The Plain Language Act is the start of a new era | Photo by DaMoJo on excio.io
Lynda Harris, chief executive of Write Limited and founder of the Plain Language Awards, gave this speech at the online Awards ceremony on 27 October 2022.
Kia ora koutou, welcome plain language friends
Who would have thought that we’d be not only celebrating finalists and winners today, but the birth of a Plain Language Act as well. It feels like a new era. It’s been thrilling to receive so many well wishes from plain language advocates around the world … these include people in government, in healthcare, in the legal and financial sectors, all of whom see New Zealand’s legislation as a model for others to follow.
Unfortunately, those who opposed the bill called it a ‘stupid piece of legislation that doesn’t actually fix anything, And there’s absolutely no evidence that there’s actually a problem.’
There is evidence. Plenty of it.
And because of that, I believe this is a historic moment with so much potential for good. Let me show you why.
First let’s start with the many reasons as to ‘why plain language matters to you and me’. The reasons are the things we talk about often: transparency, access to justice and to the rights we enjoy as people who live here, efficiency, trust, fairness, and many more foundational concepts that we believe make a healthy, happy society.
We don’t tend to notice when these important expectations play out as they should. But we do take notice when they don’t. We quickly tend toward frustration, indignation, perhaps even anger. We might even give up.
The members of the public who nominate documents and websites for the Brainstrain award certainly feel those things. Thinking back over nominations for that dubious award I can recall:
- a frazzled business owner who was deeply frustrated by a COVID-19 leave application form
- a passenger who described their search for information on an airline’s website ‘as going around in circles’
- someone reading a council letter who said ‘I felt a bit ill when I tried to read this impenetrable letter’
- a director trying to update company details on what he called ‘this dreaded website, whose interface is user-unfriendly to an unusual degree’
- a deeply frustrated parent trying to enrol their children in a rural primary school
- a person with a masters degree who angrily said they couldn’t understand a letter from their city council
- a frustrated customer of a major bank who described a letter as unintelligible
- an elderly woman who couldn’t understand an important letter from the hospital
- a student who couldn’t navigate a form for a badly needed loan.
Those who nominated these documents are everyday people, like you and me … consumers, parents, small business owners, ratepayers, travellers, students, patients, and individuals simply trying to get our lives in order. So that’s evidence at a personal level.
But there’s more.
A second set of evidence of the need for plain language is found in the many submissions on the Bill. They came from groups and individuals from every walk of life, some already disadvantaged in one way or another. But the story was always the same … hurt, harm, frustration, barriers, all caused by unclear information. I wish I had time to share some of them with you.
And now let’s look at a third set of evidence. I’m talking about your entries, that came from across the public and private sectors on a vast array of topics, written for audiences representing every aspect of New Zealand society. Every one of you wrote, or rewrote those documents, because you saw evidence that something wasn’t working, or you understood the consequences of not communicating well, and you did something about it. And you did it for others, not for you.
Which brings me back to my comment that the Act has tremendous potential for good, and particularly so through you, who are already plain language advocates.
I see the Act as a giant OPPORTUNITY for all, in neon capital letters. And I suggest that that we can do two things — at least — to make the most of it.
The first is to:
Speak up: in your workplace, step into your reader’s shoes, notice more, find the stories that need to be told. In your private life, be an aware consumer, speak up when information isn’t plain, not only for yourself, but for those who feel the fault in comprehension is theirs, when we know that it’s not.
And the second is to:
User-test: Be an agent for change by getting proof of what’s not working. You won’t know what people understand or don’t understand from your messages if you don’t ask them. And you won’t know their emotional reaction either. You’ll be amazed at what people tell you if they are given a chance.
I recall some user-testing we did for a law firm years ago. The senior team didn’t believe a communication problem existed because no one complained. The frank and somewhat shocking feedback from the user-test group led the team to humbly conclude ‘silence doesn’t mean satisfaction’.
And so to end, may I suggest that you, who know the power of plain language, use this new Act as the wind beneath your wings. Allow it to be a triumph for democracy, and a catalyst to achieve all those things we mentioned at the start — equity, inclusion, transparency, and above all, clarity in the documents that we all need to live our lives well.
And congratulations to all our winners, finalists, and entrants celebrated here today.
Lynda Harris October 27th, 2022
Posted In: 2022 Plain Language Awards, 2022 Plain Language Awards ceremony, Story theme
Tags: advocate, Brainstrain, clear communication, People's Choice, plain language, Plain Language Act, Social good
Good, better, best: it's over to the judges to decide | Photo by Canstock
Thanks to all who entered this year’s Awards! After a flurry of last-minute entries, we have handed everything over to our intrepid judging team. All 36 of them!
This year a third of the judges are from New Zealand and the rest are from the US, UK, Australia, and Europe. All are accomplished plain language experts and strong advocates for Ernest Gowers’ advice: ‘Be short, be simple, be human’.
How do our expert independent judges pick their winners? It’s a big job so we thought you’d like to know a bit more about it.
First up, shortlisting
First, our judges read over each entry, carefully checking against the plain language criteria. Then they vote on their shortlist. This all happens independently in the Submittable system, which allows ‘thumbs-up, thumbs-down’ voting.
Next, judges do a detailed review of all entries, writing comments for each of the assessment criteria. Each panel works hard to make sure feedback is balanced, fair, and helpful. The goal at this stage is to recognise and affirm great writing and to help entrants do even better by making suggestions and giving examples for improvement.
We know that entrants really value the expert feedback. For some, it’s the best aspect of entering! Submittable calculates scores for each of the criteria and averages them across the judging panel to help the panel agree on a few contenders for the category awards.
Last, picking the finalists and winners
Now the judges deliberate as a team to pick their finalists and winners — quite a logistics exercise with judges living all over the globe! The deliberation stage can involve lots of lively debate, especially when many entries are of a very high standard!
When judges need to choose between two excellent entries, it usually comes down to impact. Entries where the work has made the greatest positive impact will usually triumph.
When all is agreed, lead judges review the written comments for all shortlisted entries to make extra sure that the comments are clear and helpful.
So if you entered this year, good luck! Regardless of the outcome, you’ve done a good thing and your users are thanking you! (A trophy is good too of course!)
How the judging process works
Judges for the 2022 Plain Language Awards
Lynda Harris August 16th, 2022
Posted In: 2022 Plain Language Awards, Judges, Shortlists
Tags: clear communication, judges, plain language, Plain Language Awards
The amusingly named Brainstrain Award has a serious purpose: to effect change for good | Photo by Canstock
Here’s your chance to dob in a bad document and inspire better with the Brainstrain option of the People’s Choice Award!
When we’re forced to wrestle with a hard-to-read document, we grumble quietly or even complain loudly. It could be a form we need to complete, a contract or financial agreement we have to sign, or other vital information we need. If they’re not clearly written or presented, all can inspire a range of negative reactions!
Inaccessible information has serious effects
We often joke about dense, unhelpful, or poorly worded documents. We label them gobbledygook or jargon and then forget about them. But for many people, inaccessible information has more serious consequences. Barriers to understanding create disadvantage, mistakes, and stress. Lives are affected and the cost can be high.
So here’s your chance to put a spotlight on a bad document and prevent more harm. Nominate it for the 2022 People’s Choice Brainstrain Award! This award goes to the document or webpage most notable for confusing or disadvantaging its target audience. Judges take into account the number of people likely to be affected and the degree of frustration or harm caused. Any member of the public can make a nomination.
Do your bit to create a fairer and more respectful society
Although the ‘prize’ is given in good humour at the ceremony, the award has a very serious purpose — to prompt change and create a fairer and more respectful society. Many winners have accepted the feedback graciously and gone on to rewrite the offending text. Thousands of people have been positively affected by those rewrites, so here’s a chance to play your part.
Take action now and be a catalyst for change. (Nominations are kept confidential — your name and details are not made available to the perpetrator!)
Nominate a Brainstrain
Find out more about the People’s Choice Awards
Lynda Harris July 22nd, 2022
Posted In: 2022 Plain Language Awards, People's Choice awards
Tags: Best communication, Brainstrain, gobbledygook, People's Choice, Plain Language Awards, Worst Brainstrain
Does your annual report tell a compelling story? | Photo by Ann Kilpatrick on Excio.io
Excellence! It’s what the judges are looking for, but what exactly does that mean?
Whether you’ve chosen a print, web, or video format, an excellent annual report will have some stand-out features. The report will be easy to read for the intended audience, be designed beautifully in keeping with your brand, and tell a compelling story of accomplishment and impact.
Does your report pass the ‘easy to read’ test?
Testing readability is easy to do. Take your cue from what you want as a reader! Pretend you are reading another company’s annual report, without necessarily having a lot of detailed subject knowledge. And you’re busy! What do you want? Most people say they want the content to be interesting, without jargon, buzz words, or padding. And everyone always wants to get the main points quickly.
Putting yourself in your reader’s shoes will automatically focus your energy on making your content crystal clear and readable. (Hint: the judges will be looking for familiar words, generally shorter sentences, great flow, and informative headings.)
Does your report look good?
Gone are the days of lengthy, dreary annual reports with boring covers and bland walls of text. The judges are looking for clever visual design that supports the content, brings key messages to life, and stands for who you are. (But don’t get too clever! The judges are not looking for a ‘pretty’ design that serves no particular purpose.)
Are you telling a compelling story of accomplishment and impact?
We all know that stories connect us to each other and convey the human experience. How you make your readers feel has so much to do with your report’s success.
Your stakeholders want to know what happened during the past year, and the impact you made, in as relatable a way as possible. Whether times were good or bad, your readers, and our judges, will appreciate the story — the who, what, when, why, and how — behind the numbers and activities. They want your report to pass the ‘So what?’ test!
Show how your annual report makes the grade
Think your report is a winner? Enter your annual report by 31 July.
Check out the entry criteria for the Best Plain Language Annual Report
See this handy checklist on what makes a great annual report
Be inspired by the 2021 winners
Lynda Harris July 13th, 2022
Posted In: 2022 Plain Language Awards, Annual report
Tags: Best Plain Language Annual Report, decision making, excellence, Story
Is your annual report awesome? Does it tell your story well? | Photo by Aneta Pawlik on Unsplash
Annual report. Those two little words often conjure up other words like ‘dull’, ‘heavy’, and even ‘eyes glaze over’. But not always! In selecting the best of the best, our Awards judges tend to use very different and much more positive words to describe winning entries. Words like ‘engaging’, ‘compelling’ and ‘impressive’.
So what does it take to get such accolades? Almost every winning entry over many years has inspired the judges to comment on the story told in the report. Here’s a great example from their comments on the Ryman Healthcare Annual Report 2018.
‘a strong example of how a company can take complex information and share the details both with clarity and with compelling storytelling’
‘The report tells an extremely engaging story that would undoubtedly appeal to a general reader.’
Why story? It’s easy to present data without joining the dots for readers. Stories carry messages and deliver information beyond mere numbers and facts. They answer the questions ‘so what?’ and ‘why should I care?’ Stories raise oxytocin, the ‘feel good’ hormone — we’re interested and engaged and we want more.
So if you’re proud of the story told in your annual report, yours could be the one our judges rave about this year!
Check the features of an awesome annual report below to see how yours measures up. And don’t be modest!
A checklist for Annual Report Awesomeness
|Check that your annual report:|| Yes, it's good to go!||No, it needs more work
|Tells an engaging and compelling story about relevant events, context, and trends||
|Is structured with the reader’s needs front and centre||
|Expresses complex information clearly and thoughtfully||
|Reports technical details and data in a way that keeps the reader’s attention||
|Uses an attractive design that helps tell the story||
|Is accessible to all intended audiences||
|Is memorable for all the right reasons (yes, it’s still about the story!)||
Read the entry criteria for Best Plain English Annual Report
Meet the judges for Best Plain English Annual Report
Lynda Harris July 24th, 2021
Posted In: 2021 Plain English Awards, Annual report
Tags: accountability, annual report, Best Annual Report, clear communication, transparency
Ever had that 'feel good' feeling from transforming a piece of text into really clear, readable content?
It’s 10am on a workday morning and a bunch of us are, accidentally and animatedly, tweaking some text on a neglected webpage we administer. ‘Too long!’ ‘It’s so long-winded.’ ‘Uggh, it sounds stodgy and dull’. ‘Look at that next sentence – why, just why?’
We’d intended to check on only a small detail but quickly ended up editing with a passion. Honestly, we didn’t mean to! But, oh, the satisfaction at the glorious transformation. It felt good. Very, very good! The world was now a better place. Instructions were clear. Readers would breeze through it. Job done!
If you too get a happy burst of dopamine from turning around bad writing, you’ll totally get this and probably be nodding in agreement. And if you’ve been on top of the world after some of your own transformations, you’d better share! Enter them in the Turnaround category of the annual Plain English Awards
We’ll be cheering you on, every step of the way!
The Turnaround award recognises the best plain English rewrite of a document or website that was originally difficult to read.
Lynda Harris August 24th, 2018
Posted In: 2018 Plain English Awards
Tags: 2018 Plain English Awards, benchmark, Industry awards, plain language, recognition, transformation, Turnaround Award