Plain Language
at Work Newsletter
  5 June 2009—Number 39  

Smart Language: Readers,  Readability, and the Grading of Text

Unlocking Language: The Classic Readability Studies

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The Legal Writer

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Clarity for Lawyers by Mark Adler

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The Dalai Lama: a time for clarity.

Effective Communications in a time of crisis

The Language of Recovery

WHEN Business Week asked the Dalai Lama his advice in the wake of the economic meltdown, he said that the crisis was caused by three things:

  1. Too much greed.
  2. Speculation.
  3. Not being transparent.

"That's my view," he said. "These are moral and ethical issues."

On the importance of transparency, he said:

When things become difficult, make it clear to the public. If right from the beginning the true picture is made clear, the public may be less shocked. So be transparent and honest from the beginning.

Communicating in hard times

Recent surveys show that 78 percent of human relations and communications personnel have had their programs cut or frozen. Yet experts say it is no time to cut back in communications, which can make the difference between survival and failure. Companies with better communications report almost a 50 percent higher total return to shareholders. Such companies were also four times more likely to report high levels of employee engagement as those who did less to get their message across.

Terry Barber of Grizzard Communication Group offers these recommendations:

  1. Authenticity. Get out of the image-management business for yourself and your company. Share with the people in your organization where you are weak. Verbally express how much you need them, let them know you know your limitations, and invite them to partner with you to get through these difficult times.
  2. Connect with the dreams of others. Use these difficult times to uncover the latent dreams and ambitions of your key talent. Tell them you are more committed than ever to helping them get to where they want to go. Be creative in aligning their tasks for today with their dreams for tomorrow.;
  3. See in others the abilities they don't see in themselves. Take time to be observant. After you notice a talent or strength in a person, let him or her know you noticed it, and be specific about what you noticed.
  4. Speak and live with credibility. It does not mean much to encourage staff if they are living in fear and operating in a mentality of scarcity .
  5. Help people find a purpose. Remind them that what happens at work is only a portion of their life. There is much to life besides work. Help people write down a vision statement for their life first and then for their job.

To survive in hard times, successful organizations focus on the positives, involve employees, craft consistent messages, reinforce core values, and communicate clearly and directly with customers.

Public-service agencies: bringing people through the crisis

Being transparent has even more meaning for public-service agencies. What is happening now is that:

  1. Health services, unemployment offices, abuse and addiction centers, food banks, and other service organizations are facing funding cuts and at the same time are overwhelmed by higher demands for services.
  2. Many of those accessing these services are discovering for the first time the difficulties of navigating agencies and completing the paperwork.

In face of these difficulties, it is more important than ever for these agencies to have simple-to-use and clearly written forms and notices. They reduce costs and improve service.

Any form of stress greatly reduces one's ability to read. Reading experts remind us recommend the 5th-grade level of readability for:

  • The elderly.
  • Those with low literacy.
  • Those affected by disease or disability.
  • Those affected by any emotional and physical distress.

For these reasons, officials at Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services recently had all client forms re-written at the 5th-grade level. The department has 13,000 employees, an annual budget of $2 billion, and over two million aids a month. Even small improvements in the readability of forms will, over time, bring the department and the citizens it serves significant benefits .

In a time of crisis, a documents that are clear and easy-to-read can make a big difference to those seeking aid.

Schwarzenegger: life in the state is about to become much worse.

Faulty ballot language turns away voters

California's Train Wreck

LACK of transparency was also responsible for defeating California Governor Schwarzenegger's ballot measures to reduce the state's 2010 $23-billion budget deficit.

Before the May 19 special election, the governor had pleaded with voters not to make California "the poster child for dysfunction." But in refusing to pass five of his six emergency measures, that's exactly what they did. Only 23 percent of voters showed up, the lowest figure ever for a special election.

Those in other states have little reason to gloat. With its massive economy (the 8th largest in the world) California is their lifeboat. If it goes down, they will go with it.

Even before the election, there had been considerable complaint about the language of the measures. The legislature had drafted them behind closed doors and without public hearings. The language appeared to be protecting budget items that the legislature in fact was raiding. One blogger claimed the legislature was "playing word games with ballot titles."

Two organizations brought suits against the language of two ballot titles. Anthony Wright, one of the groups' directors, wrote:

Voters must be protected from false and misleading statements in official ballot summaries and analysis provided by the government. If this measure can't be passed without a misleading description, then voters should send the authors back to the drawing board to get it right.

A Sacramento judge agreed with this argument and ordered language changes in the two measures.

The Ventura Country Reporter stated: "'Surprise election' could be a better phrase for a campaign that shows signs of hurried preparation, under-developed planning and confusing language."

The Economist agreed: "Confused and bored by the wonky and tangled wording on the ballot, most voters ignored the election entirely." As a result, "Mr. Schwarzenegger, already unpopular before this crisis, may be remembered as a failure."

George Skelton in the L.A. Times argued that when voters don't understand a proposition, they vote against it. He wrote, "The lesson: keep it simple. Make sure it can easily be grasped by voters."

The bloated, 64-page Voters' Information Guide provided by the state did little to help voters. That's because it was written at the 13th-grade level of readability. Only 15 percent of voters could read it, and apparently very few of them did.

In the welcoming letter to the guide, Secretary of State Debra Brown wrote:

Now, to help you make your decisions, my office has created this Official Voter Information Guide that contains impartial analyses of the law and potential costs to taxpayers prepared by Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, arguments in favor and against all ballot measures prepared by proponents and opponents, text of the proposed laws proofed by Legislative Counsel Diane F. Boyer-Vine, and other useful information.

There should be a law against long-winded behavior like this. In fact, there is: Section 6219 of the California Government Code requires for all government documents "plain, straightforward language, avoiding technical terms as much as possible, and using a coherent and easily readable style."

Dow Jones Project

Measuring Gobbledygook

New Gobbledygook Grader

IN APRIL 2009, a new gobbledygook grader was introduced by David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing & PR and World Wide Rave.

Scott developed his grader with the assistance of Dow Jones. See the full Dow Jones report on the Gobbledygook Project at:

Plain Language in the News

How much is gobbledygook costing your business?

New AT&T consumer-friendly contract:

Red Deer, Alberta, adopts plain language:

New payday-loan regulations in Alberta:

New group targets tax language:

Key provisions of the new U.S. credit-card bill:

Plain language in the U.S. new credit-card bill:

Needed: plain-language cell-phone disclosures:

Misunderstanding medicine labels:

New crop of acronyms in U.S. government:

Mortgage-break fees are as clear as mud:

Green labels need precision:

UK doctors worried about jargon in the NHS:

Cybersecurity and language:

Download It Now—Free!
The Principles of Readability
By William H. DuBay

A brief introduction to the research on the readability formulas.
70 pages, bibliography

"Thanks for the report on readability. It is really a very impressive work. You have pulled together a lot of information that ranges over a long period of time. A genuine work of classic scholarship—of which there is way too little that comes my way."
—Thomas Sticht, Ph.D., International Consultant on Adult Literacy

"I finally got around to reading your article. It is very good, scholarly, and complete. Even though readability formulas have been around for years, I think that the biggest current problem is that they are not widely used. Much education of writers, editors, and general population is needed."
—Edward Fry, Ph.D. Reading Consultant.

Impact-Information Plain Language Services
Readability Consulting
Plain-Language Workshops
For a free consultation, call today:
William H. DuBay
Impact Information
126 E. 18th Street #C204
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Phone: (949) 631-3309
© 2007 William H. DuBay

PLAIN Conference Sidney 2009

Plain Language Association International

U.S. Gov. Plain Lnaguage Website

Center for Plain Language

Plain Language Center

Plain Langauge Commission

Plain English Foundation Australia

L.A. County Plain Language Page

Work and Lifelong Learning Network

Joe Kimble on Plain Language

Garbl's Writing Center