We know that sinking feeling when we read a confusing email or business letter. We scan the wall of words and ask ourselves, ‘why should I care, what does this mean to me, and what am I supposed to do with this information?’
If we can’t find the info we need, understand it the first time, and know what to do with it, the outcomes are very negative. We might miss an important deadline, refund opportunity, or safety action. Or we might not read the whole email and leave a purchase incomplete. One thing is certain though: we will form a negative opinion of the writer and the organization and we will decide our time and money were wasted.
But what if organizations invest in a plain language program upfront? Can they avoid the cost of bad writing and improve bottom line outcomes? Yes. That’s the answer according to three Center for Plain Language communicators who established programs in local, federal, and international organizations. You can start your plain language program today with these best practices from Brian Lieb, Hennepin County, Minnesota, Kathryn Catania, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Paul Aterman, Social Security Tribunal of Canada.
Apply change management principles
In terms of change management, all three case studies fall into the category of transformational change, meaning, their programs were a big shift from business as usual.
Each communicator had a different pain point to remedy, but each example follows the basic steps in the change management cycle as outlined in the Harvard Business Review:
- Prepare the organization for change.
- Craft a vision and plan for change.
- Implement the changes.
- Embed changes within company culture and practices.
- Review progress and analyze results.
1. Prepare the organization for change
To get started, the communicators knew they had to identify the value of changing to a plain language writing method and get buy in from different organizational levels.
- Brian was close to the front lines, and he knew from citizen surveys that “residents were often confused and frustrated by the information they received from us.” Additionally, county web writers had no training on writing effective web content. His solution? He published an internal style guide and began teaching classes in clear communications as part of a major website redesign. This successful project provided the data he needed to convince leaders to adopt a plain language standard and he revised their communications policy to require plain language usage in all public communications.
- Kathryn was trying to implement the Plain Writing Act of 2010 in the regulatory office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. As a writer-editor, she knew much of their text was not written from the reader’s perspective which included non-native English speakers. She overcame internal resistors who feared she would dumb down their text and offered training “one office at a time.” But, she says, “the most important early step was identifying and recruiting agency leaders who could champion the cause.” With their support she formed a plain language workgroup which shared testimonials detailing positive results of plain language usage as well as tips and advice in a quarterly newsletter.
- For Paul, he was the boss and he recognized that improving access to justice was important to all citizens. As Chairman of Canada’s Social Security Tribunal, he had the power to initiate change directly, but he was careful to gather buy in from all levels of the organization first. “Our training on plain language was focused on building a broad level of internal capacity within the Tribunal. It was not limited to the operational staff and adjudicators, who deal directly with the public. We also included the people who provide indirect support to the hearing process – such as the tribunal’s own lawyers – in our training.”
2. Craft a vision and plan for change
Each example had a different starting point, so their plans were diverse, but each plan included measurable metrics to show value and success.
- Brian was designated as the county’s plain language coordinator and he focused his plan on the number of staff trained, and the number of pages rewritten on the county website. He compiled real-world examples and used data to show that plain language usage would not only help county residents, but also lead to cost savings and improved business processes.
- Kathryn also became her agency’s plain language chief and included training as her first action. Her goals linked to improved efficiencies and included reducing customer questions and increasing overall compliance of form and fee submission. To measure those targets, she gathered data and testimonials from offices to show increases in properly submitted forms, and included plain language questions on customer feedback surveys to calculate monthly metrics.
- Paul led the Tribunal’s plain language initiative and also made training a priority, but he also included the initiative in the strategic plan, staff performance objectives, stakeholder engagements, and public communications. He measured the number of staff trained as well as the number of forms, letters, and templates redrafted in plain language and added a series of follow-on evaluations to assess user reactions to the initiative.
3. Implement the changes
Each communicator agreed that building trust within the organization was the key to their success.
- Brian noted, “from the beginning we’ve emphasized celebrating any improvements to communications, no matter how small.” He added, “A plain language approach to communications was a change for most long-term employees, and many people were reluctant to embrace that change.” He felt their approach was appropriate. “Bringing staff along at a pace they were comfortable with helped us build trust and gain supporters throughout the organization.”
- Kathryn echoed the importance of gaining trust and said, “what really turned naysayers around was sharing agency before-and-after document samples. When people are faced with revised versions that are obviously clearer and not inaccurate or unprofessional, it’s hard for them to keep resisting plain language.”
- Paul embraced the trust aspect both internally and externally. Prior to implementation, he issued a public statement to “motivate the people who worked [there, but also] to prove to Canadians that we really care about access to justice. When we say it, we mean it.” To prove his point, the Tribunal makes their plain language evaluations publicly accessible.
4. Embed changes within company culture and practices
Successful long term change means everyone has the tools and training to continue improving. In addition to the resources previously mentioned, the communicators created these tools:
- Internal online libraries of plain language guides, examples, upcoming training classes, success articles, and video tips
- Internal plain language award programs recognizing improved products and services
- External articles, presentations at public meetings and leadership retreats
5. Review progress and analyze results
Each organization incorporated tangible results to show executives and citizens the return on their investment in plain language.
- Brian informed the public of their commitment by promoting it on their website home page website and through internal newsletter articles and local newspaper stories.
- Kathryn reported regularly to senior leaders “evidence that our plain language efforts increased trust and satisfaction among agency customers, increased compliance with instructions, and decreased customer service backlogs.”
- Paul shared their plain language evaluations publicly and said in summary, “since 2018 we have introduced a lot of changes to make our legal process more accessible. Building a culture of plain language was one of them. It cost us very little but has made a big difference in how ordinary people use our service. In terms of cost versus benefit, it has been a massive bargain.”
Read the full case studies and stay tuned for more coming soon.
- Brian Lieb Hennepin County, Minnesota, Making information less complex and more concise
- Kathryn Catania, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Making complex immigration information easy to understand
- Paul Aterman, Social Security Tribunal of Canada, Making Access to the Justice System Easier
About the Author: Communications Consultant Kate Goggin specializes in plain language writing, editing, and training. She is a certified technical writer and has consulted for private industry and federal agencies, including the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is a member of the Center for Plain Language and the Society for Technical Communication and holds a degree in Communications Consulting from George Mason University. She is currently contracted to A. K. Government Solutions.