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Plain Language is for Everyone

When we developed the Clear Language Lab, we knew that there were fundamental issues with public-facing documents like flyers, forms, web content, and other everyday communications that we wanted to address in our work to make systems more accessible to communities.


But we’ve also seen folx in our orbit bringing other communications to us that need to be written with a plain language lens, too. Here are just a few examples that you might recognize from your own work.


Internal Communications

Whether you work at a non-profit, government agency, or some other mission-driven organization, it’s easy to forget that your colleague down the hall might not have the same knowledge base as you.


A study of malpractice cases in 2015 revealed that provider to provider miscommunication occurred in more than half of the cases examined!


Examples of documents we have revamped recently:

  • Human resources documents tailored to provide guidance to managers and transparency to staff

  • Internal memos ensuring policies for supporting community members are clear so that they can be delivered equitably

If you want to truly collaborate and work in the same direction, understanding the work happening and being able to support each other is critical. That means not taking for granted that you are all on the same page in the an organization, department, or even program.


Big Takeaway: Use plain language principles with your staff and colleagues, too. Break down information to the level needed. Prioritize key info. Be thoughtful even in everyday communications like emails with expectations, timelines, and acronyms.


Grantmaking

One big area where there is so much potential is grantmaking. If you’ve worked in a non-profit organization, you’ve probably been involved with grant applications in some capacity. Raise your hand if you ever had to find a table long enough to use to put together multiple copies of a 100+ page application packet that you had to buy special hole punching tools for (that you couldn’t use current grant funding to buy) and that you only had a few weeks to write! (True story!)


Maybe the grants you’ve worked on aren’t that intense, but it’s unfortunately not uncommon to find requests for proposals that are long, overly complicated, or absent important information for potential grantees. (We recall not being able to find the actual grant period that would be covered on one not too long ago.)


We recently had a powerful conversation with a government department about the potential of creating grantmaking documents in other languages. We raised the fact that the English versions were quite confusing and overwhelming - making clear translation extremely difficult!


We’ve been happy to work with several funders over the last year who have been passionate about increasing the accessibility of grantmaking processes. But this is still not the norm that many organizations experience. And not all have the time, energy, and resources to navigate such complicated processes - and funding becomes about who can navigate the systems, not necessarily about the work.


Of course, there are many other equity issues with the grantmaking process to address. But having clear, accessible processes should be a no-brainer.


Big Takeaway: Explain processes through the lens of your audience — that includes grantmaking. Make sure it is easy to understand eligibility requirements, processes, and deadlines so that staff don’t waste precious time that they could be putting into their communities.


Policy + Advocacy

Another area where we’ve seen this play out is the policy and advocacy realm. Do any of these sound familiar:

  • Overly complicated explanations that don’t connect policy issues to real life impacts

  • Long reports that neglect to consider information design principles and overwhelm the reader

  • Policy overviews without clear call-to-actions

There is so much important work happening — and people put so much effort into creating content. There’s too much at stake to waste time and energy making materials that people can’t make enough sense of to take action on.


Big Takeaway: Have a clear understanding of who your audience is, what’s important to them, what background information they may need, and what actions they can take. Whether they are a legislator, staff, or community member, keep it clear.


In Summary

Being a clear communicator isn’t just for marketing or communications staff — it’s important that everyone feels confident getting their ideas across because no one wants to be bombarded with information that is hard to read, confusing, or incomplete.


Plain language is just good writing — and it is for everyone.


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