Michele Cronen, Managing Associate Editor
This blog originally appeared on The Center for Plain Language’s website on February 8, 2017. http://centerforplainlanguage.org/about/blog/. We’re running it here in honor of Health Literacy Month.
Another holiday season has passed, along with the requisite schmoozing at parties. I tend to be more of a listener than a talker. But if I’m asked, I do admit that I’m an editor and a proponent of plain language. In response, I often hear stories like these:
I don’t have the gift of gab, but in these cases, I have to speak up. If most of the people you’re trying to communicate with aren’t responding in the way you intended, there’s a good chance that the problem is YOU.
Take another look. Just how clear are those signs and letters you’ve produced? Are they full of jargon and passive voice? Is the most important message buried within paragraphs of legalese? Have you made it clear what you want your readers to DO with the information?
Those people who annoy you with their failure to follow your written instructions have just done you a huge favor. That’s user testing, and you didn’t have to pay a research firm to gather it. Your users are telling you that they don’t understand your message.
So instead of getting frustrated, get busy! Look at your message with fresh eyes. Imagine you’re one of those people who didn’t follow instructions or who called for more information. Read the message from their point of view, and ask yourself:
Your message should clearly answer those questions for your readers.
So if it’s a tax letter, the letter should prominently and clearly tell readers:
If it’s a sign at a doctor’s office instructing people to check in, it should tell them:
If you follow that advice—and keep your message short and to the point—I’ll bet you’ll see a welcome improvement in how people respond. Then you can spend your time at holiday parties talking about something fun, like “Have you seen the latest Star Wars movie?”
About the Author: Michele Cronen is the Managing Associate Editor at Healthwise, a nonprofit company that helps people make better health decisions. She has not yet seen the latest Star Wars movie.