Plain Language Awards

Celebrate the stories of our clearest business communicators

Care — the shortcut to plain language (part 1)

Taking care costs nothing and means everything. Image by Ross Findon. Unsplash licence

Read on for part 1 of the inspiring speech given by Lynda Harris, Awards founder and CE of main sponsor Write Limited, at the 2018 Plain English Awards

Good evening! Let me start with a question: Why are you here? What prompted you to enter the annual Plain English Awards? What brought you along tonight?

I’m pretty sure that you’re here because you care. You care about the cause. You care about the ideal of plain language because you understand the cost, in both financial and human terms, of poorly conceived and written communications. You care about wasted effort, wasted time, and wasted money.

And you care about the enormous disadvantage that poor writing can bring, especially when the communications are about access to justice, or help of some kind, or are connected with legal, financial, or health services.

It was the very same notion of care that prompted us, 13 years ago, to set up these Awards.

It was because they cared that our foundation sponsors, Consumer, TechCommNZ, and Graphic Solutions came on board, as did our other wonderful sponsors who followed.

And it was also that notion of care that led us to establish the WriteMark Plain Language Standard, now cleverly rebranded by Craig Christensen to reflect that central idea of — you got it — care.

Image, WriteMark Limited logo

The thought I’d like to leave you with tonight is that, rather than thinking of care as simply an emotion connected with plain language, let’s recognise that care has tremendous value in its own right. Care can be a powerful catalyst for action if we follow through on what we feel prompted to do.

I came to this conclusion after preparing for a presentation at Clarity2018 in Montreal recently. The conference was attended by over 500 delegates from around the world, most of them lawyers. In my presentation I explored the idea that having a set of strong, people-based values baked into the firm’s mission might lead naturally to clearer, more accessible law.

I interviewed several B Corp law firms in Australia and Canada. B Corps are accredited organisations that believe business can be a force for good in the world.

What struck me was that in each conversation the people I interviewed used the word care — a lot. They also used another word: ‘believe’. As they spoke about what they believed in, their values, and precisely what they care about, became clear.

Here’s what three of those firms said.

Alexandra Doig from Atticus values care in communication

I loved my interview with Alexandra Doig, Managing Partner of Atticus Lawyers in Melbourne, Australia. With strong convictions about human rights, Alexandra chose to get B Corp accreditation several years ago. Her core philosophy, ‘We believe in treating people as they would want to be treated’, shone through our entire conversation.

It’s not often you hear a lawyer say, ‘We want everyone to feel comfortable all of the time. We know clients are already stressed with the issue. We aim to reduce that stress and make them feel happier … create a safe space … feel that we are their cheerleaders.’

I asked Alexandra the all-important question: Does your chief value of ‘care’ influence the way you write to your clients? The answer: ‘Yes. Telling people what they need to know, and doing all we can to help, means we need to write like a human. We need to communicate clearly and personally in ways that don’t alienate. We can’t give a client a convoluted document. We have to walk the talk and act on what we believe in.

‘We could write a ten-page document. We try to write a one-pager that clearly captures the most important info, and that the client can easily understand and be comfortable with. It’s a calculated risk — with benefits.

‘We want to write in a way that gives clients that lightbulb moment. If a client doesn’t walk away with a greater understanding of their position than they had when they arrived, we haven’t done our job properly.’

Bravo, Alexandra!

Joel Cranshaw from Clearpoint. believes in simple legal services

Joel’s strapline on his website says it all: ‘Legal services — reimagined simply.’ With a background as an experienced corporate lawyer, Joel said he’d always loved solving client problems. But as time went on, he felt less and less comfortable in a system based on chargeable units. ‘I felt there was no incentive to be efficient, and this often led to friction between client and lawyer.’

Prompted by strong values that focused on serving the client in the best way possible, Joel conceived Clearpoint’s unusual model, where they work on retainer for small to medium-sized firms in Melbourne and beyond. Achieving B Corp status was a natural fit.

Joel is a straight talker: ‘We want to work with compassionate people who value what we do and whose approach aligns with the concept of conscious capitalism. We don’t work with clients who don’t have our values.’

When asked if his values-based approach created clearer law, Joel’s answer was unequivocal: ‘Yes! I say that for two reasons. Our retainer-based fee model means that we must work efficiently — so we must be clear, concise, and to the point. And what we believe in, our philosophical approach to compassionately meeting clients’ needs, also means that we must communicate in ways they can readily understand.’

Applause once more from me!

Sophie Tremblay from Novalex runs a purpose-driven business

Sophie’s was a bold start-up story — similar to the Suspended Coffee movement (buy a coffee, pay for two — those who can’t afford to pay get coffee for free). Sophie and her business partner Ryan Hillier set up Novalex to have a self-sufficient business model, serving both corporate clients and others who need legal help. Neither an exclusively for-profit business, nor an exclusively philanthropic organisation, Novalex is a purpose-driven enterprise doing business for good. For every fee-paying hour, they give a pro-bono hour to eligible start-ups, non-profits, or individuals.

In Sophie’s words, ‘We believe everyone should have access to justice and top-notch legal advice. We hope that corporate clients will see using Novalex as a socially responsible choice. And we hope to give back in any way we can.’

Does this values-based model create clearer law? Sophie: ‘Absolutely! We know that even the smartest people aren’t necessarily familiar with legal terms and concepts. So a huge part of what we do is to make the law understandable. We use concrete examples and remove the abstract, along with many other techniques such as metaphor (“It’s like…”), and “This means…” We remove jargon and make important concepts stand out. We do what we need to do to be understood.’

Care intuitively leads to plain language

Hearing this long list of useful and well-founded plain language techniques, I asked Sophie if she had ever had any formal plain language training. She hadn’t. Nor had Alexandra or Joel. Yet instinctively, motivated by strong human values and a sense of care, all three ticked so many plain language boxes.

My hypothesis was looking good — all three firms proving that care really can be a shortcut to plain language. Admittedly my sample size was only three, but these inspiring leaders and others like them are truly showing the way to clearer law using an approach based on care.

Find out more about each of the three firms here:




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