Making information less complex and more concise
How we knew we needed a plain language program
In 2010, most of our day-to-day communications with county residents were lengthy, overly complex, and often filled with legal jargon. In addition, each county department had their own style and voice. Surveys of residents showed they were often confused and frustrated by the information they received from us.
In addition, front-line staff were asking for help with communications. We had a team of nearly 100 people assigned to maintain the county website, and none of them had received training on how to write effective web content.
By aligning ourselves with the burgeoning plain language community, we hoped to get more buy in from staff and improve our interactions with residents.
How we got started
In early 2011 we published our internal style guide and began teaching classes in clear communications as part of a major website redesign. With these pieces in place, we approached county leaders to pitch the idea of making plain language an official county standard. We presented to both the County Administration and the Board of Commissioners, defining plain language and explaining the benefits of its use for both county residents and our organization. With their approval, we revised our communications policy to require the use of plain language in all public communications.
Once we had approval from county leaders, we spread the word to staff through articles in newsletters, content in new employee orientation sessions, and key speaking points at department meetings. We also started offering writing training to any county employee, gradually building a cohort of supporters among front-line staff.
After we had a program in place, we informed the public of our commitment by promoting it on the home page of our website and through an article we placed in the local newspaper.
How we set goals and celebrated success
Our initial goals focused on the number of staff trained, and the number of pages rewritten on the county website. After successfully training all web staff and rewriting all web pages in 2011, we set a new goal of training 10% of county staff within the first two years of our plain language program – which we achieved in fall 2012.
From the beginning we’ve emphasized celebrating any improvements to communications, no matter how small. A plain language approach to communications was a change for most long-term employees, and many people were reluctant to embrace that change. While it would have been faster to have a team of professionals rewrite all website content, our approach of bringing staff along at a pace they were comfortable with helped us build trust and gain supporters throughout the organization.
Any time subject-matter experts worked with us to improve a communication we sent messages to their supervisors and department leaders congratulating them on their outstanding work. We also presented examples of the best plain language work at quarterly leadership meetings, giving special attention to departments making positive progress. We then featured those examples in internal newsletters, letting other staff see what was possible.
How we trained our people
We tied our initial training efforts to the 2011 redesign of the county website. Everyone who posted content on the website was required to take an introductory class on using plain language to connect with readers followed by a class on effective web writing. We also hosted weekly writing labs where staff could receive help as they rewrote their content.
When the website launched in 2011, we offered the basic plain language class to any county employee who wanted to attend. Over the next two years, more than 900 people took the class.
In 2019 we launched a series of three courses designed to develop a network of front-line staff to identify and rewrite poorly-written content. These classes cover:
- An overview of plain language
- How to identify respond to the needs of your audience
- How to write so your information is clear, concise and scannable
Since 2011 we’ve taught roughly 250 classes to county employees, focusing many of the sessions on specific types of communications (email, court reports, property tax documents, etc.).
How we overcame naysayers
One of the first things we realized was the need to explain why we were implementing this new approach. We presented an overview of plain language at dozens of department meetings over the first few months of our program. We showed real-world examples and used data to show that using plain language principles would not only help county residents, but it would also lead to cost savings and improved internal business processes.
In addition, by focusing most of our early efforts on training and support for subject-matter experts, we were able to build a significant group of supporters. It was often these people who were able to convince their peers that clear, concise and scannable communications would improve customer service and make their day-to-day jobs easier.
How we kept going
The key to our continuing progress has been getting buy-in from front-line staff. We added an overview of plain language to new employee orientation, and we encourage all staff to take our classes, offering as many sessions as possible. Over time, we’ve built a large network of people familiar with plain language techniques, and these people spread the word and advocate for clear communications in their work.
It was also important to have a dedicated person assigned to coordinate our efforts – that’s me. Without someone actively guiding the work, it would have been easy for our initial efforts to fade away as new priorities appeared. Instead, my position remains focused on building our program and supporting county staff.
About the author: Brian Lieb, is Hennepin County’s plain language coordinator in Minnesota. He created and maintains the county’s writing style guide and helped lead the last two rewrites of the county’s website. He also developed curriculum and teach a series of writing classes for Hennepin County employees. He holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Minnesota with a graduate minor in teaching English as a second language, and extensive coursework in education theory and linguistics.