Katherine Spivey on Plain Language

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to another episode of 10-Minute Tech Comm. This is Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and today I’m pleased to bring you an interview with Katherine Spivey, who serves as the general services administration’s plain language launcher for the government’s plain language initiative. She’s here to tell us all about how governments and businesses can achieve plain language in their writing and their web materials.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the program, Katherine. We really appreciate you and the work that goes on at plain language dot-gov. I guess to get started, can we just sort of briefly define what is plain language?

[Katherine Spivey] Sure plain language is at its briefest, it’s communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. You know, there’s three elements that you sort of like, you know, what they say are the most important leg of a three-legged stool. These all work together. Users need to be able to find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they found to meet their needs. If you can’t do those things, you know, it’s really not ringing all of the plain language bells.

[Weber] Tell us a little bit about how this works in practice.

[Spivey] I should say first that you may hear it described a couple of different ways: “plain writing,” “plain English,” “clear English.” There’s a trend to start calling it “clear communications” because that incorporates more disciplines like editors, instructional designers. So far the trend is really clear communications which is, which is good to know. There’s a lot of international interest in this as well. We found that perhaps the best example is some of the things that we’re seeing every day is very fine work that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is doing on clarifying mortgage statements. Another huge area is health literacy, health communications. People, you know have to get information from the doctor and they need to be able to comply with what they’re being asked to do and they’re finding that there’s a huge gap. And we’re not even talking about people for whom English is a second language. That’s an almost an entirely different issue. But who people are native speakers and still don’t understand what they’re being asked to do. It’s the holiday season people are probably buying stuff and using their credit cards and they’re getting monthly statements. That little statement that says if you pay the minimum, it’ll take you 17 billion years to pay this off, that was a plain language initiative, not necessarily one driven by the government, but plain language is sort of everywhere.

[Weber] That’s a good example. Can you give us a few more examples of the kinds of revision that plain language entails?

[Spivey] Sure. It sounds to me as if some of what you’re asking is what are the techniques that you can use to increase plain language?

[Weber] Yeah, that’s a that’s a good place to start. Yes.

[Spivey] Yeah, the biggest place really, I mean the most important step, not necessarily the easiest, but the most important is to organize with your reader or your user in mind. And this is a huge step. A lot of government agencies, you know you work with people to develop web pages so that more people can do self service, which is a big thing with websites. You can really drive down costs if your web pages are useful and people can do a lot of self-service download stuff, send a form electronically, you know, whatever they need to do. That is difficult because people in the government often have so much they want to explain. They’re not trying to be difficult. They just want to give people really they want to give people the fullest possible picture and it is very difficult to explain to, you know, what we call stakeholders, that their audience doesn’t care about a number of things like how long they’ve been in office. They don’t care about that at all.

[Weber] Um hmm, how long the program has existed.

[Spivey] Exactly, legal authority for the program. They don’t care and that is a very difficult barrier to sort of breakdown because your people come to the web to do something. So few government agencies have a fan club. You know, people come to the government to do things and they want to do those things as easily and quickly as possible. People got used to “oh put it up on the web. It’s easy. It’s cheap. There’s, you know, no barriers.” But that doesn’t necessarily help people trying to do things. They’re trying to find out if your great aunt is eligible for veterans companion care. It’s very difficult to find that. Just as a possibility. So organizing with the reader in mind is the most important and it is the hardest. Some of the other techniques we use are pretty much journalism and business writing. I mean plain language isn’t new. It’s existed for a very, very long time. The Plain Language Action and Information Network at plain language dot-gov started in the mid 90s to you know work with people and work with the federal government and try and make plain language a little bit more of a reality. But some of these techniques are using pronouns. That’s huge. That’s also very difficult to convince people to do. But there’s enough of a barrier already with the federal government and citizens that anything you can do to make that easier. And pronouns are an easy thing. Active voice. Unfortunately, governments are notorious for passive voice, you know. “Mistakes were made.” You know, that that sort of thing right?

[Weber] Yes to make the subject ambiguous, or the actor ambiguous.

[Spivey] It’s either that or we’re potted plants. One of the two. Using active voice, using short sentences and paragraphs, using common everyday words. I used to do some usability testing with, you know, that tested federal websites and no matter what the agency, no matter what the purpose of the website, people complained about lots of things. Three things commonly made the top 10 list that were plain language oriented. One: way too much text.

[Weber] Okay.

[Spivey] There’s just too much information there. The other is too many acronyms, They’re an immediate barrier. And using jargon. That gets all back to organizing with the reader in mind. We can’t guarantee that only experts in our agency will come to our page.

[Weber] Sure, that’s unlikely. In fact if you’re trying to serve the public you can almost guarantee that they won’t.

[Spivey] Typically you have to make certain decisions. But you know, we found that the more decisions you make like that in favor of plain language, the easier people find it to use your web pages, and so you have happier people. That’s a very rough summary of a complicated process. And some of the other things are really like basic for the web but using headers. Just using bulleted lists, using tables, although they don’t really work with smartphones, so we’re kind of trying to fix that. But you know, there are all attainable techniques. I mean, everybody can do them and what I’m trying to say also is there’s a spectrum, you know. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I still get stuff where they say “Well, you know, the lawyer said it was okay!” and I’m like “okay, so there’s some things here that you need to rethink.” And they don’t like doing it because they thought they were done. But we’re really advocating for the public, advocating for our users and as we brought up slightly earlier, it’s the law.

[Weber] Right, yeah. Can you talk a little more about that? There’s a plain language act, correct?

[Spivey] Yes, the Plain Language Act. Actually this is where I said, you know people use different phrases. This is the Plain Writing Act of 2010. So is, the purpose is listed. This is for those of you who are writing this down Public Law 111 – 274 111th Congress. And it passed in 2010, made effective. Everybody had to be in compliance by 2011. Fundamentally the issue is what’s covered? What has to be in plain language? And the what they use is the phrase “covered document.” Any document that is necessary for obtaining any federal government benefit or service or for filing taxes. So that’s Social Security. That’s Medicaid. That’s, you know, veterans benefits, things like that. Anything that provides information about any federal government benefit or service or anything that explains to the public how to comply with a requirement the federal government administers or enforces.

[Weber] Okay, okay.

[Spivey] And this is both paper or electronic. You know, it covers it very generously. Now there are a couple of things it doesn’t cover. It doesn’t cover internal email as, much as we’d like to turn in our colleagues for not adhering to the plain writing act, they’re really not going to be focusing on that. It also doesn’t cover regulations. You know, the Plain Regulations Act is somewhere. I haven’t been following it all that closely because I don’t personally deal with regulations and I just haven’t been. But that’s the focus of the law. The covered documents, you know, and what do you have to do. And we passed the deadline. Tt became effective October 13th, 2011. So all new documents after that had to have to be in plain language if they’re a covered document.

[Weber] Can you give you give us some good examples of some of the principles in action? Can you give me, say a sentence like a before-and-after sentence that was not in plain language and then has been revised to be in plain language?

[Spivey] Absolutely. I keep an email folder of all the examples that come across my screen. But the latest one that I’ve been thinking of is “Please be advised that…” anything. And right now I’m getting them from the IT department. “Please be advised that…” And there’s so many things wrong I don’t know where to begin. But fundamentally the “Please be advised,” that’s passive voice right there. It’s also a complete filler. For example, if the message is “Please be advised that our VPN connection is intermittent,” you know, you’ve put the information, the important information, in the middle of the sentence.

[Weber] That’s a great example of introducing needless words to just kind of complicate everything. I think that’s a good point. Well, thank you so much Katherine for coming on the podcast today. We really appreciate you sharing some of the principles and techniques of plain language with us.

[Spivey] I’m happy to be here Ryan.

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Episode 19