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.
Posted In: 2022 Plain Language Awards, 2022 Plain Language Awards ceremony, Story theme
advocate, Brainstrain, clear communication, People's Choice, plain language, Plain Language Act, Social good
We celebrate the generous support of our friends | Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash
One of the goals behind the Awards is to create a fairer society through improving people’s access to important communications. We acknowledge that this is an ambitious goal, but it’s one that moves a step closer to reality with every bit of support we get.
Among our supporters are our judges, who are all expert plain language specialists from around the world. They seem to come back each year even keener to to help us out again!
Adding to this wonderful level of support, our sponsors are all shining examples from the community of individuals and organisations committed to doing good.
Taking care of our printing needs
For 7 years now, the Wellington branch of printing.com has been one of our loyal sponsors. We feel fortunate to have their support. As their commitment to the Awards, printing.com covers all our printing needs for the Plain English Awards.
‘We see the Awards as being extremely important for supporting the government and business sectors as they continuously improve the way they communicate with the general public of New Zealand,’ says Nathan Jennings, business development manager at printing.com.
Thank you printing.com for your ongoing support. We couldn’t do it without you and all our other friends!
Read about printing.com and our other sponsors
Become a sponsor
Posted In: Communications, Judges, Sponsors, Sponsorship
2021 Plain English Awards, Industry awards, judges, Social good, sponsors, Sponsorship
Read on for part 2 of the inspiring speech given by Lynda Harris, Awards founder and CE of main sponsor Write Limited, at the 2018 Plain English Awards
I said that care can be a powerful catalyst for action if we will act on what we feel prompted to do. The three law firm owners I interviewed had done just that — they literally turned their values and sense of care into strong action.
So, believing what you do about the power of plain language, my question to you as both writer and consumer is ‘what action can you take that is bigger and bolder than before?’ How can you make your sense of care count?
As a writer your awareness of the benefits of plain language will naturally spur you on to rewrite. Make your effort meaningful! What significant project needs your support and insights? Which of your reader groups are most in need? Who must you persuade? Where can you make a difference?
As a consumer, it’s your voice that will bring change, so speak up! When you receive a document that is anything but reader-friendly, reject! Don‘t sign a difficult to understand contract. Query unclear instructions and ask for better. Tell companies what you think of their convoluted policies.
Let care equal action. Let care equal clear.
Find out more about the WriteMark Plain Language Standard
Posted In: 2018 Plain English Awards, Industry awards, Social good
2018 Plain English Awards, Care, clear communication, Social good
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.
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.’
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:
Find out more about the WriteMark Plain Language Standard
Posted In: 2018 Plain English Awards, Communications, Social good, Sponsors
2018 Plain English Awards, Care, plain language, Social good
Are you ready to be in the running for success?
What’s the best feedback you could hope for about a website that you or your organisation has created? What’s the greatest outcome you could imagine from a document your organisation has published? And what’s the most satisfying result you could wish for for the writers in your organisation?
How about, ‘This site was our clear and unanimous winner! We hope plain-writing professionals and trainers will use it as a good example of plain writing principles’? Or what about, ‘What’s not to like?’ And even, ‘It’s hard to see how the writers could have helped the readers more’?
The responses we’ve listed above are all true-blue pieces of feedback from judges at last year’s Plain English Awards. What kind of feedback do you think you’d get?
Going the extra mile for readers
Every year the Plain English Awards honours those individuals and organisations who have gone the extra mile to get the best outcomes for their readers. The Awards are a public pat on the back for plain English champions. They help to raise the bar for clear communication.
To decide on our champions, independent panels of plain English experts and advocates judge entries and decide on who’s best in each category. This year the Awards has 13 different categories to enter (or to be entered in).
Are you ready to be in the running?
Entries for the 2018 Plain English Awards are open. You have 3 months to get your entries in before they close on Friday, 31 August.
Enter the 2018 Plain English Awards through our website.
Posted In: 2018 Plain English Awards, Plain English Awards
2018 Plain English Awards, clear communication, People's Choice, Social good
Everyone wins with a sound sponsorship agreement. Photo by Shirly Niv Marton / Unsplash
Sponsorship isn’t about giving away money to a good cause: that’s donating. Sponsorship offers two parties the opportunity to be part of a win–win agreement.
In return for their support, sponsors get the same feel-good factor they would get from donating. But on top of that, they also get a return on the investment in their chosen cause. So, true sponsorship offers an organisation something sustainable and tangible in return for its commitment.
Sponsors get clear returns on their investment
Sponsoring the Plain English Awards offers clear returns on your investment, such as:
- alignment with plain English values. You’re seen as customer-focused, transparent, and trustworthy
- brand exposure. Forget about advertising! You’ll be widely promoted in our Awards publicity, reaching large groups of potential new customers
- networking opportunities. Plain English Awards entries come from a huge range of public and private organisations. The networking opportunities you get from Awards forums (in person and online) offer a hugely valuable return, as does the actual presentation ceremony.
Is your organisation a sponsorship ‘best match’?
Looking at the values and aims of the Plain English Awards, and from our past experience, we know the types of organisations that benefit most from sponsorship.
If you can answer ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, sponsoring the Plain English Awards could be just the thing for you:
- Do you want to reinforce to your clients or customers that you always work with their best interests in mind?
- Do you want to reinforce to your clients or customers that you are transparent in your dealings with them and with other organisations?
- Do you want to be part of a movement to improve government and business documents so that all New Zealanders can understand them?
- Do you want to help build a public preference for plain English?
- Do you love celebrating success?
Answered ‘Yes’ to one of more of these questions? It’s time for a conversation!
We’d love to hear from you
Get in touch if you’d like to talk through sponsorship opportunities at this year’s Awards. We’d love to discuss a sponsorship arrangement that would benefit both the Awards and your organisation.
Phone: +64 4 384 6447
Visit our website for more information about the 2018 Plain English Awards
Posted In: 2018 Plain English Awards, Plain English Awards, Social good, Sponsors
2018 Plain English Awards, Plain English Awards, Social good, Sponsorship