What makes organizations (un)willing to deliver documents in plain language?

Last week I said I wanted to understand the obstacles to widespread adoption of plain language. This post will explore organizational willingness. I wrote earlier that I intend to study this topic in detail next fall. But, to make the best use of my time, I’d love to hear from those who have been involved in plain language initiatives. In fact, I have far more questions than answers at this point.

Management research is the likely source of knowledge about what makes organizations (un)willing to adopt plain language. Although I am not a management scholar, I work within a management department in a college of business and have collaborated on research with several of these folks over the past 20 years. (I hope that’s somewhat more persuasive than saying I slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night!)  And the Journal of Change Management has been publishing research for 25 years at this point.

So what do management experts know about organizational willingness to change? First of all, research states that organizational change is often — or mostly — unsuccessful. I’ve seen statistics of between 40% and 70% describing how many organizational change initiatives fail. Is this accurate when looking specifically at plain language initiatives?

Second, research often describes the change process with three phases as suggested in 1947 by the father of social psychology, Kurt Lewin (aka “The Practical Theorist”): (1) unfreezing, (2) moving, and (3) freezing. Later research proposed additional stages but builds on these three.

Third, research shows that developing willingness among employees is a critical part of the unfreezing phase. To minimize resistance and create readiness for change, Armenakis and his colleagues argue that initial communication about the change must address five components. (How do organizations make these arguments about plain language?)

  1. Discrepancy: the organization needs to change.
  2.  Self-efficacy: the organization has the capability to successfully change.
  3. Personal valence: it is in everyone’s best interest to change.
  4. Principal support: those affected are behind the change.
  5. Appropriateness: the desired change is right for the organization.

I would love to hear stories about resistance to change in a plain language initiative. Do these five components help to explain how resitance was/wasn’t dealt with successfully?

Fourth, and not surprisingly, research has found that an organization needs transformational leaders — those who can attend to both tasks and people — to create positive employee affect and commitment about the change from the beginning. So, while organizational change may have to begin with the organizations’ top managers, it must be embraced by individual employees to succeed. That means leaders must help employees become willing to use plain language. You can listen to leadership expert and Forbes contributor, John Kotter, talk about change leadership in 2011. Because our language is so closely tied to our identity (more about that in a future post), I suspect that the kind of leader required to get employees to change their language is one rare individual. Could you tell me about your experience with top managers and their leadership in plain language initiatives?

I warned you I have a lot of questions . . .

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  1. I think if you follow Armenakis and his colleagues five components about change for plain language, you’ll not make any progress on understanding why plain language has made littel progress in organizations.

    I have posted an article on why business training in plain English doesn’t work and it highlights many of the problems. There’s a discussion current on Plain English Advocates on this – see:


    Here are the reason I give for plain language training failing to make any progress in changing the writing style of business and government:

    Reason 1. Plain English sounds dull and boring (it isn’t)
    Reason 2. Understanding clear-writing principles doesn’t mean people write clearly
    Reason 3. Organizations only train junior staff
    Reason 4. Trainees don’t get support from their managers
    Reason 5. Poor writing is the standard style
    Reason 6. The culture of the organization dominates the way people communicate
    Reason 7. Business and government need to measure writing standards
    Reason 8. Writing standards must vary for audience and writing tasks
    Reason 9. Organizations must set writing standards
    Reason 10. Training must be personal and continuous

    In the discussion, people have pointed out the need for the most senior management to get behind a plain language strategy. No one has yet said plain English training will get long-term change.

    Personally, I think software holds the key. Just as Word’s spellchecker has removed 95 percent of typing and spelling errors from documents, plain English software can show people how to write in plain English.

    Nick Wright – Designer of the StyleWriter copy-editing software.

    1. Thanks for your comments and the link to your Squidoo article, Nick. I’m still processing.

      I can see the value of editing software, especially because it provides continuous, individual feedback. But I am concerned about the implication that style is everything in clear written communication. What about organization — of sentences, paragraphs, sections, etc.? What about design and layout? And what about content development — graphics or visuals?

  2. American journalist William Zinsser in chapter 16 of his classic book “On Writing Well” explains why a lot of private companies resist using Plain Language:

    “Still, plain talk will not be easily achieved in corporate America. Too much vanity is on the line. Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts.”

    1. Thanks for contributing, Gerry. I appreciate Zinsser’s experience. It coincides with much of my own. I am especially interested in firsthand accounts or other data. Most advice about communication is not based on evidence I find persuasive. Everyone has opinions. But few people test them in a compelling way.

  3. These studies provide data and insights on what drove organizations to adopt Plain Language, problems they encountered with staff and management, etc:

    [1] “Putting Plain Language Into Practice” May 2004 by the NWT Literacy Council (http://www.nwt.literacy.ca/resources/plainlang/practice/practice.pdf)

    This study examined Plain Language initiatives by several Canadian institutions like Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Office of the Alberta Auditor General, Government of Nova Scotia, British Columbia Securities Commission, and Ontario Securities Commission.

    [2] “How Plain English Works for Business: Twelve Case Studies” by the US Department of Commerce (March 1984 study by the Office of Consumer Affairs).

    One of the companies cited in the study is Citibank, N. A. (simplified promissory note). Citibank ranked 3rd, I think, among companies in the number of cases filed against clients. Citibank found that clients, lawyers, and judges couldn’t understand their promissory note. Its new promissory note decreased the number of cases filed against their clients; it also earned praise from consumer advocate Ralph Nader and US Senator William Proxmire.

    The other companies cited in the study are Home Owners Warranty Corporation, J. C. Penny Company, Inc. (consumer information guide), Pfizer, Inc. (healthcare education program), Roche Laboratories / Hoffman LaRoche Inc. (medication education), Shell Oil Company (“Come to Shell” information campaign), Target Stores, Aetna Life & Casualty (Plain English programs), American Council of Life Insurance (understandable life and health insurance policies), Insurance Information Institute (consumer information brochures), Sentry Insurance, and St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company.

    [3] “The Gains from Clarity”, a 1996 research report from University of Sydney on the effects of plain-language documents on private companies Norwich Union (Aviva), and Sun Alliance and Royal Insurance, and Australia Family Court.

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