Plain language requires attention to the audience

In Part One of my attempt to explain how I understand plain language, I focused on the elements of a text that must be managed to create a plain language document. Anyone who has known me for long, however, could have predicted that I would talk about the rhetorical context of a high quality document in Part Two.  Here come my two cents on understanding plain language as an outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text.

Allow me to give a little background first. Following Aristotle, I like to use the rhetorical triangle.

  • rhetorical triangle preziThe corner with text refers to the elements of content, organization, style, and mechanics that appear in writing and make up the document itself.
  • The corner with purpose refers to the goal or intent of the writer of the document
  • The corner with audience refers to the recipients of the document.

As I remind my students constantly, all three aspects of the rhetorical context must be considered in order to make judgments about communication quality. In other words, a document is successful only when it fulfills the writer’s purpose for the document’s readers. There’s no such thing as a successful document considered in isolation. Researchers interested in workplace document quality have recognized the limitations of text-focused definitions since at least 1989, when Karen Schriver published Evaluating text quality: The continuum from text-focused to reader-focused methods. (If you want to continue exploring research in this area, start with Dutch researchers like Leo Lentz, Henk Pander Maat, or Michael Steehouder.)

I used the revised email announcement shown below in Part One on defining plain language. And I claimed it was a move toward plain language compared with the original version.

However, the text is likely to fail for any of the following readers:

  • One who is not fluent in English.
  • One with visual impairment.
  • One who doesn’t care about pension plans.

Not surprisingly then, one way to define plain language is to focus on the effect or outcome a text has on its readers — rather than on the text itself.  As PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational) states, “Plain language is language understood by its audience.” And some folks prefer not to use the term “plain language” at all because of it implies the focus is on the language or text rather than on the reader.

So what are the desired outcomes of a plain language document on its audience? I suppose the most often mentioned is comprehension. It follows that a common prescription from those interested in better workplace writing is to address an audience as if they have less education than the writer or less expertise in the document topic.  Sometimes this is explained by referring to reading levels. In a 2004 report, William DuBay recommended writing to an general audience at the 7th grade level and lowering this to the 5th grade level when communicating about health, medicine, or safety.

Similarly, in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook, Warren Buffett disclosed

When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.

By the way, that handbook is a terrific, concise guide for implementing plain language within the workplace.

While comprehension may be the king of audience outcomes, it is not the only desirable one. First off, the purpose of some documents requires more than understanding. This is true of any document that includes instructions. In my video tutorial based on Chapter 2: Analyzing Audience of Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I explain that the rhetorical context determines whether writers must address audience ability to understand a message or audience willingness to accept a message — or both. Audience outcomes related to willingness include:

  • usability: whether the audience can use the document to perform a task accurately
  • efficiency: whether the audience can get content quickly and easily
  • credibility: whether the audience believes the content of the document
  • selection: whether the audience selects the document to read

The bottom line: I understand plain language as the outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text, and the outcome includes but is not limited to comprehension. You may have noticed that I have said next to nothing about the third point of the rhetorical triangle. That means you can expect Part Three to address document writers and their purposes for writing.

Judge Wilken tells NCAA attorney to “use actual, meaningful words”

judge wilkenU.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken is running the antitrust trial against the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) on behalf of Ed O’Bannon. The Wall Street Journal reports the judge is not knowledgeable about sports. ESPN’s W site (devoted to women and sports) says she has been direct, civil and understated during the trial, which ended last Friday, and that, on the first day, she asked the NCAA’s attorney to “use actual, meaningful words” after he started a round of questioning using the term “pay for play.”

You might assume highly successful attorneys would know the first rule of effective professional discourse: Know your audience!

If content is king, then usability is queen

You’ve heard me say how important reader testing is when you truly care about meeting the needs of your audience. The Before and After Gallery hosted by the DigitalGov User Experience Program provides some terrific examples. [6/16/14 Update: examples appear to have moved to Government Usability Case Studies.]

fueleconomy-user-experience-improvements-results

After watching some representative readers use the Fueleconomy.gov Mobile Site, the web writers identified several issues they could revise easily (like clarifying terminology and moving buttons) to improve their readers’ experience. The graphic at right shows how they measured the impact of those changes.

Reader testing of written messages fits inside the practice sometimes called user-centered design or UCD. Yes, UCD is associated with software or other digital products and their users. But readers are users of information. If you want to explore the benefits of UCD and testing, check out this 6-minute video.

Asking your audience for feedback. And signalling you listened by making changes that help them use your information. That’s just good business — even when it comes from the US government.

A simple way to test your reader’s response before document delivery

plus-minusI’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Nothing signals your status as a pro workplace writer as much as testing an important document with representative readers before you deliver it.

But reader testing can be expensive. You need equipment and training to conduct eye-tracking studies. Thanks to two of my Dutch colleagues, Menno de Jong and Peter Jan Schellens, there is a simple and inexpensive technique I recommend. In fact, we have our undergraduate business students use it.

In the plus-minus technique, the writer recruits a few representative readers. More and better representatives give you better results. (Here’s a free report from experts on recruiting folks for this kind of testing.) The writer gives the readers the draft document and collects their impressions.

Here are the instructions we provide readers for document testing.

Please read the entire document, including the parts that you would probably skip “in real life.” Take your time. Read the document at your own speed.

1. While reading, we want you to place a plus (+) and a minus (-) in the margin anytime you judge something as positive or negative. But do not think too long about your impressions. Any plus or minus is okay, as long as it reflects what you are thinking as you read.

For example, if you find something in the document funny, interesting, clear, or important, write a plus. If you find something in the document not interesting, unclear, or unimportant, write a minus. You can write down pluses and minuses for any reason.

2. Please indicate which part of the document a plus or minus applies to by circling or underlining it.

Decide for yourself which units of the document to mark with a plus or minus. For instance, you can write down a plus or minus for a paragraph, a heading, a sentence, a word, an illustration, or a caption.

3. When you have finished, we will ask you to talk about your impressions of this document.

After the readers are finished, someone debriefs them. This can be the writer — although it’s probably best if the reader doesn’t know the interviewer wrote the draft.  Here are the instructions we provide for the interview.

Tell the reader you would like to learn about their impressions of the document so that it can be improved. Remind him/her that all of his/her responses are important to you. Ask if you can audiotape your interview. If you do not audiotape, make sure you go slowly enough to get all information written down.

Ask the reader to describe what they were thinking for each plus and minus. Get the reader to be as specific as possible about the places where he or she felt positively or negatively. You must be able to identify specific words, paragraphs, headings, figures, etc. later during your analysis of the results. As soon as possible after the interview, summarize your interpretation of the reader’s responses using the questions below. (Not all questions will be relevant for all interviews.)

    1. Does the reader correctly understand the given information? What worked well? What is unclear?
    2. Will the reader pick up the document and start reading it? Why or why not? Will the reader focus on the most important information? Why or why not?
    3. Can the reader apply the given information in a productive way and in a realistic setting? What seems to be most helpful? Where does the reader go wrong?
    4. Does the reader find statements to be credible? Which ones? Why or why not?
    5. Does the reader like the way or the order in which information is presented? What worked well? What needs to be revised?
    6. Does the reader get new, relevant and complete information? What does the reader like? What does the reader want to skip?

The results you collect from representative readers will identify any major issues with your draft and help you determine what should be revised before you deliver the document to your actual readers.

The plus-minus technique allows you to balance the importance of concurrent testing (i.e., learning what the reader is thinking in real time) with the simplicity of retrospective testing (i.e., learning what the reader thinks after he or she has read your document). You can learn more about reader testing (usability testing) from the Center for Plain Language or the Nielsen Norman Group (user testing).

Speaking of how readers judge writers . . .

It’s a mistake to think your readers aren’t forming perceptions of you based on your written messages . . .  My favorite in this amusing image about text messages is the first one. It’s no coincidence that readers label someone who doesn’t get to the point until the end the “professor.”  Students don’t learn to put the bottom line first until they get hammered by their first boss for writing like a professor! More evidence that academic writing is poor preparation for the writing you do for the rest of your life.

text-messaging-habits-we-all-hate

Email etiquette for students

emailMany college students misunderstand the level of formality appropriate in email to faculty and staff. The New York Times did an article on this topic way back in 2006. The situation hasn’t improved for me since then. If you teach and are frustrated by the email you receive from students, I’m making a plea to help them think about what their behavior communicates to others.

Share this video from the folks at Arizona State U’s Writing Center. You’ll be doing other instructors a favor. But most important — you’ll be helping amateurs learn they must adapt their writing if they want their future workplace colleagues to perceive them as professionals. Too many students continue to send email that signals immaturity when they enter the workforce. More on email at work tomorrow . . .

Photo Credit: Biscarotte via Compfight cc

What is plain language? (Part Two: Audience outcomes)

multiple perspectives fanIn Part One of my attempt to explain how I understand plain language, I focused on the elements of a text that must be managed to create a plain language document. Anyone who has known me for long, however, could have predicted that I would talk about the rhetorical context of a high quality document in Part Two.  Here come my two cents on understanding plain language as an outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text.

Allow me to give a little background first. Following Aristotle, I like to use the rhetorical triangle.

  • rhetorical triangle preziThe corner with text refers to the elements of content, organization, style, and mechanics that appear in writing and make up the document itself.
  • The corner with purpose refers to the goal or intent of the writer of the document
  • The corner with audience refers to the recipients of the document.

As I remind my students constantly, all three aspects of the rhetorical context must be considered in order to make judgments about communication quality. In other words, a document is successful only when it fulfills the writer’s purpose for the document’s readers. There’s no such thing as a successful document considered in isolation. Researchers interested in workplace document quality have recognized the limitations of text-focused definitions since at least 1989, when Karen Schriver published Evaluating text quality: The continuum from text-focused to reader-focused methods. (If you want to continue exploring research in this area, start with Dutch researchers like Leo Lentz, Henk Pander Maat, or Michael Steehouder.)

I used the revised email announcement shown below in Part One on defining plain language. And I claimed it was a move toward plain language compared with the original version.

However, the text is likely to fail for any of the following readers:

  • One who is not fluent in English.
  • One with visual impairment.
  • One who doesn’t care about pension plans.

Not surprisingly then, one way to define plain language is to focus on the effect or outcome a text has on its readers — rather than on the text itself.  As PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational) states, “Plain language is language understood by its audience.” And some folks prefer not to use the term “plain language” at all because of it implies the focus is on the language or text rather than on the reader.

So what are the desired outcomes of a plain language document on its audience? I suppose the most often mentioned is comprehension. It follows that a common prescription from those interested in better workplace writing is to address an audience as if they have less education than the writer or less expertise in the document topic.  Sometimes this is explained by referring to reading levels. In a 2004 report, William DuBay recommended writing to an general audience at the 7th grade level and lowering this to the 5th grade level when communicating about health, medicine, or safety.

Similarly, in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook, Warren Buffett disclosed

When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.

By the way, that handbook is a terrific, concise guide for implementing plain language within the workplace.

While comprehension may be the king of audience outcomes, it is not the only desirable one. First off, the purpose of some documents requires more than understanding. This is true of any document that includes instructions. In my video tutorial based on Chapter 2: Analyzing Audience of Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I explain that the rhetorical context determines whether writers must address audience ability to understand a message or audience willingness to accept a message — or both. Audience outcomes related to willingness include:

  • usability: whether the audience can use the document to perform a task accurately
  • efficiency: whether the audience can get content quickly and easily
  • credibility: whether the audience believes the content of the document
  • selection: whether the audience selects the document to read

The bottom line: I understand plain language as the outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text, and the outcome includes but is not limited to comprehension. You may have noticed that I have said next to nothing about the third point of the rhetorical triangle. That means you can expect Part Three to address document writers and their purposes for writing.

What do taboo words mean?

Seven-Dirty-WordsGlad to leave my sick bed and return to the land of the living . . .

Here’s how this post started. Recently, my 17-year-old son did something dumb on the basketball court during his high school team’s game at a school in another town and earned his fifth foul. (For those with limited knowledge of the game, that means he “fouled out” and had to sit on the bench for the rest of the game.)  His response, as he approached the bench, was to yell damn it (or dammit depending on your spelling preference).  He was not looking at anyone when he said it, but a woman in the bleachers behind the bench — from the home team — was deeply offended, saying he’s just low class and, with tears in her eyes, demanding from his coach that my son apologize to her and the young girl sitting next to her (which the coach did). Until the coach told my son to apologize, he didn’t realize who the woman was talking to or what she was talking about.  A few others from the home team joined the woman in criticizing my son’s behavior. He did turn around and apologize to her. Once he became aware of the crowd’s reaction, he was so shaken he said he was a little scared to leave the locker room after the game.

I admit there are many things I could say — and have said — about this situation. But I want to focus here on the meaning of taboo words.  WARNING: This post is rated “R” for language! (It’s my first so grant me a little slack.)

I’m predicting that you react to my story in one of two ways:

  1. You perceive my son’s linguistic behavior as offensive — hence “taboo” — and the woman’s response as justified because the behavior is prohibited in this context.
  2. You perceive my son’s language as reasonable (at best) or indelicate (at worst) but not taboo, and the woman’s response as unjustified.

Writing in The Guardian about his experience of swearing at a sporting even in the UK, Mark Lawson says,

. . . both linguistic positions turn more subtly on the question of the intent with which a word was used and the extent to which it retains power to offend.

Let me take up each of these ideas. So what exactly was my son’s intent when he said damn it? In what appears to be one of the largest scale research studies on swearing, Jean-Marc Dewaele found that

swearing is as much self- as other-directed; the stronger the emotion, the more likely it will be expressed.

Knowing my son and hearing him describe the situation at his basketball game (I was across the gym and didn’t hear what was going on), I’m confidant that his use of damn it was self-directed — he used it to express his extreme frustration when he fouled out. Personally, I categorize his use of damn it as reasonable, while I would categorize his use of damn you while making eye contact with someone at the game as taboo. In the actual case, his intent was not communicative at all. That doesn’t mean his behavior didn’t communicate something to the woman in the stands. But it wasn’t his intent to communicate with her. That matters to me.

In Holy @&%*! Author Steven Pinker Thinks We’re Hardwired to Curse, Wired magazine writes:

The experimental psychologist [Pinker] takes a fresh look at the “poo-poo theory,” which proposes that swearing was actually the first form of language. He points to the fact that brain-damaged patients who lose the power of articulate speech often retain the ability to curse like a sailor. “Since swearing involves clearly more ancient parts of the brain,” Pinker says, “it could be a missing link between animal vocalization and human language.”

This connection between swearing and primal emotional response would explain why a 2009 study demonstrated that people who used taboo words had greater pain tolerance. (Follow this link to the interesting 60-second podcast at Scientific American).

The idea I have yet to write about relates to what exactly was the extent of offense when my son said damn it?  I mean dammit or damn it — or god damn it — isn’t even on George Carlin’s famous list of seven dirty words. But, living within the culture of the Deep South in the US for most of my adult life, I think many locals find damn more offensive than fuck. Summarizing the research on swearing, psychologists Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz write,

Swearing is positively correlated with extraversion and is a defining feature of a Type A personality. It is negatively correlated with conscientiousness, agreeableness, sexual anxiety, and religiosity.

I suspect the relatively high level of religiosity among Southerners explains the relative offensiveness of damn. I can tell you that damn was only mildly offensive among the Midwestern US farming culture where I grew up; people avoided it in church or in the elementary classroom but not elsewhere. The thing everyone needs to understand is that the level of prohibition or offensiveness of a specific taboo word depends on culture: geography, religion, age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic class, etc.  While I never heard a white person use nigger as a child in Nebraska in the 1960s, I have heard them use it in Alabama in the 21st millenium century.

So my son’s use of damn it, although not intended to communicate anything to the people in the basketball game where he fouled out, was said loudly enough that is was heard by people he could have predicted would find it highly offensive. Like many important life lessons, it was a painful one for him.  We talked at length about the consequences of using taboo words within professional settings, where the dominant culture of an organization will determine both how appropriate emotional expressions are in general and also which specific words are taboo. To explain what taboo words mean is tricky business.

Postscript

I find the topic of taboo words fascinating. I’d like to read what Randall Eggert has to say in his 2011 book, This Book is Taboo: An Introduction to Linguistics through Swearing, but I just can’t make time right now.  Clearly, there is an audience for the subject. The archive at Language Log, including posts by many linguists, has at least a dozen entries for taboo language during 2012. In one post, Bob Ladd wrote about emotion and language following the wreck of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy last year.

There’s no substitute for observing your readers

usability testing from wupI like to highlight best practices in writing for the workplace when I see them. Here’s a terrific example. This morning, Judy Knighton posted Listen to your readers! at Write, “a professional services firm that helps government and business organisations create clear, reader-friendly communications” located in New Zealand. I’ve written about audience analysis and posted a video tutorial on the topic here before. I’ve also highlighted how the usability process can be successfully used to develop written materials. In that post, I noted that some version of reader observation can be used by anyone writing in the workplace.

Here’s part of what Judy wrote about her recent reader observations:

I’m doing a series of user tests on an investment statement for a KiwiSaver scheme. I’m using a couple of test methodologies. In the first part of the test, the reader goes through a section of the investment statement and talks about what they’re thinking as they read. In the second part, they answer some specific questions about the content so that I can see whether the information was easy to find and understand.It’s fascinating watching different reading strategies at work. Yesterday, I conducted three tests and saw three completely different strategies.

Read everything

Reader one started at the beginning of the Key Information section, and read every line and every word. At each cross reference to more detailed information, she turned to that page and read the detail before going back to continue with the Key Information section.

Read summary in order, and skim the rest

Reader two started at the beginning of the Key Information section and read it through. She skipped a few paragraphs when the headings indicated that the content wouldn’t interest her. She then started on the detailed information and skimmed through the headings, stopping to read detailed content that discussed questions she had in her mind from the Key Information section.

Read what looks interesting, and then find a real person to question

Reader three flipped through the document from the back. He then opened the Key Information section, skipped past the first page because he thought from the headings that it would tell him stuff he already knew, read a paragraph or two, skipped some more sections because he decided they didn’t apply to him, and finished the Key Information section in record time. He then turned back to read in detail some of the information he skipped, this time turning for more detailed information at the cross references. Deciding that the detailed information was too detailed, he returned to the Key Information section and read most of it, coming up with a short list of questions that he said he’d phone in.

Write for your readers

To me, this demonstrates the power of headings in writing for your readers – and the power of user testing to find out whether you’ve succeeded.

I couldn’t agree more with Judy’s conclusions. There’s no substitute for actually observing your readers deal with a document — despite how humbling the experience is (if you’re the writer).

And, when I get time, I’ll create a short video tutorial on reader testing. It is one of the cornerstones of the undergraduate business communication course I taught for decades! Here are two short explanations of various document testing methods: usability testing from the Center for Plain Language and protocol tests and focus groups from the US Air Force. Stay tuned . . .

Pros use language to manage rapport

My students have demonstrated they understand how to identify the rhetorical context of management messages at this point. (I hope to have a couple of guest posts based on their first exam in a few days.) Now we start analyzing the linguistic details of communication behavior. Last week, I introduced them to some concepts from linguistic pragmatics and conversation analysis. Ultimately, students will use their analytical insights to explain a manager’s level of success in developing and maintaining relationships with those they hope to lead. That means we are studying rapport.

Rapport occurs in interactions which participants enjoy and in which they establish a personal connection. We are specifically interested in the strategic communication behaviors that a manager can use to positively influence rapport in interactions. That’s called rapport management. (Spencer-Oatey coined the term.) Why should we care about it? I used this quote from psychologist Robert Hogan a while back:

Seventy-five percent of working adults say the worst aspect of their job — the most stressful aspect of their job — is their immediate boss. . . Bad managers create enormous health costs and are a major source of misery for many people.

Lousy communication between managers and employees has also been linked to financial performance.

Effective employee communication is a leading indicator of financial performance and a driver of employee engagement. Companies that are highly effective communicators had 47% higher total returns to shareholders over the last five years compared with firms that are the least effective communicators. [2009 Towers Watson report]

So organizations ignore a manager’s ability to manage rapport at their own peril.

Traditionally, nonverbal mimicry has been touted as the key to establishing rapport. But more recent research suggests it sometimes has the opposite effect. While I never doubted the importance of nonverbal behavior in managing rapport, I hypothesized that our words matter, too. That’s why I started doing research in this area. (See the related articles below.) And then translated that research into Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader for managers (and other professionals).

More specifics about linguistic tactics for rapport management from me and my students are coming soon.