“A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.”
-International Plain Language Federation
Have you ever come across content that looks reasonably understandable at first glance? Maybe you think you get the main idea pretty quickly. But then you try to figure out WHY it’s important or what you are supposed TO DO next, and you aren’t quite sure. Or you know WHAT you are supposed to do but you don’t know HOW to do it.
This gets to the actionability aspect of plain language, a critical element that is sometimes missing. Because plain language is not just about understanding information — it’s about making sure people have the tools to use that knowledge to take any next steps.
Let’s talk about some common reasons why we see this happen.
Sometimes we have too much going on in a document, and lose sight of the original intent. Or there are a lot of people involved in the development of a document (which can be a good thing!), but “too many cooks in the kitchen” can also steer the document off course.
Tip: When creating a piece of content, have a clear goal (or goals) that you can articulate and return to if you are concerned you are going off course.
Curse of Knowledge
The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that causes us to make assumptions that others know the same information as we do about a topic. And the more we know about a topic, the harder it may be for us to realize this is an issue.
Have you ever had a teacher who was really knowledgeable but lost you after a few minutes? Have you ever tried to teach someone else about a hobby and assumed they were keeping up? Maybe you left out big steps that are second nature to you. Or maybe you used terms that you assumed the other person was familiar with.
Tip: Make sure that you have others review content who aren’t as immersed in the subject as you. Also pay attention to common pain points. Do people ask the same “how do I…” questions over and over? Maybe that’s because it’s not as clear as it could be.
Vague Systems and Processes
Finally, language can also obscure information or make who has the responsibility hazy or undefined. Sometimes, when we are part of big systems, we simply might not know the answers or don’t want to put the wrong information, so we end up with information that offers little in the way of meaning instead.
Hearing requests must be done in a timely manner. (What does “timely” mean here? Have we not defined it or do we keep it vague on purpose?)
An appointment will be scheduled after the application is received. (Whose responsibility is it to make the appointment? When will this happen? In a few days? Few weeks? How will the reader be notified?)
School will be closed but lunch will still be served from 11am - 1pm. (Can you stop by at any time? Is it a to-go lunch?)
Tip: Make sure you anticipate questions in each step of a process. Analyze the various possible action steps and account for them in your content or consider adjusting the processes themselves if they are revealed to be inefficient or problematic.
While making sure content is navigable and understandable is important, we don’t want to forget about making it actionable. Making sure people can accomplish the task or understand their next steps when you are creating content is the final step - don’t leave it out.
Join us for an upcoming event at Clear Language Lab.