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.