Happy July! Here at Literacy Works we wanted to kick off our fiscal year with a celebration of things that bring us joy. You can check out our Joyful July page and follow our social media to join special training sessions, an exciting scavenger hunt, and Instagram live events that showcase some of our favorite things. You’ll get a chance to get to know us better, and hopefully, we’ll get to learn more about you!
So, what does Joyful July have to do with plain language? When we help organizations revise materials, we often start by asking them to tell us about their audience. A huge part of clear communication is meeting people where they are, and you can’t do that if you don’t know.
One of our goals with Joyful July is to strengthen our relationships with the people who participate in our programming. By getting to know our audience, we can share information in a more impactful way. Thinking about relationship building as part of clear communication can help you more effectively communicate with colleagues and program participants.
Here are a few examples of how and why building relationships is so important for your written content:
Know how people want to be talked about
A basic way of showing respect is talking about people the way they want to be talked about. In the disability rights movement, there are a lot of people who advocate for using person-first language. This is the idea of saying “a person with a disability” instead of “a disabled person.”
However, some people find that person-first language doesn’t reflect their experience, such as many in the autism community, who view autism as a core part of their identity. It’s important to make sure that the language you’re using resonates with the people you want to connect with. The only way you can learn is by being curious and building relationships.
Tell us like it is
An advantage of building strong relationships is getting honest feedback. If people don’t feel valued and trusted by you, they’re not going to take the time to tell you why they’re not responding to your emails. They’re just not going to respond.
If you want to create a culture where participants feel safe sharing feedback, you need to start by building relationships. Make sure:
You’re working alongside folx in community, not just to check it off your list
You build in time for feedback and prioritize it as opposed to rushing projects through without it
You’re taking time to get to know people before asking them to help you out
If you’re asking your program’s participants for their insight, you find a way to compensate them for their time
Have trauma-informed processes
Having a trauma informed approach at all levels is another key piece of applying plain language - because too often systems are traumatizing.
Think about interactions you’ve had with institutions, large and small. There may be complicated processes to follow, or you might feel like “just a number.” It doesn’t matter how plain our language is if our processes are dehumanizing. We can help create safe and supportive spaces by sharing our humanity and creating space for others to do the same at all parts of a process.
Translate those relationships to paper
Sometimes we encounter folx who have collaborative and engaging relationships with participants in real life, but that partnership doesn’t translate to written materials. Punitive and patronizing policies become codified in text, where people are told what to do but not why and only given the illusion of choices (or no choices at all).
What are your values that you want your content to exude? Make sure your tone, clarity, and representation align with those values.
What can we do?
When we only focus on the pragmatic side of our work and minimize the importance of relationships or de-prioritize relationship-building, it can be easy to bury our heads in the sand and fall back on patterns or habits that don’t actually serve our communities.
Find genuine ways to celebrate and share experiences both within your organization and with the communities you work alongside. And don’t let yourself forget why we do our work – to create a more just world.
Sarah Glazer is the Program Manager at the Clear Language Lab at Literacy Works. Connect with Sarah at email@example.com.