You’ve heard me talk about my interest in the obstacles to widespread adoption of plain language before. Over the holidays, I read Joseph Kimble’s Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please. What a terrific compilation of resources for those of us interested in more successful workplace writing! Kimble is a law professor with a long history as an advocate of plain language in business, government, and law.
More than half of the book is devoted to describing the benefits of plain language, including 23 examples of time and money saved by organizations. If any of you are trying to convince management that it’s worth it to spend time creating more efficient and effective documents, you need to get a copy of this book. Let me share just one of Kimble’s 23 examples. This one was originally published by JoAnn Hackos and Julian Winstead in Technical Communication in 1995 based on work they did for Federal Express. I’ve been a fan of JoAnn’s work at the Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM) for many years.
FedEx ‘s ground-operations manuals were tested with target readers and then revised. (For instance, the manual was reorganized by reader tasks instead of by formal job titles based on testing.) Using the original manual, FedEx readers searched for an average of 5 minutes to find information and found the correct answer only 53% of the time. Using the revised manual, FedEx readers searched for an average of 3.6 minutes to find information and found the correct answer 80% of the time. Although Hackos & Winstead did not produce an estimate of savings based on making fewer mistakes, they did conservatively estimate cost savings related to efficiency of $400,000 per year. Remember — that’s one manual.
The process for crafting an efficient and effective document takes both more time and money. One of the obstacles to adoption of plain language might be your manager. Most managers are probably unwilling to invest in plain language without a clear long-term view of the benefits. You can’t expect him or her to simply trust you when you say it’s important. Do you really PREDICT the impact of a specific plainly written document for your organization? Kimble’s examples should help you develop a business case for creating quality documents in your workplace. You might also check out The Costs of Poor Writing from consultant, William DuBay, for help in estimated costs.
With a well-developed business case for producing a plain language document, you should come across as not only passionate about good communication but also business-savvy. You’ll be helping your manager do his or her job. Sounds like a win-win situation to me!
- What makes organizations (un)willing to deliver documents in plain language? (proswrite.com)
- Cogent defense of plain language (lawprofessors.typepad.com)