Speaking (or writing) Plainly

Speaking (or writing) Plainly

Cheryl Lovstrom, Community Learning Network

0 0 14 March 2023

Speaking plainly is something we are born doing. Even a baby’s cry is usually a clear indicator that something’s up and parents learn pretty quickly what that is just by listening carefully. Young children are very adept at getting their point across (sometimes to their parents’ dismay) and use very few words to do it.
So why is it, the older we get, the more convoluted our language gets? Why do we insist on using academic terminology, jumbled jargon, and additional adjectives where just a few, well placed words will do? Is it because we like reading difficult documents and technological lingo? Not likely. It’s usually because we’ve been taught, through a lifetime of interactions, that lots of words indicate an intellectual author. And (just sometimes) those lots of words may confuse the point just enough that no one will notice we don’t actually know what we’re talking about. Let’s speak plainly, shall we?
Plain language is a CALP’s best tool for recruiting learners, tutors, board members, and all-around allies. It’s the thing that makes your documents, posters, and websites easy to read. It’s the foundation of accessible content. And it’s also the stuff of nightmares. Plain language?!? Those two little words can lead to great angst. They produce the response, “That will make the reader feel dumb!” Or, just as often, “I haven’t got the skills to do that!” But what is plain language, really? And, more to the point, why is it so important?
According to Plain Language Association International: “A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” Simply put, the reader can understand the message the first time they read it.
Why is plain language so important for CALPs?

Let’s think of some of the barriers learners may have because of language:

  • Long, difficult passages can be very frustrating to read for those with lower reading skills.
  • Lower reading skills may mean some parts of the message get skipped or misunderstood.
  • Learners may give up or stop coming to class.
  • Learners may not sign up for learning opportunities because they can’t easily read or find all of the information about a class.
Now what are some of the benefits of plain language?

  • It reduces mistakes because the reader can understand the message the first time they read it.
  • It saves time because the reader can follow instructions without making mistakes.
  • It saves money because tasks are completed the first time without mistakes.
  • Everyone likes plain language. Would you rather read a 10 page document on the virtues of plain language or a 2 page summary that’s actually written in plain language?
For every barrier created by language, there is a plain language solution. So how do you learn how to create plain language? Practice. And practice. And yet more practice. While you are practising, here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Write for your audience. Use language they understand. If you’re writing for learners, use language they use daily (in CALP that’s an average of a grade 6 level). If you’re writing for your funder, use their language (think CALP Guidelines).
  • Include the difficult words if the reader needs to know them, but be sure to explain them with a plain language definition.
  • Use jargon only if the reader will need to know what it is. Again, explain with a plain language definition.
  • Use lots of white space. In other words, leave good margins around the printed material and make the font large enough to read easily.
  • On websites, avoid clutter and think about “how many clicks” it takes to get to information on your site.
Want to learn more about plain language?

You’re in luck! Registration is open now on the CALP portal:
Want to learn even more?

Check out these resources:
Did you know?
In 1991, Alberta was the first province in Canada to adopt a plain language law. That law is the Financial Consumers Act. The law says some consumer contracts must be written in “clear and easily understandable language." (Plain Language: Clear and Simple – Trainers’ Guide)

Another fun fact?
This blog is written at a grade 6.3 level, which is readable by a fairly wide audience. Not bad, but I bet you can do better!


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