Recently, the Center’s Vice Chair, David Lipscomb, talked with two Center volunteers who also happen to be successful entrepreneurs– Casey Mank and Grace Foster. They are the two founders of Bold Type, a writing consulting firm that is prospering in its second year. Armed with masters degrees, experience leading workshops and coaching for Kelloggs, Viacom and the US Army, both Grace and Casey also teach at Georgetown University.
Fortunately, they are also committed to plain language, and they have found the time to serve as judges on both the ClearMark Awards and the Federal Report Card. In fact, Casey Mank will serve as lead judge for the ClearMarks in 2020. So David Lipscomb was eager to talk with these two young professionals to learn why they were so committed to the work of the Center.
David: Why is plain language something that matters to you?
Casey: For so many reasons! I immediately think of the content I interact with as a consumer — health insurance explanations of benefits, tax filing instructions, legal documents. They make important tasks so hard. Put another way, there’s nothing that drives home the need for Plain Language more than a wall of jargon that’s standing between you and something really important—your health, your money.
Working with professionals, I’ve also seen the knots that people get themselves into trying to say the right thing, cover all their bases, and sound smart. If I ask someone to unpack a tangled idea they’ve written, they’ll often express it beautifully out loud, prompting me to ask “why don’t you just say that?” That question, for me, kind of sums up Plain Language. I think we all learned a lot of dangerous habits in school in terms of showing our thinking on the page, proving we know big words, and, of course, writing up to a word count. Plain Language can counter that – and make us all happier, healthier, less-stressed, as communicators and as consumers.
Grace: Yes to everything Casey just said. I’ll just add that plain Language is also how we make people care about things. Plain Language is how we tell the best stories, spread vital movements, and ask for help. If we want to rally people to fight climate change or political extremism or wildfires, we use simple language to communicate clearly. If people don’t understand, they won’t care. If they don’t care, they won’t do anything.
David: That’s great. And it gives me a sense of why the Center’s work matters to you. But what do you get out of being ClearMark and Report Card judges? That’s serious work.
Grace: For one, it’s exciting to meet other judges! I love learning about their careers and seeing how they are using Plain Language in government, in their own businesses, and elsewhere. Casey and I are so excited about Plain Language–we get a little nerdy about it, if you can’t tell–and it’s nice to be reminded that other people are too. I also like how constructive our work is. We’re really trying to give feedback that will help organizations help their users. That feels good to me.
Casey: Yes, and I learn so much each time I judge. And the more I learn about Plain Language, the more I kind of see it everywhere. I really notice the usability and readability of the things I interact with every day. What does this website want me to do? What does this instant oatmeal packet want me to do? It’s kind of like being in The Matrix.
David: I’m going to remember that – living with a heightened sense of plain language is like being in the Matrix. Awesome. Does it also in some way shape what you do professionally – or what you might do professionally?
Casey: For one, I love telling people about the Plain Writing Act and how it’s a real law. And I’m proud that I help enforce it, in my own small way as a judge! As a company, we’ve been able to recommend a Plain Language review or a Plain Language approach even to clients who initially came to us with a much broader writing or communications need. It’s really easy to get people excited about the value of Plain Language once they understand how much it can address beyond just the sentence level.
Grace: Absolutely. Plain Language infuses everything Bold Type does. It has also radically changed the way I teach in the traditional classroom. Introducing Plain Language to my students at Georgetown is a gamechanger for a number of reasons. For one thing, the Guidelines are an excellent resource for them as they learn to write clean, direct sentences and easy-to-read documents. For another, the Plain Writing Act stresses the importance and marketability of writing skills in the working world. In the midst of the current op-ed war about the value of the humanities (ugh!), Plain Language is an important signpost of the value of communication and communicators.
David: OK, This has been great. I’ll wrap up with a bit of controversy – you two are fans of the exclamation point. I’m not. Can you change my mind?
Casey: Can I answer with a meme?
But seriously, it all comes from a very Plain Language place—audience consideration! Millennials don’t want to sound unfriendly or unenthusiastic by omitting exclamations; Boomers don’t want to sound like they are “shouting” by using them. Unfortunately, things get lost in intergenerational translation. As you know, I actually wrote a whole blog post on this topic.
Thank you both, exclamation point!