of overlap between plain language and web usability guidelines. On the web, content and functionality drive the success of your site, and plain language is critical to both.
If making your web site usable and accessible isn’t enough of an incentive, the latest research from usability guru Jakob Nielsen confirms that plain language is critical to the bottom line, too – users won’t buy products they can’t find or get clear information about.
In Nielsen’s latest round of testing, more than half of the web site failures he observed were caused by poorly written content. If your web site is failing, customers aren’t buying your products or message. They also consume your time and resources when they need to call to complete a transaction or clarify a point.
On the web, as elsewhere, organizing for your readers; providing explicit navigation directions; and using clear, simple language work best: both for your company and your customers.
Jakob Nielsen “E-Commerce Usability: Bad Content Kills Sales” http://www.useit.com/alertbox/ecommerce.html
This article on the role of pictures in health literacy underscores the fact that plain language is about more than just the words we use – it’s about the way we present information, too. Layout and design is just as important as language, and can have a huge effect on the usability of communications materials.
There’s often a big focus on reading/grade level as a measure of how “plain language” a document is, but grade level only tells part of the story.
Are graphics and figures used to highlight key messages? Is the document signposted with headings and subheadings that help the reader find what they need to know? Is there judicious use of white space?
Design IS important. That’s why indices like Flesch-Kinkaid, SMOG and other readability formulas are rarely reliable as a standalone assessment of plain language or usability.
Ken Thorlton, SVP, Creative Director, of HealthEd.
A year after it passed, The Plain Writing Act continues to kindle clear communications efforts around the country. Case in point: the Illinois state legislature is using the law to reinvigorate their long-dormant plain language task force.
As a communications professional in a large federal agency, I can tell you that those of us who’ve been banging the plain language drum for years were thrilled at the passage of last year’s Plain Writing Act.
A year later, complying with the legislation has become one more carrot (or stick!) we’re using to coax colleagues away from traditional bloated government-speak.
An article this week on www.creditcards.com outlines steps some credit card companies are taking to simplify credit card agreements, in advance of anticipated guidance from the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Research on credit card use shows that even sophisticated users have trouble understanding complex payment algorithms and risks. Obviously, consumers are at a further disadvantage when they can’t decipher benefit term agreements that may not be in their best interests. (more…)