Plain Language as a Tool for Inclusive Communications
Written by Khue Tran, International Rescue Committee New Roots Program
“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well.
Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.
Everything should be as simple as it can be, yet no simpler.”
– Albert Einstein
This article complements and builds off of the Intercultural Communications article.
Plain Language is communication your audience can understand the first time they read or hear it. Plain language is NOT dumbing down, but rather a method to simplify understanding and reduce the number of emails and calls from your audience asking for clarification. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 has made this method a standard practice among public agencies as they serve the broader, diverse community, as well as organizations that serve a specific audience with low English proficiency.
Writing in plain language means writing clearly so that readers can find what they need, understand what they find the first time, and use what they find to meet their needs. Write for your audience and keep it short.
Plain Language Writing Principles
- Write in active voice
- Use personal pronouns (we, you, us)
- Use short words and sentences (avoid acronyms)
- Use everyday language (avoid jargon)
- Use descriptive headers, bullet points and white space
- Define industry-specific words
- Avoid extra detail
- Include descriptive images and captions
Speaking in plain language uses many of the same principles as writing in plain language. In a classroom or instructional setting, you are encouraged to use the Teach-Back method to test the groups or individual’s understanding of the material that was presented. This is commonly used in medical practice between doctors and patients and can also be applied to other technical workshops. Speaking in plain language also allows interpreters to deliver your message more accurately to your audience.
Plain Language Speaking Principles
- Plan ahead and practice
- Structure and organize your speech or lesson plan
- Speak clearly and at moderate speed
- Use common words (avoid jargon)
- Avoid idioms or colloquialisms
- Avoid fillers (um, ok, you know)
- Speak for short amounts of time (you should not speak more than 30% of the total time)
- Use audiovisual aids in a presentation or pass out a handout so folks can follow along
- Use Teach-Back to gauge understanding with open-ended questions (What questions do you have? vs. Does anyone have any questions; What are the 3 steps to planting cover crops? vs. can anyone name the steps to planting cover crops?)
Using pretentious language, legalese and academic jargon ultimately wastes the reader’s and your time. They will spend time looking up the definition of a word or sending an email to you for clarification. Implementing plain language throughout your organization’s website and other digital and print assets saves everyone time, ensures rules are understood and complied with, and creates a learning environment that is welcoming to all.