| Plain Language
at Work Newsletter
|5 June 2009Number 39|
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:
"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:
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:
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:
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.
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
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
much is gobbledygook costing your business?
AT&T consumer-friendly contract:
Deer, Alberta, adopts plain language:
payday-loan regulations in Alberta:
group targets tax language:
provisions of the new U.S. credit-card bill:
language in the U.S. new credit-card bill:
plain-language cell-phone disclosures:
New crop of acronyms in U.S. government: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124390651321174431.html
fees are as clear as mud:
doctors worried about jargon in the NHS: