The Importance of Plain Language in the Public Sector
Think back to a time when you received unclear directions. Maybe you took a wrong turn, ended up in dead end, or got lost completely.
In the public sector, we are charged with providing clear information, updates and directions to our constituents – they make up our roadmaps for navigating our programs and services.
Plain Language is an important tool in this effort and has shown substantial results in saving customers time, resources and most of all – headaches that result from confusion.
The process for implementing Plain Language in creating content is more than just “dumbing it down.” By putting yourself in your audience’s position and being thoughtful about the words you chose to communicate, you’ll see an increase in value of your content to your readers who will be able understand your messages the first time without confusion.
The process is simple:
Washington’s Department of Revenue is a prime example of how initiating Plain Language can help drive success in the public sector. In 2003, the agency launched a plain language initiative and rewrote 250 customer letters into plain language in one year. These changes yielded an additional $5 million in taxes for the state the following year due to clearer directions and more easily-understood forms for taxpayers to submit to the department, according to PlainLanguage.gov.
When we assume that our reader’s time is valuable (and limited), we can make simple changes that can have a great impact. In some instances, words can even be replaced altogether with a meaningful picture.
Here is a sample warning from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration:
Each carrier shall take such action as is necessary to ensure that smoking by passengers, drivers, and other employees is not permitted in violation of this section. This shall include making appropriate announcements to passengers, the posting of the international no-smoking symbol, and the posting of signs in all vehicles transporting passengers in letters in sharp color contrast to the background, and of such size, shape, and color as to be readily legible. Such signs and symbols shall be kept and maintained in such a manner as to remain legible and shall indicate that smoking is prohibited by Federal regulation.
If this simple image can convey the message more clearly than the long, lengthy description in the “before” scenario, just imagine what it could do for other important messages like safety alerts or health notices.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore ways to apply plain language principles to public sector content that can reduce confusion and significantly improve the customer experience.
Check back next week for Part 1 in the Plain Language Series: Planning Makes Perfect, a more in-depth dive in to the first step of an effective Plain Language strategy.
Does your organization already use Plain Language as a communications strategy? If so, submit your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org